Excavations at Khirbet Iskander, Jordan

A Glimpse at Settled Life during the "Dark Age" in Palestinian Archaeology

By: Suzanne Richard

Originally Published in 1986

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The site of Khirbet Iskander lies in central Jordan on the Plateau, just north of the famed biblical Plains of Moab (Fig. 2). Fifty-six kilometers to the north is the capital city of Amman’ Like a majority of Early Bronze (EB) IV settlement sites in ancient Trans-jordan, it is located near a peren­nial stream, the Wadi Wala, whose waters flow westward, ultimately into the Dead Sea. The site appears to be strategically located at a major crossing point of the main north-south route today as well as in an­tiquity. The Roman Road and pre­sumably the biblical “King’s Highway” crossed the Wadi Wala in the vicinity of Iskander as traders and armies traversed this route be­tween Egypt, Arabia, and Da­mascus. Due to the presence of a continuous water supply, the area today is able to support rather in­tensive agriculture, as one assumes was the case in antiquity. The area is verdant and even in summer enjoys quite a lush vegetation.

This is the site I chose in 1981 as the perfect mound at which to test certain new hypotheses concerning the EB IV period, the “Dark Age” in Palestinian archaeology (Fig. 1). Why a “Dark Age”? Since early in this century it has been such a con­troversial and enigmatic period that this term seemed an apt descrip­tion. I say seemed because once the dust has settled at the excava­tions of Khirbet Iskander and other EB IV sites, the picture emerging will be considerably brighter, and indeed, it already is.

The Early Bronze Age (EBA) dates to ca. 3200-2(100 B.C., with the EB IV period being the fourth and final phase and dating to ca. 2350-2(X)() B’G’ (Fig. 3)’ Although the ethnic identity of the popula­tion is not known, the peoples are generally thought to be Canaanites, or more properly proto-Canaanites. Broadly contemporary are the Su­merian and Akkadian Dynasties of Mesopotamia, the Kingdom of Ebla in Syria, and the Old Kingdom in Egypt. In the area of Canaan or an­cient Palestine (modern Israel and Jordan), the EBA represents the first period when urbanization is widespread throughout the area. Large cities like Megiddo, ‘Ai, Jer­icho, Arad, Tell el-Far`ah (N), Tell el-Hesi and Bâb edh-Dhrâ generally share some common features: mon­umental fortifications and gateways, dense domestic occupation, large water retrieval systems, public and cultic facilities, etc. The sur­ rounding agricultural lands support the cities and provide a surplus that, along with many other items, is used in a wide network of trade to anchor the economy of the country. Indeed, numerous foreign objects found in the country point to extensive trade relations and influences from both the south, Egypt, and the north, Syro­Mesopotamia.

At ca. 2350 B.C (the end of the EB III period), this seemingly pros­perous, although perhaps not tran­quil, urban era ceases abruptly. All the major tells (mounds) appear to have been either destroyed or abandoned. Thereafter, the ar­chaeologist’s spade has been able to uncover only vast isolated ceme­teries and few evidences of settled life besides ephemeral, semi-per­manent sites in marginal areas. At about 2000 B.C. with the begin­ning of the Middle Bronze Age, urban life renews itself under the impetus of strong urban influences from Syria and a renascent Twelfth Dynasty in Egypt. In the face of such dramatic sociocultural change, it is little wonder that the EB IV period became known as a “no­madic interlude,” an “intermediate period,” and a “dark age.” The sig­nificance of the site of Khirbet Is­kander can only be understood against the backdrop of the largely non-urban evidence extant for the EB IV period.

