An archaeological project in Jordan

By other museum staff on 5 Sep 2008

 In this guest post, Tony Grey, Finds Specialist at MoLAS, explains where he goes on his holidays.  He presents surprising parallels between the medieval sugar installation and ancient city at Zoara, southern Jordan, and London.

Starting in 2006 and continuing this year I have been lucky enough to spend leave time working on an archaeological project in Jordan. I would recommend this way of spending some leave time to anyone from MoLAS.

The hills rise above the Jordan Valley near the dig siteThe project is based at two discrete sites near the village of Safi in southern Jordan near the southern end of the Dead Sea. The project was inspired by and jointly run by Dr K. D. Politis (Dino) head of the Hellenic Society for Near Eastern Research. The first excavation season took place in 2002 run by Dino and Glasgow University. Subsequent seasons have run from 2006-8 with the excavations carried out by Adelaide University.

The Tawahin es-Sukhar site is that of a medieval sugar mill while around 500 metres distant is the site of the ancient and medieval city of Zoara which is shown on the early Byzantine mosaic Madaba map. My job was to identify and record the post-Bronze Age pottery from both sites.

Zoara sugar The sugar installation was in use from roughly the 12th/13th century to the 15th century. Sugar cane was widely grown in the Jordan Valley and Levant coast in this period. Water from the hills above the Valley was led by channel to a drop where it turned mill wheels that crushed the cane. The cane was then boiled in iron vats and the juice poured into pottery moulds and jars. An upper sugar cone jar sat in a lower molasses collecting jar. The refined fraction was cooled and solidified in the upper jar which then had to be broken to remove the sugar loaf. The heavy molasses fraction passed to the lower collecting jar. Hence the site has huge mounds of broken sugar pots. Several other similar sites are known in the Levant.

This refining technology was used in the same way for several centuries. By the 16th century Cyprus was a major producer for the European market. By the 18th century the centre of gravity of production was located in the Caribbean. Sugar was refined using raw sugar from the Caribbean in 18th century York and Southampton. It was also refined in London at several sites such as Bishopsgate Goods Yard (BGX05) where the sugar cone pots are much slimmer and narrower than the pots used in the medieval Levant and at Limehouse (Jarret 2005).

I attempted to form a sugar pot typology based on published parallels. It appears that the industry may have begun at this site by the time the Crusaders arrived on the scene for a short duration in the 12th century. Certainly the sugar pots along with other pottery were manufactured at the site as evidenced by wasters.

In all the excavation seasons separate digs explored parts of the ancient and medieval city. Nabataean architectural stone and small sherds of pottery date to around the 2nd century BC. Roman, Early Byzantine and medieval (Islamic) periods follow with a mosaic floor dating possibly to the 7th or 8th century AD uncovered this year. Huge quantities of pottery awaited me. Some had been packed wet and had to be laid out to dry. Beautiful sherds of high status early glazed wares may have been imports from the Iraq region as well as being locally made. Moulded cream ware jugs of the Abassid period jostled with pieces of cooking pot, jars and basins. The material included a few sherds of Early Byzantine orange burnished dishes and bowls classified as Late Roman Fine Ware by John Hayes (1972). Later glazed wares were common along with a few pieces that may belong to the Crusader 12th century. The pottery indicates a termination of occupation at the site by the 15th century in the Mamluk period. This later period was characterised by glazed fritwares imported from Syria, handmade painted coarsewares and by the pottery of the sugar production industry.

Petrological analysis and glaze analysis have been carried out on material from the first excavation season at Glasgow University and we await publication of the results.

This has been a wonderful opportunity to handle a wealth of ceramic material from this interesting and beautiful part of the world and I hope that I will be able to return to complete the job as much pottery still remains to be recorded in the dig house where a day’s work is concluded with a refreshing glass of arak and ice watching the sun go down over the Jordan Valley.

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