More than 5,000 pieces of rock art, including depictions of animals, have been uncovered in the Jebel Qurma region of Jordan’s Black Desert over the last five years. The inscriptions paint the picture of how life flourished in the desert 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists have also identified elaborate inscriptions in Safaitic, an ancient dialect and script used in northern Jordan and southern Syria millennia ago.
The project to record and document these artworks was started in 2012, and is known as the Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project.
Peter Akkermans from Leiden University in the Netherlands is the team’s leader and they aim to investigate the very rich archaeological legacy of Jordan’s arid black basalt desert. In an article the team recently published an update on their rock art findings. Previous archaeological projects in the area conducted in the 1980’s have been limited in their scope and scale and the interest in Jordan’s Black Desert has only recently been renewed.
In an interview Akkermans noted that previous small-scale projects have mainly focused on short, specific moments of prehistory. The new project is much larger in scale and looks at a much longer period. The team is interested in recording archaeological artifacts and sites from hundred thousands of years ago (the age of the earliest evidence), up to very recent Bedouin settlements. The rock art is interpreted in historical context over a long period, and looks at the inscriptions in relation to one another and in relation to their environment.
Current climate conditions in the desert is harsh and the arid weather makes it extremely difficult for humans to survive. This makes it difficult to imagine how ancient populations managed to live in the area. In spite of this, the rock art tells a story of people flourishing in the desert thousands of years ago, with more animal diversity than today.
Akkermans adds that although the area would not have been a forest, the inscriptions on the rocks indicate greener and wetter environmental conditions. There was a great diversity of animals and Akkermans believes the people who made the inscriptions may have evolved in some kind of pasture, raising goats, sheep and camels.
Although investigations to date the rocks more precisely are still ongoing, other excavations nearby indicate that the artwork probably dates back to some 2,000 years ago. This would put it at sometime between the third century BCE and the first century CE.
Akkermans cautions that dating was purely conjectural at this stage as there was previously no real interest in dating them, or placing the inscriptions in historical context. Some of the rock art found in the 19th and 20th century has already been deciphered.
Beyond the team’s efforts to date the rocks, they are also systematically documenting all the rock art they come across and GPS-recording all of it. This will provide an overall view of where every piece of rock art is and give the team an opportunity to explain why each piece is where it is.
The team have thus far not been able to answer what that deem to be the most important question – What is the purpose of these artworks and why were they created in the first place?
Akkermans is adamant that although some believe that the rock art is just a form of graffiti, the team believes there is a deeper meaning. Even more than the content of the inscriptions, they want to understand what the aim of these people was. They are also interested in discovering who wrote the inscriptions, how they learnt to write them and to whom they were addressed.