Academic

The Elusive Basalt Bowls of Bab edh-Dhra’ Cemetery

Written by Etta Coleman. The cemetery at Bab edh-Dhra’, on the south bank of Wadi Kerak, can provide an insight into the Early Bronze Age people who inhabited the site. Etta Coleman examines one find in particular, a collection of basalt vessels, which deepens our understanding of their society and culture further.

Nestled just north-east of the Dead Sea in the Transjordan region, Bab edh-Dhra’ was the homeland for a small community of people, thought to be the predecessors of the Akkadians, for more than 1,000 years – from the Early Bronze IA until the Early Bronze IV periods (3500 – 2350BCE). During the Early Bronze IA and IB phases, the site was occupied only seasonally, during long winters when the steep cliffs and accessible water supply from the Wadi Kerak offered much-needed protection for the community. During the rest of the year, those who lived at Bab edh-Dhra’ travelled throughout the mountains and valleys in order to pasture livestock. The cemetery site contains the most physical evidence for their occupation, and also constitutes the oldest Semitic burial ground known to date. Burials in this society were exclusively secondary, meaning that individuals were inhumed first in a primary location and then later exhumed and moved to their final resting place. This was a matter of convenience, rather than one of complex ritual; because of the semi-nomadic nature of those who inhabited Bab edh-Dhra’ in the early phases, many people died while the group was away from their settlement and therefore could not be immediately afforded proper burial rites. These rites would have included large funeral feasts using specially carinated ceramic bowls and jugs, which were placed within the burial chamber alongside the remains of the deceased after the feast concluded. In addition to ceramic feasting vessels, one particular type of grave good pervades the burial record, offering many more questions than it answers: heavy, thick-rimmed, deep bowls made of volcanic basalt stone. While their ceramic counterparts show signs of wear or even food residue, none of these stone vessels possess any indication that they were ever used, apart from distinct grinding patterns on the interior base. 

The frequency of these basalt bowls in comparison with ceramic vessels is extremely low – only 18 out of 47 graves excavated from 1965-1967 possessed even one basalt vessel, whereas each individual chamber held an average of 23 ceramic vessels. In addition, chambers found with one such bowl were much more likely to possess a second, or even a third. Basalt-possessing chambers are placed in very close proximity to one another, denoting a possible familial relation between the inhabitants of the graves – family burial plots, in a way. This particular pattern of deposition underscores the prestigious character of the items, and the importance placed upon these vessels is emphasized by the ceramic imitations that cropped up during later periods of occupation at the same site.  These imitations would have fulfilled the desire to bury loved ones with a prestigious item, but where the ceramic imitations differ from the true basalt vessel is the latter’s nature as an intentional heritage item.  

What, in particular, makes these basalt objects worth investigating is the complete lack of a stone production workshop in reasonable proximity to Bab edh-Dhra’, despite the relatively large quantities of stone items present within the burial record. Bab edh-Dhra’s seclusion makes it highly unlikely that any established trade route brought the vessels to the settlement from a great distance. So – how did these bowls come to be an integral part of high-status burial rituals during the Early Bronze IA period, and where did they come from? 

I would like to propose that these vessels were heritage items as well as status symbols, with deep sentimental ties to the history and cultural behaviours of the group as a whole. Their lack of any wear apart from grinding patterns on the interior base or isotopic analysis of recent foodstuffs is conspicuous. They were evidently not used as part of the funeral feasting rite but were placed within the tombs under different circumstances than their ceramic counterparts.  

The volcanic nature of basalt stone and its relative abundance in the valleys surrounding Bab edh-Dhra’ would have served incredibly well as flat grindstones in situ, employed during the months of travel – typically summer – to grind cereals and grains for consumption. Over time and through repeated use, the grinders would be worn down in the centre, creating a bowl shape. At this point, they would no longer be fit for their original use, and a new grinder would have to be created. The new grinders would have been situated adjacent to the original, in the same outcrop of stone. Upon abandonment of the older, used grinder, it is possible that the community would have carved out that portion of rock, fashioning a bowl from the retired tool. The degradation of these food preparation surfaces into deep bowls would have taken years, if not decades, of continual working by the group and would explain the low frequency of basalt vessels within the cemetery in comparison to the ceramic ones.  