Khirbet Iskander, along with a half dozen or so recently or cur­rently excavated EB IV sites in Jordan is radically altering long-held theories by scholars con­cerning, the peoples who inhabited the land in the last quarter of the third millennium B.G. The Fact that today this period is termed var­iously Early Bronze IV, Middle Bronze I, or the Intermediate EB—MB Period still reflects, how­ever, the lack of consensus among scholars regarding its very nature, its cultural affinities, the ethnic make-up of its population, whether indigenous or intrusive, and so on. On one issue, however, scholars have been united: the virtual non-existence of sedentary settlements categorically defined the people as nomads and the period as a no­madic interlude between the two great urban eras of the EBA and MBA’ The burning questions raised by such a phenomenon have likewise been universally ad­dressed: What could have caused such a dramatic cultural break and are the EB IV peoples responsible, and is there any cultural continuity between the EB ill and EB IV periods?

In the past, historical interpreta­tions, in particular those con­cerning movements of Syrian no­madic peoples called Amorites, have been appealed to as a means of explaining the dramatic social and economic readjustments seem­ingly manifested in the archaeological record at the EB III/EB IV ho­rizon. Today, due to a recently ex- panded data base of archaeological materials from the period, particu­larly from the area to the east of the Jordan River, we now know that our perspective on this elusive and enigmatic culture has in the past been distorted by the very nature of the excavated remains. Concen­trated work on the EB IV ceme­teries predominating ill western Palestine has, up to the present, given us an incomplete view of the culture in its totality.

Thanks also to renewed interest in the study of nomads from the ethnographic present and from ear­lier periods as portrayed in textual materials, our perspective on the role of nomads in culture change has altered markedly. We need no longer rely upon the movements of hordes of nomads in seeking expla­nations for culture change, even drastic culture change. More prom­ising and feasible areas of investiga­tion obtain, a topic to which I will return in the conclusions. The re­mainder of this article will be de­voted to a discussion  of a new category of archaeological data re­cently discovered that fairly de­mands a reassessment of the E13 IV cultural complex: permanent sed­entary settlements, the prime ex­ample of which is the site of Khirbet Iskander.

The Expedition

In 1981, with a small team of seven people and a small budget, I set out to investigate the site. We already knew that EB IV occupa­tion existed on the mound, thanks to Nelson Glueck’s survey of Eastern Palestine in the 1930s and to Peter Parr’s soundings in 1955. The extent of occupation, however, as well as the complete stratigra­phical profile was yet to be deter­mined. Glueck’s description of the site was particularly tantalizing. He describes Iskander as a large im­portant site with domestic houses appearing within an impressive for­tification that included square’ towers at the corners. He also notes a large wall cutting across the mound at the center from east to west, as well as an extensive cultic area or cemetery to the east, based on his observations of numerous standing monoliths, Or menhirs, and circles of stone (Fig. 4).

This intriguing description would normally have suggested an urban center, although that inference was never drawn for this EB IV site. Parr’s recovery of multiple E13 IV phasing, substantial walls, and paved courtyards likewise drew little response from scholars working in the field’ Although the standing remains that Glueck observed are no longer visible, sur­face survey and the excavation of two soundings in 1981 confirmed both Glueck’s and Parr’s earlier conclusions. In the short span of four weeks, we recovered enough data to formulate a specific problem-oriented research design for a long-term investigation of this important settlement site.

Succeeding work was designed to test the hypothesis that, contrary to the prevailing view of EB IV so­ciety, a significant level of seden­tism did exist in this period, and in fact, perhaps even towns or turban centers. To anticipate my conclu­sions, three successful seasons of work have brought to light evi­dence which overwhelmingly sub­stantiates this view. The primary concerns of this expedition are thus clearly defined: in Phase I to study the nature and extent of sedentism in the E13 IV period, as revealed at Iskander, and in Phase 2 to illuminate organizational continuities and/or discontinuities from the pre­vious urban EB II—Hl society. The significant results of our Phase 1 ex­cavations of 1982 and 1984, pri­marily from Areas B and C, are presented here.

