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Book Landscapes of Survival sheds new light on the habitation of the Jordan deserts

December 2020 saw the crowning publication of the Landscapes of Survival project by Professor Peter Akkermans. Its main topic is human habitation in marginal environments like the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. ‘The people living here built their own society, and they would not have viewed it as marginal.’

Focus on the desert

The archaeological study of marginal areas in the Middle East is relatively young. ‘Archaeology in the Middle East has always had a strong focus on the fertile areas,’ Peter Akkermans explains. ‘The desert zones, encompassing enormous parts of the region, were omitted from analysis.’ Due to this practice there are large gaps in the knowledge of archaeological sites, and the resulting picture is a biased one. ‘We decided to study the desert areas specifically.’ The recently published book Landscapes of Survial is a major step in this field.

An act of survival

Akkermans has been studying the Black Desert in Jordan since 2012. ‘We have encountered enormous amounts of archaeology. Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman times, up to the Bedouin encampments of yesteryear. The people living here built their own society, and they would not have viewed it as marginal.’

The title of the book represents the dual nature of the desert. ‘Of course, it refers to the local desert environment, which is difficult to live in. Living in this landscape is an act of survival all upon itself.’ The title’s second meaning reflects on the archaeological traces. ‘The landscape hardly changes over the ages. Whenever you pick up a stone in the basalt layer, the gap will stay visible for thousands of years. In this environment the application of satellite imagery is extremely useful. You can spot tombs, enclosures, and many more human built installations.’

Excavating tombs in the Black Desert, Jordan

New avenues of research

Ten years of archaeological study built a wealth of knowledge on these often neglected regions. ‘We now know so much more about the people living in the Jordanian desert. Mobility patterns, villages, countless tombs.’ An entirely new past of these areas has come to light and the resulting publication is only a start. ‘It opens up so many new avenues of research. This book is only the end of the beginning.’

The new insights on desert habitation will also uplift the affirmed knowledge of the fertile areas. ‘We take into account that communication routes between settled areas ran through the deserts. Understanding the marginal zones will create a much more complete picture of what was taking place in the Middle East.’


The publication bundles case-studies from the Black Desert study by Akkermans’ team, but it also features chapters written by, for example, Danish, German and American teams. ‘Some other chapters focus on the systematic analysis of rock art and so-called Safaitic inscriptions, and there is a section that deals with drawing comparisons with marginal areas in other parts of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.’

The visibility of ancient tombs is striking

Complex interactions

One conclusion based on the work of the past ten years is that the relationship between the fertile and marginal zones was much more developed than previously assumed. ‘There was the tendency to see these areas as separate worlds, but the truth is more complex. We see a firm relationship between the areas, but it seemed to be selective,’ Akkermans reflects. ‘In the period of the start of the common area, we do not find a single sherd of pottery in the Black Desert. Even though pottery was mass produced in the fertile areas. So we conclude that people were deliberately not using pottery. That could be presented as a sign that they were not well connected. But when you look at the burials, you see jewelry, weapons, and inscriptions, pointing at continuous interactions. These people were completely adapted to their desert areas, but they were certainly aware of what was going on outside their own area.’

More information

See the website of the publication Landscapes of Survival.

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