Archaeology: Ways of Life and Death in a Pastoral Landscape

PhD-research by Harmen Huigens

Previous views on pastoral nomadic communities that inhabited the Black Desert between ca. 200 BCE to 800 CE have been based exclusively on historical sources. Alternatively, this research provides an archaeological perspective on these communities, which has not been done before. By applying a combined methodology of remote sensing, intensive surface surveys, and targeted excavations, new field research in the Jebel Qurma region has disclosed a wealth of archaeological remains of these pastoral nomads, including  their campsites, funerary monuments, ancient routes, and artefact scatters. These remains provide a unique opportunity to study how pastoral nomads organized their living environment in the past, and how this relates to the economic, social, and ideological constitution of pastoral nomads.

Previous studies on landscapes of pastoral nomads have tended to overemphasize the importance of natural resources, such as water and pastures, to nomadic activities and migrations. While the natural environment certainly presents constraints, pastoral nomads are not entirely subjected to the vagaries of nature. They may engage in the creation of landscapes that are important in sustaining their specific social and economic strategies. To what degree pastoral nomads of the Black Desert engaged in the creation of meaningful landscapes, and which purposes this may have served, is something that has never been studied.

Therefore, this PhD research aims to provide an archaeological perspective on past communities that were formerly only studied through textual sources and, at the same time, to ask new questions about the relations between nomads and their living environments. More specifically, it aims

  • to reconstruct the local history of pastoral nomadic occupation in the Jebel Qurma region during classical antiquity, based survey and excavation data
  • to study the origin and function of man-built features such as corrals, funerary monuments, lookout posts and route markers
  • to analyze the spatial arrangements of these features and their economic, social, and ideological significance

Excavations QUR-11Photo: Excavations at the site of QUR-11, an enclosure made of basalt stone and used by pastoral nomads as a campsite. Radiocarbon analysis of samples taken from excavated fireplaces indicates this campsite was frequented during the 8th century CE.

QUR-20 test (hillshade 0,5) editedFigure: Topographic map of a valley in the Jebel Qurma region. On a terrace along a dry river bed architectural remains and rock art were left behind by pastoral nomads. Based on photogrammetric processing of aerial photographs.