The Site

True to Glueck’s description, Khirbet Iskander has re­vealed itself as an imposing sedentary settlement, although the mound itself is not large (Fig. 5). It is about 20.0 meters high and covers an area of 2.7 hectares (about 7-1/2 acres). Based on the current expedition’s three fields (nineteen 5.0 x 5.0-meter squares) and Parr’s earlier work, it is clear that occupation extended across the entire mound. We have uncovered dense multiphased domestic occupa­tion (Areas A’ B, C), monumental defensive and public structures (Areas B, C), as well as two ceme­teries (Areas 1), E). In Area B, the northwest corner tower and a long stretch of the northern perimeter wall, still visible in Glueck’s time, have been excavated (Fig. 6). Much to the surprise of everyone, this defensive structure dates to the FR IV period’ Even I was expecting an earlier (EB HI) date, since deep soundings have shown that the site may have been occupied throughout the EBA. The day that EV IV sherds were recovered from the foundation trench of this fortification, however, proved us all to be quite happily wrong! That is, since EB IV is the latest occupation on the site, there is no question as to the date of the wall.

The wall is 2.5 meters wide (ca. 7 feet thick) and the tower at its greatest width is 4 meters (ca. 11 feet). It still stands to a height of nearly 3 meters and is composed of large field stones. Its superstruc­ture would have been made of mudbrick, since a great deal of mudbrick debris has been found in the area. Thanks to good relations with the Bedouin living on the site, we have been able to trace this wall, upon which they built their house, across to the northeast corner. Our goal for the 1987 season is to determine the com­plete line around the perimeter of the site. Paris excavations along the eastern edge uncovered a stretch of wall, and we should be able to investigate the southern line due to the recent road cut at the southern edge which revealed a series of wall lines. By the end of the 1984 season, further excavation showed that this tower was erected immediately above what appears to be the corner of a domestic house dating, we believe, to ER IV.

This fortification is the first known no the EB IV period in the southern Levant. As such its very existence will have profound ramifi­cations regarding the socioeco­nonlic and political organization of at least a component of FR IV so­ciety. Nomads do not build such walls; even pastoralists who may be sedentary part if not all of the year do not build such walls. One can only infer that the communal ac­tivity required to erect such a de­fensive structure implies a certain permanence of residence, a degree of social stratification in the organi­zation of such labor, as well as a need or a perceived need to protect the stability of the population and its economic base. The existence of this fortification can now be added to a growing list of EB IV archaeo­logical data whose antecedents lie in the preceding indigenous urban EB III culture. Irrespective of the prevailing view that the EB IV peoples are pastoral nomads, there is no doubt in my mind at least that this fortification presupposes the continuation of a developed urban tradition and affirms cultural conti­nuity with the ER HI population.

The Storeroom

As significant a find as this was, it was overshadowed somewhat by the discovery of what we believe is a gate, by two cemeteries in the vicinity, and by two phases of a domestic complex of buildings. The most memorable days of an excavation are undoubt­edly those when a turn of the trowel reveals an unexpected treasure. Such a day occurred in 1984 in the burning heat of a July morning when shouts of joy beck­oned the director over to Area B in the northwest sector of the mound. I arrived to find a staff member brushing away the dust from a group of large intact storage vessels. Thereafter, on a regular basis, I was called over to view a series of vessels as they emerged from the dirt in what turned out to be a storeroom of pottery vessels (Fig. 7). Sonic 30 whole or restor­able vessels were recovered along with 60 buckets of pottery now in the process of being restored.

There are more than a few inter­esting aspects to the discovery of this storeroom. For one thing, this cache represents the first corpus of stratified domestic whole vessels to be discovered in this period. Whereas hitherto our view of the ceramic traditions of the EB IV was restricted to tomb assemblages, now there exists a clear opportunity to study the ceramic needs of do­mestic• life and to compare the two, Our clearly phased pottery at the site will be an invaluable aid to chronologically anchoring funereal vessels previously dated by com­parative typological methods.

Although large storejars (some over 50 centimeters high) predomi­nated, there was a surprising number of lovely carinated bowls, small cups, ribbed platter-bowls, four-spouted lamps, ‘teapots’, and jugs. Many were decorated with a burnished red slip, while others were of plain greyish ware deco­rated round the neck with incisions of various kinds. Typical of this pe­riod, all the pottery is handmade, though rims and necks were fin­ished on a tournette.

