Maitland's 'Mesa' reassessed: a late prehistoric cemetery in the eastern Badia, Jordan

Yorke M. Rowan, Gary O. Rollefson & Morag M. Kersel

Figure 1
Figure 1. Location of Maitland's 'Mesa' in eastern Jordan (image © Google Inc.).
Click to enlarge.
Introduction

In the first issue of Antiquity, RAF Flight Lieutenant Maitland (1927) published archaeological features he observed while flying the Cairo to Baghdad mail route, including a basalt-capped 'mesa' or flat-topped plateau (ghura in the local Arabic) located in the panhandle of Jordan, approximately 60km east-southeast of Azraq (Figure 1) which he thought resembled a Welsh Iron Age hillfort. Only in the early 1980s was the site mentioned again, when a team led by Betts (1983) relocated the site and noted that the basalt capped plateau rim was formed by natural basalt boulders.

Rising up approximately 50m above the wadi floor, Maitland's 'Mesa' is one of a dozen Miocene basalt-capped ghuras in a string along the western edge of Wadi al-Qattafi (Figures 2 & 3). Most of these exhibit at least one large basalt tomb on top. Maitland's 'Mesa', however, has, in addition to a large chambered tomb, a series of more than 50 large (c. 1.0 × 1.5 × 1.0m) rectangular chambered cairns that form a chain along the southern edge of the plateau, creating a castellation effect that would appear similar to a defensive structure. In addition, both the top of the plateau and the slopes include corrals, cells (huts?) and tombs.


Figure 2
Figure 2. Area of basalt-capped plateaus along Wadi al-Qattafi, looking south toward Maitland's 'Mesa' (photograph by Isabelle A. Ruben).
Click to enlarge.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Map of Wadi el-Qattafi and Maitland's 'Mesa'.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Aerial view of Maitland's 'Mesa' showing huts, pens and possible ritual structures on top. Note tower tomb and chain of chambered cairns along southern edge of the ghura. Nawamis and other structures are visible along the southern slope (photograph by David Kennedy).
Click to enlarge.

As part of the larger eastern Badia Desert project, Maitland's 'Mesa' is one of two areas of intensive building activity. The other area, Wisad Pools, consists of hundreds of mounds and towers of basalt located near pools along the edge of the basalt desert approximately 120km east-southeast of Azraq (Rollefson et al. 2008 & in prep.). During 2010 we began initial recording of the hundreds of structures on and around Maitland's 'Mesa' (Rowan et al. in press).

Maitland's 'Mesa'

Our goal for Maitland's 'Mesa' is to record the major structures at the base and on top of the plateau with the hope of understanding their chronological range and their relationship to Wisad Pools further east. This is a preliminary stage in a longer term investigation into the role these two areas played in the eastern arid zone. Our investigations at Maitland's 'Mesa' suggest three areas of intensive building activity: the summit, the southern and western slopes, and the northern slope (Figure 4). With evidence for use dating back to the Middle Palaeolithic, the summit is characterised by more than 250 structures, most either animal pens or small cells, the latter often two attached round units that may have served as temporary huts. Other structures are more enigmatic and include U-shaped stone alignments — some paved — while others are burial cairns. Most impressive is the roofed tower tomb, 4m in diameter, placed at the northeastern edge of the site, from which the chain of 53 chambers lead along the edge of the plateau (Figure 5). Similar 'tailed tombs' are known at Wisad Pools, and further to the south on the Arabian Peninsula (e.g. Braemer et al. 2001).


Figure 5
Figure 5. Closer aerial view of large tower tomb with cairn of chambered stone cairns to the south, following the plateau's edge (photograph by Isabelle Ruben).
Click to enlarge.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Front view of Structure 11, nawami on southern slope of Maitland's 'Mesa'.
Click to enlarge.

The southern and western slopes are characterised by numerous stone structures, including nawamis — a term coined by the Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsula — i.e., roofed tower tombs with linteled entrances (Palmer 1872: 121; Bar-Yosef et al. 1986) (Figure 6). Other structures, somewhat similar to the nawamis but larger (over 5m in diameter) and without a roof, are similar to ring tombs in the Negev and Sinai deserts (Uzi Avner, pers. comm.). There are also smaller burial cairns. In several places on these slopes Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic (ninth–eighth millennia BC) and Late Neolithic (seventh–sixth millennia BC) hunting and chipping stations were noted. On the northern slopes, over 80 tombs and over 50 cells were recorded. Most tombs are collapsed, and many probably looted, but we intend to explore and obtain dates for these burial structures.

Discussion

The funerary monuments at both Maitland's 'Mesa' and Wisad have close counterparts across a broad stretch of south-western Asia (Zarins et al. 1981; Braemer et al. 2001). First mentioned in travellers' accounts in the late 1800s in the Sinai Peninsula (Holland 1870; Palmer 1872), nawamis, with and without chains of chambers, have been described across the Sinai, central Saudi Arabia and down into Yemen, and these all share many details. But there are also some unique aspects at Wisad and Maitland's 'Mesa', including ritual complexes involving platforms and circles of standing stones. Unlike neighbouring basalt-capped plateaus, Maitland's summit is slightly concave, forming a protected area with shallow pools during the rainy season. Water is a factor common to both sites, and both were apparently central sites over a long period. But firm dating evidence is yet to be obtained at both sites. Tools recovered from the surface atop Maitland's 'Mesa' suggest a primarily late prehistoric use, although the tower tomb may be as early as the transition from the sixth to fifth millennium based on OSL dates of similar structures in the Negev (Rosen & Rosen 2003; Rosen et al. 2007). The nawamis on the southern slope probably also date to the fourth millennium BC (Late Chalcolithic to Early Bronze I), but here again, firm dating is necessary.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Dr Ziad al-Saad, Director-General of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, and his staff for the privilege of undertaking this research. Research was funded in part by the Whitman College Louis B. Perry faculty-student research scholarship, as well as considerable financial contributions from the authors. Dr Barbara Porter (Director of the American Center of Oriental Research), Dr Chris Tuttle (ACOR's Associate Director) and the ACOR staff were of profound help during our fieldwork. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Dr David Kennedy and his staff of the Aerial Archaeology of Jordan Project and Isabelle Ruben for furnishing aerial photos of Maitland's 'Mesa'. The 2010 season was made successful through the participation of Laura Evilsizer, a Whitman College student.

References

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Author

  • Yorke M. Rowan
    The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, 1155 East 58th Street Chicago, IL 60637, USA (Email: ymrowan@uchicago.edu)
  • Gary O. Rollefson
    Anthropology, Whitman College, 345 Boyer Street, Walla Walla, WA 99362, USA (Email: rollefgo@whitman.edu)
  • Morag M. Kersel
    Anthropology, DePaul University, 2343 N. Racine Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614, USA (Email: mkersel@depaul.edu)