Hundreds of Tombs Found in Jordan Suggest Unexplained Cycle of Abandonment and Re-Habitation
Hundreds of ancient tombs lay in the Jebel Qurma desert region of Jordan close to the border with Saudi Arabia. There are simple graves from the Early Bronze Age to more elaborate tower tombs and conical ring cairns from the Hellenistic to Byzantine period. These are the last testaments of people who roamed the desert thousands of years ago, but they have never been systematically analyzed until now. The graves hint at mysterious cyclical occupation in the land of “dead fire.”
Peter Akkermans and Merel Brüning of Leiden University in the Netherlands wrote in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology that archaeological evidence shows people living in the region starting about 4,000 years ago were situated “in secluded areas at the foot of the basaltic uplands or in the deep valleys through which wadis run.” But they laid their dead to rest in the high plateaus and the summits of the basalt hills nearby.
A tomb in the Jebel Qurma desert region of Jordan. (Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project)
Although many of the tombs have been pillaged and the location doesn’t look especially inviting, Akkermans and Brüning describe the site as an archaeological treasure:
“There are very large numbers of stone-built installations of different types and sizes, in addition to the innumerable pieces of rock art and texts in ancient North Arabian script. They demonstrate that Jordan’s northeastern desert was once home to thriving desert lifeways, thus challenging any preconceived ideas of marginality or cultural insignificance.”
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Safaitic rock art, made some 2000-2300 years ago . (Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project)
The cairns (tombs) are older than the tower tombs, vary in shape and size, and were often re-used. They measure from 1.5 meters (4.9ft.) in diameter and 0.7-0.8 meters (2.3-2.6 ft.) tall, up to 10 meters (32.8 ft.) across and 2 meters (6.6 ft.) tall. Most had a crescent-shaped or circular installation attached, which may have served a ritual purpose during burials or mourning, and some even feature shallow fireplaces. Radiocarbon dates suggest the fireplaces were more modern and used in Medieval to modern times.
Tower tombs are more elaborate and measure about 5 meters (16.4 ft.) across and 1.5 meters (4.9 ft.) high. They had straighter sides, a tower-like shape, and originally lacked the conical covering of the cairns. Ring cairns also differ from tower tombs because they often had a tail of smaller cairns.
Aerial photo of a " pendant burial " in the Jebel Qurma range. The chain consisting of about twenty small, individual cairns leads to the left of the large cairn at the head. (Rebecca Banks)
In earlier tombs, the dead were placed in a small burial chamber or between the rocks that filled in the cairns –in aboveground graves. Burial pits weren’t as common until the Byzantine period onwards. Most of the human remains are in a poor state of preservation or no longer exist. Few individuals seem to have been interred with grave goods, though a few people had pottery alongside them.
For some reason, it seems that there were less people living in Jebel Qurma between the late third millennium BC and the early first millennium BC. Those returning in the early first millennium BC apparently did not add pottery to their graves. As an explanation for the gap in the occupation of the site, Akkermans told Live Science:
"Evidently, climate change or the like came to my mind as well, but at the moment, we simply do not have the data to support or deny this claim. Research into local environmental and climatic conditions is certainly one of my aims for further research in the desert of Jebel Qurma."
A second possibility is that people were living in the area during the supposed “break”, but archaeological evidence hasn’t been found for them yet. As Akkermans told Live Science, it may be that people didn't return to Jebel Qurma “because they did not leave.”
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The grave of a young man, buried in an extremely contracted position on his side inside a ring cairn. The well-preserved skeletal remains were radiocarbon-dated to 425–580 AD. (Peter M.M.G. Akkermans & Merel Brüning)
The researchers also provided some insight into just how important the tombs were for local people:
“Far from being “secretive” or understood by insiders only, these tombs were easily recognized by locals and foreign visitors to the region alike and may have inspired awe and reverence. These burial grounds must have been liminal places full of social memory; the continual reuse and the repeated burial events at these sites over many centuries confirm their long-lived role as focal points for social and ritual gatherings of the communities in the area.”
A 3D-model of a huge cairn with a 'tower tomb' on top of it. (Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project)
Finally, if you’re curious, the “dead fire” reference for the region comes from Group Capt. Lionel Rees, an officer in the British Royal Air Force, who wrote in the journal Antiquity in 1929, “Except for a short period in the spring, the whole of this country looks like a dead fire — nothing but cold ashes.”
Top Image: Aerial photo of a typical “ring cairn.” The circular burial chamber in the heart of the cairn is clearly visible, with a cover of basalt blocks around it. Source: Peter M.M.G. Akkermans & Merel Brüning