There is no known historical or contemporary quarry for basalt in the Bab edh-Dhra’ region, though the ongoing research of Yorke Rowan and Jennie Ebeling of the University of Chicago undertakes the location and mapping of different geological outcrops in the Transjordanian region. This research sheds hope on what was previously thought to be an impossible undertaking. The closest known evidence of basalt is the plateau of Moab and Edom, where volcanic activity would push basalt through the earth’s crust. These deposits would become fragmented over time because of earthquakes and erosion, and wadis (rivers) would have slowly transported the boulders downstream into lower valleys. Some of the larger bowls present in the archaeological record would have required a primary boulder of over 35 kg., making it unlikely that these stones were transported by hand from the original source. It is more likely that the wadi flows brought large stones within reasonable retrieval distance to Bab edh-Dhra’. 

XRF analysis helps to rule out some source quarries of the stone used at Bab edh-Dhra’. Egyptian basalt contains very high levels of TiO2, whereas the Transjordanian sites do not contain any more than 30ppm at a time. Samples taken from quarries east of the Dead Sea are characterized by an abundance of the element tin (Ti), but samples taken from the Bab edh-Dhra’ assemblage do not show even moderate readings of Ti. This analysis, and a process of elimination, serve to confirm that the basalt used at Bab edh-Dhra’ was indeed sourced nearby, rather than at either of these sites. The lack of a proximal workshop contributes to the working theory that these bowls’ morphology is the direct result of their practical use as grindstones. A clue to the origins of the basalt at Bab edh-Dhra’ is the startling similarity in elemental makeup between one of these basalt vessels and a basalt vessel entombed at Es-Safi, an Early Bronze I settlement at the southernmost tip of the Dead Sea. This vessel is the only known close match to the Bab edh-Dhra’ bowls and was created in the same time period. Apart from the apparently shared funeral items, the communities have little in common and do not seem to have been in contact with one another. 

Setting aside the question concerning how the stone came to be near Bab edh-Dhra’, the conspicuous act of creating vessels from the stone is no coincidence and holds distinct meaning; the creation of an object from a location that holds years, if not decades, of memory, history, and sentiment – and that likely served as a landmark for the semi-nomadic group – is an act of intentionally creating a history surrounding one’s own community by physically carving it from the living rock and bringing it along to a sacred destination. As a prehistoric society, all tradition, direction, and cultural activity would have been orally transmitted. The fact that these stones were returned to year after year and employed continually in food preparation means that they were undoubtedly a crucial component of this oral tradition. It is possible that they were even the basis for a ‘road map’ to mark the seasonally occupied camps along the Wadi Kerak from year to year.  

What, then, does this say about the civilization using the burial space known as Bab edh-Dhra’? Relatively little is known about the social habits of these people, as a prehistoric society who left behind nothing more concrete than their leftovers and tombs to be excavated. The fondness and reverence with which they treated their own history, their elders, and perhaps their environment, which can be viewed through the existence of the prestigious basalt vessels, injects a tender note of humanity into the unknown peoples. Not only this, but it reveals very early signs of social stratification within an Early Bronze and even Late Chalcolithic society, which is difficult to find at such an early period. The continual act of creating, revisiting, stewarding, and altering the geography in which they lived still shows the imprint of these ancient peoples on the landscape over 4,000 years later. 

Written by Etta Coleman


Bibliography

Coleman, A. Bergetta. “Material Culture of Funerary Practice and Its Relation to Nomadic Pastoralism in Early Bronze IA Bab Edh-Dhra’,” 2020.  

Hunt, Alice M.W., and Robert J. Speakman. “Portable XRF Analysis of Archaeological Sediments and Ceramics.” Journal of Archaeological Science 53 (2015): 626–38. 

Lapp, Paul W., R. Thomas Schaub, and Walter E. Rast. Bab Edh-Dhra: Excavations in the Cemetery Directed by Paul W. Lapp (1965-1967). Edited by J. M. Adovasio, N. Luffman Yedlowski, Alix Wilkinson, Theodore Ludwig, and Wilton Marion Krogman. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1989.  

Ortner, Donald J., and Bruno Frohlich. The Early Bronze I Age Tombs and Burials of Bâb Edh-Dhrâ’, Jordan. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2008. 

Rowan, Yorke M., and Jennie R. Ebeling. “Basalt Bowls in Early Bronze IA Shaft Tombs at Bab Edh-Dhra’: Production, Placement and Symbolism.” Essay. In New Approaches to Old Stones: Recent Studies of Ground Stone Artifacts. Routledge, 2016.  

Image: Early Bronze Age IA (3500–3100 BCE) shaft tombs disturbed by looters, Bab edh-Dhra cemetery (Khirbet Qazone), Jordan, CC 4.0.

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