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The Roman Aqaba Project Final Report. Vol. 1, The Regional Environment and the Regional Survey

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

The Roman Aqaba Project Final Report. Vol. 1, The Regional Environment and the Regional Survey

By S. Thomas Parker and Andrew M. Smith II (American Schools of Oriental Research Archeological Reports 19). Pp. xii + 384, figs. 114, tables 35. American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston 2014. $89.95. ISBN 978-0-89-757042-8 (cloth).

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The book under review is the first of a three-volume final publication series of the Roman ‘Aqaba Project (RAP), 1994–2002. The current volume focuses on the results of the Southeast ‘Araba Archaeological Survey (SAAS), which has previously been discussed in a number of preliminary publications and other work. The remaining two volumes still to be published will cover the excavations of Roman and Byzantine ‘Aqaba. The present volume is a welcome addition to the recent publications of archaeological surveys from the 1990s to early 2000s in southern Jordan and an important contribution to the archaeology of the region, not just of present-day southern Jordan but also of Negev and Sinai.

The volume starts with an introductory chapter, written by Parker, on the background and purpose of the RAP and the SAAS. Parker discusses the main historical sources for ‘Aqaba from Hellenistic times to the Middle Ages, and the earliest archaeological observations in the 19th and early 20th centuries by explorers such as Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and Nelson Glueck.

Chapter 2 (Niemi) covers the regional environment. Niemi gives a thorough description of the environmental setting, with an emphasis on the bedrock geology, surficial deposits, seismic history, and natural geological resources. This chapter is clearly intended to be the main source of information on these matters also for the two volumes to come and contains much information relevant to the RAP excavations.

Chapter 3 (Rucker and Niemi) covers the ethnohistorical research and the interpretation of aerial photography used in the investigation of ‘Aqaba. This chapter, interesting as it is, seems a little out of place, and in view of the whole would perhaps have been better placed in one of the later volumes.

Chapter 4 (Smith) can be considered the core of the present volume. The discussion on site definition and survey methodology is welcome, since for anyone trying to compare the results of two different archaeological surveys, or even field seasons, this information is vital. The chapter also contains a chronological summary of the results, limited to the periods represented by ceramic evidence. The summary is accompanied by photographs and plans of selected sites and structures, which are discussed in the text.

The adjacent catalogue lists the 330 sites documented by the SAAS, and two more unnumbered sites that do not appear in the maps. No photographs or plans of the sites are included in the catalogue, which is understandable considering it covers more than 100 pages of the volume, but nevertheless a pity. The sites are georeferenced with coordinates on the 1:50,000 topographic map sheets of the region rather than in some widely used system such as the UTM/WGS-84. The catalogue is accompanied by site distribution maps based on close-ups of the 1:50,000 topographic maps, with the map key placed on page 106. This arrangement makes referencing unwieldy, requiring the reader to leaf back and forth, and despite the map key the locations of the sites on the close-up maps are vague. As a minor annoyance, the site maps also lack scales.

Chapter 5 (Henry et al.) contains the techno-typologic analysis and interpretation of the lithic material collected by the SAAS. In this chapter, it becomes apparent why the chronological summaries by Smith in the previous chapter are restricted to periods with ceramic evidence: the writers comment that only 18 of the 138 assemblages collected contained “marginally adequate” (308) samples for analysis, which underlines the well-known problems of obtaining a reliable sample of lithic material in a surface survey. The writers also point out that the survey was biased toward periods later than Paleolithic due to the linkage of sites to architectural features, especially in the 1996 and 1998 seasons, when areas for pedestrian survey were preselected based on aerial photographs. Although geomorphological processes have also resulted in the burial of pre-Calcolithic sites in Wadi ‘Araba, the survey bias suggests that much work still remains to be done with regard to earlier prehistoric periods.

Chapter 6 (Parker) gives a quantitative overview of the pottery collected in the SAAS, as well as more detailed analysis and drawings of the pottery from those sites that yielded more material. The chapter is best read as a complement to chapter 4 and the site catalogue. The drawings and descriptions contain sherds that have their closest parallels in the yet unpublished stratified pottery from the RAP excavations and are undoubtedly of interest for ceramic studies. When published, the RAP pottery will be an important addition to the corpus of stratified pottery from southern Jordan.

Chapter 7 (Graf) contains the transcriptions and translations of the seven Nabataean inscriptions from the survey, all of them found on boulders in Wadi Museimir. These short graffiti are significant because no Nabataean inscriptions have previously been documented in southern Wadi ‘Araba. Furthermore, as pointed out by Graf, the inscriptions may signify the existence of a Nabataean east–west route along Wadi Museimir, possibly one of the several known to have existed between Petra and Wadi ‘Araba.

Finally, in the last chapter (“The Hinterland of Roman Aila”) Parker and Smith review the SAAS results against the historical background from the prehistoric to the Late Islamic period. In this regional historical overview, surprisingly little use has been made of the results of the archaeological surveys done in the adjacent areas, for example by MacDonald’s team to the south of ‘Ayl (B. MacDonald et al., The Ayl to Ras an-Naqab Archaeological Survey, Southern Jordan 2005–2007 [Boston 2012]), and the Finnish Jabal Harun Project in the southwestern Petra region (P. Kouki and M. Lavento, Petra, The Mountain of Aaron III: The Finnish Archaeological Project in Jordan. The Archaeological Survey [Helsinki 2013]), or the other research illustrating the contacts between Petra and Aila (‘Aqaba) in the Byzantine period (e.g., V.E. Holmqvist and M. Martinón-Torres, “Many Potters – One Style: Pottery Production and Distribution in Transitional Late Byzantine–Early Islamic Palaestina Tertia,” in Proceedings of the 37th International Symposium on Archaeometry, 13th–16th May 2008, Siena, Italy [Berlin 2011] 71–6; J. Studer, “Like a Fish out of Water: Fish in the Diet of Classical and Medieval Populations in the Petra Region (Jordan),” in P. Béarez, S. Grouard, and B. Clavel, Archéologie du poisson [Antibes 2008] 281–93). The chapter, and therefore the volume, ends somewhat abruptly with the remark that by the Late Islamic period ‘Aqaba was “little more than a sleepy fishing village and seasonal stop for the Haj” (370), leaving the reader hoping for some final, concluding remarks.

As for the significance of the SAAS, with the exception of a few larger sites such as Gharandal and Bir Madhkur, the southeast Wadi ‘Araba was virtually unexplored before the work of the SAAS. The results of the regional survey have certainly contributed to changing the earlier notions of Wadi ‘Araba as “a desolate wilderness void of human habitation” (107) to the understanding that, instead of a barrier, Wadi ‘Araba has been an important connecting route between the east and the west, the north and the south, throughout much of history.

Paula Kouki
Department of Archaeology
University of Helsinki

Book Review of The Roman Aqaba Project Final Report. Vol. 1, The Regional Environment and the Regional Survey, by S. Thomas Parker and Andrew M. Smith II

Reviewed by Paula Kouki

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Kouki

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