The number and kind of vessels found in situ raises a question as to the purpose of this storeroom. It was obviously not merely a store for foodstuffs since everyday domestic utensils such as lamps, cups, bowls, and ‘teapots’ were included in the repertoire. It is also unlikely that one family would require such an extensive supply of pottery. Would this storeroom supply the demands wheel. The entire spectrum of use-vessels was present: platters for serving Food, cups and small bowls for drinking, medium bowls for eating, jugs for pouring, storage vessels for dry and liquid products, lamps, etc. Several storejars con­tained carbonized grain in a quan­tity large enough to merit labora­tory analysis for radiocarbon dating. Other evidence for the utilization of at least a portion of this storeroom for produce manifested itself in the form of one complete skeleton of a mouse recovered from a large storage jar! Significantly, the Early Bronze Age ancestry of these vessels is strikingly noticeable, once again pointing to the uninter­rupted cultural development from Ell IH to EB IV.

This storeroom belongs to the earlier of two clearly separated phases of a domestic complex re­covered thus far (Fig. 8). The northern extent of this room lies just within the Fortification in Square BS while its southern boundary extends into Square 07. Along the southern wall of the store­room ran a bench of wide flat stones upon which more storejars rested. Standing nearby on its own flat paver was an immense pithos jar with several bands of rope moulding decorating the body, a vessel immediately dubbed `big Bertha’ by those who excavated it (Fig. 9)’ This tradition of rectan­gular ‘broadroom”(door is on the long side) houses with benches is a common feature of the Early Bronze Age and, as with the fortifications, represents another impor­tant link with the preceding indige­nous urban traditions.

It should be noted that the eastern wall of the storeroom bonded with the outer fortification wall, thus proving conclusively that in this phase, the settlement was surrounded by a defensive struc­ture. No actual stratigraphic links have as yet been discovered be­tween the outer fortifications and the uppermost complex of buildings. Taken with the evidence mentioned earlier of a pre-fortifica­tion EB IV phase as indicated by a house lying immediately below the Northwest tower, it may tentatively be concluded that three EB IV phases have so for been discovered: the earliest EB IV settlement was unfortified, the second settlement which included the storeroom was linked to the fortifications, and the third and latest settlement seem­ingly represents a post-fortification phase. The continuous and uninter­rupted development of these occu­pational phases militates against de­ scriptions of this period as one of semi-nomadism. To be sure a partly pastoral, partly sedentary social or­ganization does manifest itself in much of the archaeological remains throughout the area; however, such a model overlooks the important evidence of permanently estab­lished agrarian communities now coming to light at sites like Khirbet Iskander.

The reddish-brown brick, de­tritus and stone rubble that covered the fallen storejars and shattered much of the storeroom’s contents give dramatic witness to the demise of the storeroom phase. Whether due to hostile or natural forces, a destruction substantive enough to have toppled the superstructure of the defensive fortifications did occur. It likewise brought to an end, at least so far as we know at this corner of the mound, the do­mestic residences of this phase. Given the proximity of the site to the great Jordan Rift Valley, it is not out of the question that an earth­quake caused this destruction. In light of a distinct layer of burning in association with mudbrick debris, however, as well as the charred and friable nature of the fallen stone, a destruction by fire seems the better explanation at this point. The 1987 season should clarify this question. Whatever the nature or level of de­struction, there is no evidence for an ensuing period of abandonment. Rather. we see an immediate erec­ tion of new buildings, with some walls of the storeroom phase being reused in the upper phase.

