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Khirbat Iskandar: Final Report on the Early Bronze IV Area C “Gateway” and Cemeteries

Khirbat Iskandar: Final Report on the Early Bronze IV Area C “Gateway” and Cemeteries

Edited by Suzanne Richard, Jesse C. Long, Jr., Paul S. Holdorf, and Glen Peterman (Archaeological Expedition to Khirbat Iskandar and Its Environs, Jordan 1, American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports 14). Pp. xvi + 456, figs. 207, pls. 22, tables 24. American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston, Mass. 2010. $89.95. ISBN 978-0-89757-082-4 (cloth).

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The authors are to be congratulated on bringing to final publication a detailed report on one of three areas of excavations conducted during phase 1 (five seasons, 1981–1987) of an ongoing archaeological project at the site of Khirbat Iskandar, a third-millennium town and cemetery site on the south Jordan plateau. Following an introduction, there is an orderly description of the site environment and of the stratigraphy and finds associated with three phases of the Early Bronze (EB) IV occupation in Area C, including a “gateway” structure. In addition, the volume reports on the excavation of 16 tombs in four of the damaged cemeteries located in the vicinity of the site. The volume ends with a summary and conclusions, which offer a regional context, and full lists of loci and inventories of finds.

Frustratingly, after more than 30 years, the occupational history of the site against which to set this report is not yet fully established. It is now thought that the occupation may have extended throughout the Early Bronze Age, ca. 3600–2000 B.C.E. (xiii). This report confines itself to finds dating to the EB IV period (or the Intermediate Bronze Age), ca. 2350–2000/1900 B.C.E., the analysis of which is occasionally informed by more recent finds in other areas of the site, which are to be published in future volumes.

The interpretation of the sequence at Iskandar is not helped by the fact that at no point in Area C does the excavation reach the base of the archaeological deposits. As late as 1990, Richard maintained there was probably no EB II–III occupation on the site. Her more recent work has contradicted this, but it remains uncertain when the defensive walls on the site were first constructed, how long they were maintained for the purposes of defense, or whether their function changed through time, for it has long been clear that the later occupation extended to the north and east beyond the town walls. In 1997, it was concluded that the Area B fortifications dated to the EB II–III period. In the EB III period, town walls in Palestine were major features built to resist organized attack. Richard records evidence of destruction at the end of EB III, but it is unclear whether this is localized or general destruction and how it affected continuity on the site. The evidence at Bab edh-Dhra and Jericho suggests that following destruction of the EB III towns, EB IV occupation extended beyond the old EB III town walls, and this also seems to be true at Iskandar. In addition, the “gateway” described in Area C appears to belong to the latest phase at Iskandar, which, it has been said, was not defended. It is perfectly possible that the Early Bronze Age urban tradition of building and using urban defenses continued at Iskandar in the EB IV period, but very little evidence has yet been forthcoming to substantiate the hypothesis.

There is thus an issue with the Area C “gateway” as a public structure, hence the authors’ use of quotation marks. The gateway was built during the final phase (phase 3) of the EB IV period, following evidence for burning and destruction at the end of phase 2 in Area C. It is said to be the only entrance through the contemporary east–west wall across the center of the site. This wall is clearly visible in photographs and apparently less substantial than it appears, for it is now described as a series of interconnected structures rather than a strong single build (13). The purpose of the gateway is never addressed in detail. It is located about 30 m within the old EB II–III walls, and whether those walls still maintained a defensive function is not known. Neither do we know if the southern half of the site was still occupied in phase 3. Without further investigation, it is impossible to understand the public function of the so-called gateway at Iskandar.

The distinctive EB IV pottery is presented comprehensively by locus and shape, classified by 10-digit codes. The classification is based on 412 vessels from restricted stratified contexts. Given that this total derives from three phases and is subdivided into many shapes and sizes, some modifications might be anticipated when larger groups are analyzed. The decision to adopt the Bab edh-Dhra classification system leads to an important direct comparison between the two sites. Bab edh-Dhra is, however, about 60 km to the southwest and on a different wadi system. Goren (ch. 6) sees no direct connection in the pottery from the two sites, with three of the six Iskandar fabric groups probably being local products, and the other three emanating from the north, particularly the Jordan Valley and its eastern tributaries. Almost all the parallels cited for the Iskandar pottery lie to the north, on the central plateau and the Jordan Valley, especially Jericho, rather than to the southwest.

