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Complex Communities: The Archaeology of Early Iron Age West-Central Jordan

Complex Communities: The Archaeology of Early Iron Age West-Central Jordan

By Benjamin W. Porter. Pp. xvi + 203, figs. 17, table 1. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson 2013. $50. ISBN 978-0-8165-3032-8 (cloth).

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The excellent volume under review is an updated expansion of a Ph.D. dissertation written by the author in 2007 at the University of Pennsylvania. In this volume, the author presents the archaeological evidence and discusses the significance and underlying mechanisms of the appearance of small-scale sedentary settlements in the arid regions of Early Iron Age (late second–early first millennia B.C.E.) west-central Jordan. Using perspectives on “communal complexity” and societal “resilience,” Porter sees the development of these agropastoral sedentary settlements at the time as reflecting the transition between the Bronze Age world system to that of the Iron Age.

The volume is divided into six chapters. In chapter 1 (“Introduction” [1–12]), Porter defines the background and aims of the book. In chapter 2 (“Communal Complexity at the Margins” [13–37]), he discusses the theoretical background of communal complexity and lifestyles in marginal zones. Chapter 3 (“Measuring Social Complexity in the Early Iron Age” [38–68]) provides a general overview of the archaeological and historical evidence of the collapse of Late Bronze Age societies in the Levant and the subsequent resurgence of various communities in the Early Iron Age, with specific focus on the region of west-central Jordan. Chapter 4 (“Producing Communities” [69–103]) surveys the detailed archaeological evidence from various sites in the region, both excavated and surveyed. Porter discusses architecture, pottery, and other material culture and in the end stresses the non-complex, household-oriented nature of these communities. Chapter 5 (“Managing Community” [104–32]) develops Porter’s views on social structure, use of wealth, and other aspects of these communities. He develops his ideas on the communal activities seen at these sites and what he believes is archaeological evidence for feasting and other communal activities. Finally, chapter 6 (“Conclusion: The Complex Community” [133–48]) provides a summary and overview of the previous chapters.

As opposed to previous scholars who have studied this region, who saw these Early Iron Age settlements as the incipient stages of development of the later documented Iron Age Moabite polity, Porter suggests the following scenario. He believes that by and large, these sites, and the communities that they represent, were “independent entities that formed and dissolved across west-central Jordan in relatively irregular ways because of local contingencies that dictated subsistence and social life” (135). As such, the various settlements arose, consolidated, expanded, and at times dissolved, based on their resilience to the hard environmental conditions and the ability to create viable and self-supporting communities.

Porter defines several stages in this growth. In the “R phase,” groups exploit new opportunities and resources, and as a consequence families and households settle in a specific location together. At this stage, the planning and architectural remains at these settlements is minimal. At the second phase, the “K phase,” more resources are accumulated at these sites, and evidence of longer term planning can be seen (e.g., communal storage facilities, fortifications). The communal needs of the inhabitants most indicate the beginning of social and economic inequalities. The next stage is the “Omega phase.” As the community becomes more and more organized and practices become more “regimented,” this at times ironically caused the collapse of the communities, unless leadership could be sufficiently flexible and convince less-fortunate members of society to sustain the community structure. Otherwise, members left—eventually to join and reform similar communities elsewhere. If the community did survive the Omega phase, it enters the next phase, the “Alpha phase,” when it could either substantially expand (as seen, e.g., in the fortifications) or, if not, dissolve.

Porter also stresses the importance of commensal politics within these societies and attempts to demonstrate the use of specific types of ceramic vessels for communal feasting.

Overall, the volume is very well versed in the relevant archaeological materials from the region under study and the social theory that enables the author to develop the explanatory framework. This said, although there are virtually no contemporary historical documents (and the biblical text at most reflects vague memories of adjacent regions), the suggested scenarios the author develops are logical, well thought out, and intriguing, but at the end of the day, they cannot be explicitly proven without a doubt.

While, as mentioned, I applaud the research in this volume, two points, one minor and one more significant, should be mentioned. A minor point: In his discussion of the role of the elders in these Iron Age societies (106–7, 109), Porter refers to the term for “elder” in biblical Hebrew (zaqen) and then goes on to refer to this institution in the plural as zaqenim, while the proper inflection would be zeqenim. A significant point: While Porter uses an impressive array of comparative sources and studies to study these marginal Iron Age communities in west-central Jordan, he has missed some excellent material parallels, and quite a lot of interpretive studies, from a region that is quite close (and in fact in this period might very well have some connections): the arid regions of the Negev in Israel. Numerous studies have been produced on this region, many dealing with the Early Iron Age, and I have no doubt that reference and reflection, and even disagreement, with these studies would have added to the robustness of this excellent book (e.g., M. Haiman, “The Iron Age II Sites of the Western Negev Highlands,” IEJ 44 [1994] 36–61; I. Finkelstein, Living on the Fringe: The Archaeology and History of the Negev, Sinai and Neighbouring Regions in the Bronze and Iron Ages [Sheffield 1995]; R. Shahack-Gross and I. Finkelstein, “Subsistence Practices in an Arid Environment: A Geoarchaeological Investigation in an Iron Age Site, the Negev Highlands, Israel,” JAS 35 [2008] 965–82).

Despite these two comments, I can but reiterate that this is an excellent and exemplary study, important for those interested in the Early Iron Age Levant and those studying societies in arid regions and early semicomplex societies.

Aren M. Maeir
Bar-Ilan University

Book Review of Complex Communities: The Archaeology of Early Iron Age West-Central Jordan, by Benjamin W. Porter

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Maeir

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