Finally, we must discuss the broad horizontal exposure of the uppermost and final phase of EB IV settlement on the mound. Whole or partial broadroom houses were found in all of the eight 5.0 x 5.0- meter squares opened in Area B. The most complete was the B1-06 house that measured 7.0 meters in length and 5.0 meters in width; the same measurements noted by the excavator of the EB 1—II site of Arad regarding the largest houses at the site. A tabun or cooking oven was found built up against the western wall. A rebuild of the oven plus patches of ash nearby attest the continued use of this house as a kitchen or perhaps a kitchen and living room. A portion of a broad-room house to the west in 02 also included a tabun, though of a dif­ferent construction. Ethnographic research would seem to indicate that one cooking oven reflects one family, and that ovens found in con­tiguous areas generally reflect an addition to the nuclear family. The large saddle querns and grinding equipment found in this area point to the grinding of grain into flour and the general domestic use of these two areas. Built up against the 02 house on the west were a series of small square storage or work areas or possibly pens for very small animals. As further evidence that this constitutes a post-fortifica­tion phase, we anticipate that the 02 house once removed in the summer of 1987 will prove to have been erected atop the fortifications.

Adjoining the B1-06 house to the east, yet another broadroom appeared in B8— 07, above the level of the storeroom of pottery. This house differentiated itself from the others by its inner partitioning of 3 or 4 rooms. If it is difficult to decide conclusively on the number of houses, it is because without fur­ther horizontal exposure we cannot be sure that these structures are not rooms within a larger complex. At this point we can only comment on the dense build-up in the area, on the well-constructed walls that are generally aligned north—south, and on the use of common walls as a building technique.

The Gate Complex

In 1982 while surveying the site, I noted a particular con­figuration of walls at the south­east corner of the mound that indicated a possible gateway or en­trance into the town. Our strategy was to open a new field, Area C, and to excavate only the eastern half of this presumed gateway. What we uncovered was half of a passageway, plus a room con­structed of large boulders, whose western edge was lined with a bench of large flat slabs. To the south was what appeared to be the fortification that Glueck had noted as cutting across the center of the mound from east to west (Fig. 10)’ At this point we could only specu­late as to the nature of this monu­mental structure.

With expectations high in 1984, however, we returned to excavate the western sector of this building complex. Painstaking excavation gradually uncovered the corre­sponding western flank that, though not completely symmet­rical, matched the eastern structure in all the important details. What we believe to be the first EB IV gate discovered is a complex com­prising two large guardrooms juxta­posed on either side of a 2.0-meter­wide well-constructed passageway. Both guardrooms extend to the south and bond with the Glueck east—west wall, which appears to be a subsidiary fortification crossing the site in the middle. The pas­sageway is lined with a row of benches on either side. The lack of symmetry is seen in the interior of the two rooms, for the eastern room appears to he partitioned, while the western room is a single room with, however, a beautifully paved surface (Fig. 11).

Although there are no parallels in EB IV with which to compare this structure, it does bear a resem­blance to earlier EBA single en­tryway gates having juxtaposed guardrooms. If in the 1987 season further excavation to the west shows these two structures not to be guardrooms to a gate but merely several of a number of houses just inside the Glueck wall, we still must question the more monu­mental construction used in this area’ At the very least it would seem to indicate a public organiza­tional complex of some sort far dif­ferent From anything uncovered elsewhere on the mound. The dis­covery of stores to the east of the eastern flank are typical features to be found in the area of a gate. To our surprise, upon the removal of the north balk between the two rooms, we discovered steps leading up to a level platform and an open area beyond leading into the upper town.

And just what purpose did the Glueck wall serve? Was it a boundary to the town in a certain phase? Could it delimit an upper town from a lower town? Was it er­ected after the major fortifications went out of use? What is the rela­tionship between the Glueck wall and the outer fortifications? These and other questions serve to guide our field objectives for the fol­lowing season.