The text is not always easy to read because of the computerized systems with long numbers. The EB IV ceramic “type fossil” (the inverted-rim bowl with exterior grooves), the “turned-down rilled-rim platter bowl” (275), is “4600.00.75.00 Very large platter bowl with thickened (turned down) rim” (fig. 4.3) or “70 series,” “thickened inside rim” (130). There is occasional confusion in the descriptions (e.g., Wall 8018A is shown above Wall 8018B in fig. 3.7 but below it in fig. 3.8 [41]).

Richard long maintained that Iskandar provides evidence of a defended town in an EB IV period of urban decline and thus provides evidence of the indigenous continuity of Early Bronze Age urban traditions from EB III to EB IV. In this volume, Richard adopts a more contemporary discourse, first (e.g., xiii, 1–5) in describing the EB IV occupation as “rural” (see S.E. Falconer and P.L. Fall, Bronze Age Rural Ecology and Village Life at Tell el-Hayyat, Jordan. BAR-IS 1586 [Oxford 2006]), so that current work investigates “the enigmatic transition from urban to rural lifeways,” and then (2, 3, 10) in emphasizing change, innovation, and complexity (see K. Prag, “The Late Third Millennium in the Levant: A Reappraisal of the North-South Divide,” in P.J. Parr, ed., The Levant in Transition: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the British Museum on 20–21 April 2004 [Leeds 2009] 80–9) for a transition now described in terms of culture change, rural complexity, and adaptive strategies.

Richard’s account of interpretations of the EB IV period is not nuanced; it presents a polarized contrast between theories of invasion/new population and those of indigenous change, and between sedentism and pastoral nomadism. However, this image is furthered by Richard (107), writing that Iktanu phase 1 is contemporary with the destruction of EB III Jericho, rather than a correct citation that Iktanu phase 1 appears to be contemporary with early EB IV tombs in the Jericho cemetery, as argued by Prag (“The Intermediate Early Bronze–Middle Bronze Age Sequences at Jericho and Tell Iktanu Reviewed,” BASOR 264 [1986] 61–72). That pastoral nomadism still features in the story of Iskandar is suggested by the adoption of the concept of territorial markers in the burial and ritual traditions in the vicinity of the Iskandar settlement.

Whether people from the north Levant accompanied northern influences and goods appearing in the south is difficult to know. This reviewer suggested (K. Prag, “A Study of the Intermediate Early Bronze-Middle Bronze Age in Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon,” D.Phil. diss., Oxford University [1971]) some peaceful infiltration from the north, mingling with a related southern population, followed by influences, not an invasion, and certainly did not suggest that there might have been a new population in conservative southern Jordan (108), as Richard considers. Influences from the north as an ongoing norm in the Levant, visible before and after the EB IV period, is an interconnection Richard now accepts (5), but surely the complex changes between EB III and IV reflect more than the normal interconnection. Even in the conservative south, at Iskandar, Richard (115) can immediately see the difference between EB III and EB IV pottery, emphasizing the degree of cultural change and the complexity of the proposed indigenous transition. From the figures listed for Iskandar, external rilling (corrugation, a Syrian feature) is found on 47.4% of vessels already in phase 1 in Area C at Iskandar, a percentage that rises to 65.5% in phase 3 when the numbers of large rilled platter bowls reach their peak.

This volume, with its detailed information and praiseworthy correlation with the data from Bab edh-Dhra, will be of interest to all those who study or teach the archaeology of the Levant and will contribute to the stimulating debate on what happened in the southern Levant in the late third millennium.

Kay Prag
Manchester Museum
Manchester M13 9PL
United Kingdom

Book Review of Khirbat Iskandar: Final Report on the Early Bronze IV Area C “Gateway” and Cemeteries, edited by Suzanne Richard, Jesse C. Long, Jr., Paul S. Holdorf, and Glen Peterman

Reviewed by Kay Prag

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Prag

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