2009 dolmen-hunters

A completed Dolmen.

On the very first morning of the latest season of the North Jordan Tomb Project, I took my team to the base of the imposing Jebel (Mount) Sartaba, looked up, and said, "well, the cairn tombs are up there". The team pointed in the direction of Aqaba and said, "well, the beach is down there", and seriously contemplated working on their tan. So it was by the slimmest of margins that nine Australian archaeologists found themselves clambering up and down a mountain overlooking the north Jordan Valley for five weeks in March-April 2009. The aim of the fieldwork was to survey and excavate a field of megalithic cairn and dolmen monuments, thought to be tombs of prehistoric nomads.

The most important find of the season was a half-quarried dolmen slab. The word dolmen means "table" in early French: two megalithic slabs stand upright like table-legs to form a remarkable, above-ground chamber, and a larger capstone sits over the chamber like a table-top. Archaeologists have grappled with these mysterious monuments for over a century, but we know nothing about how Bronze Age people actually built them, more than 5000 years ago. This makes our half-quarried slab particularly significant, as it provides a unique window into understanding the processes involved in dolmen construction.

Water-colour of A half-finished Dolmen.

The dolmen-builders had targeted two natural fissures in the limestone bedrock, working them into deep grooves to form the sides of the slab. They then broke up a brittle seam of flint running through the limestone, and removed the resulting chunks of flint to define the slab’s base; enough of the broken flint had been removed so that we could see all the way under the slab itself. While the slab had been abandoned at this point, we suspect that, when finished, the dolmen-builders would have moved the slab down-slope on wooden rollers to the previously erected wall-slabs. By pulling and pushing the slab up a tumulus of rocks around these walls, they would have manoeuvred the slab into position on top of the dolmen, forming the capstone.

Although this reconstruction is hypothetical, a fuller analysis of the quarry-site will allow us to ask questions about the social context in which dolmens were built, including how long it took to make a dolmen, and the number of people involved.

In addition, we also excavated four monumental, rubble cairns. These structures are enormous- the largest is 30 m long, 16 m wide and stands about 5 m high- which meant the removal of lots of rocks before we could get to the bottom. Each cairn contains a network of interior walls, suggesting that the structures were something far more important than simple piles of field-clearance.

Map showing the survey area in northern Jordan.

Our excavations at a nearby site in 2007 had failed to yield any human remains, and it was disappointing that this also turned out to be the case on Jebel Sartaba. However, these results mean that we must consider the possibility that these highly visible, enduring monuments were not tombs at all, but instead served some other purpose as megalithic markers in the landscape. Furthermore, while our previous excavations yielded Bronze Age sherds, the cairns on Jebel Sartaba contained Classical-period material, suggesting that the tradition of cairn-building continued over several millennia.

I am particularly grateful to NEAF, as the Catherine Southwell-Keely Travel Grant allowed the season to go ahead. Two previous seasons had been supported by similar grants, and so NEAF has been critical to the successful completion of my doctoral research in Jordan. The 2009 season was also funded as part of an Endeavour Research Fellowship from the Australian Government. Amjad Batayneh, our fantastic representative from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, gave some invaluable assistance, and I also thank Dr Fuwwaz al-Kraysheh, the Department’s Director-General. Finally, I would like to thank my team for working so hard, for being such good fun, and for climbing up and down Jebel Sartaba every single day for five weeks: Bobby Caillard, Amanda Dusting, Guy Hazell, Kerrie Grant, Kristen Mann, Sam Moody, Beau Spry and Tamara Treffiletti.

-James Fraser