The Cemeteries

Finally, a word about the two cemeteries discovered in 1984. As Glueck surmised, the numerous menhirs to the east of’ the site did indeed prove to be standing in a vast field of caves and shaft tombs, which we named Cemetery E. These huge mono­lithic slabs of stone (the dimensions of the one standing menhir across the wadi to the south is 2.90 meters high and 1.50 meters wide) have never been satisfactorily explained, although always assumed to be of a cultic nature. Since the western sector of this cemetery is now under cultivation, the possible rela­tionship of the menhirs to tombs cannot be determined. To the east, beyond the cultivated area, our “gravediggers” excavated two caves with skeletal and cultural remains. In one very small cave, there ap­peared a row of EB IV vessels at the opening behind which excava­tion uncovered two skulls (one an adult’s, the other a child’s) with a pile of bones laid in between (Fig. 12). In this period, skeletal inter­ments may be articulated or disartic­ulated. A second chamber tomb contained three adult burials as well as seven EB EV vessels and a grinding stone.

A vast cemetery (D) located across the wadi to the south of the site, containing perhaps hundreds of shaft tombs, was also discovered in 1984. A shaft tomb consists of a 1.0 to 2.0 meter deep, usually round shall cut into the side of a hill and a round or square chamber. Normally a large stone blocks the entrance to the chamber. Of the five shaft tombs excavated, three contained multiple disarticulated burials and large quantities of pot­tery. One in fact had close to 50 vessels. One of the expedition’s pri­mary goals for the 1987 season is to increase our sample of excavated tombs from both cemeteries in order to provide enough data for a comparative analysis of their re­spective burial customs.


In this article I have endeavored to build a case, based on Khirbet Iskander but corrobo­rated by other sites, for a not in­considerable level of sedentism in the EB IV period. Whereas for­ merly the model of pastoral noma­dism seemed to comprehend the totality of archaeological remains during this period, new data sug­gest the utilization of more complex adaptive strategies by at least a component of the population. This is not to say that pastoral nomadism was not more widespread in EB IV than in previous periods. Clearly a major demographic and organiza­tional shift occurred ca. 2350 B.C’ with the abandonment of a well-documented urban system. In the post-EB III period, there is a dra­matic relocation of the population away from established agricultural centers. The suggestion being made is simply that pastoral adapta­tion is only one apparent subsis­tence strategy in the period and that little consideration has been given to the sedentary agrarian populations, which must have been of equal importance. New or re­vised models must be formulated to explain the diversity of archaeolog­ical remains now coming to light in the EB IV period. The excavation of a range of sites, from seasonal one-period sites to multiphased ones with urban traditions, demon­strates an almost unlimited number of adaptations to the environment along a continuum between purely sedentary and purely nomadic adaptive strategies.

Three seasons of excavation at the site of Khirbet Iskander have given its a view of EB IV culture not hitherto seen. Its fortifications, monumental structures, dense multiphased continuous occupation liken it more to Early Bronze urban traditions than to the traditions of pastoral nomads. It would seem a good move methodologically to ap­proach EB IV settlement sites with a new perspective, one that seeks to determine the degree of seden­tism practiced rather than one that views all the evidence in terms of pastoralism. This approach will help us to understand the part that sedentism played in the social matrix of the period and should provide insights concerning socio­cultural variations from the pre­ceding EB III period.

Given the graphic evidence for uninterrupted cultural continuity between EB III and EB IV, and considering the clear evidences for the continuance of urban traditions, it is no longer tenable to view the transformation of the indigenous Early Bronze urban culture as abrupt as heretofore assumed. This new perspective on that critical transition should, at the very least, suggest not an invasion but a more gradual urban regression which, based on the abandonment of nu­merous EB II sites, had begun al­ready at that time. By studying the internal consistencies and inconsistencies in the archaeological record of the EB we may perhaps identify those factors that triggered the ultimate demise of widespread urbanization and forced dwellers of the urban centers either to move to sites where a type of sedentism survived or to readapt to a pastoral mode of subsistence. Whatever the outcome of future research, one thing is clear: the Khirbet Iskander excavations have indeed shed some light on the “Dark Age” in Pales­tine.

Cite This Article

Richard, Suzanne. "Excavations at Khirbet Iskander, Jordan." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 1 (March, 1986): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/excavations-at-khirbet-iskander-jordan/

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