Prehistoric Settlement and Mobility in Syrian-Jordanian Deserts (2017-2020)

Human Adaptation in Climatically Marginal Environments of late-5th to 3rd Millennium BC Syria and Jordan, postdoctoral research Stefan Smith

Photos of the different landscape types encompassed in the study region: a) fertile areas with agricultural potential; b) semi-arid regions suitable for seasonal agro-pastoralism; c) arid deserts where only pastoralism is possible.

To allow for progress and development, processes of human adaptation to natural or anthropogenic changes in their environment require mechanisms beyond mere survival strategies such as migrations; shifts in settlement practices; and social, economic, or political re-orientations and re-organisations. These mechanisms involve making opportunistic uses of surroundings such as maximising the exploitation of resources; forging political and trade links; and forming a network of regional control. All of the above factors come into play in the settlement dynamics of climatically marginal regions in Syria and Jordan during the Late Chalcolithic period (LC) and Early Bronze Age (EBA), ca. 4400-2000 BC.

The regions of Northern Mesopotamia and the Levant, covering parts of modern-day southern Turkey, Syria, northern Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, consist of an extremely varied climatic geography. This ranges from fertile lands with over 350-400 mm annual precipitation in the north and west, where stable diversified agriculture is feasible, to arid desert with less than 100 mm rainfall in the south and east towards the Arabian peninsula, suitable only for seasonal pastureland (Figure 1). Between these two extremes lies the semi-arid steppe, an area of uncertainty with up to 50 per cent year-on-year rainfall fluctuation, and which is heavily affected by regionwide climate variation (Sanlaville 2000). This provides an economic niche which has the potential to allow for risky rain-fed agriculture, but also pastureland (Smith, Wilkinson & Lawrence 2014; Wilkinson et al. 2014). These drier regions and their settlements are largely unknown, and have thus far only been investigated in distinct regions in a "keyhole approach", focussing on specific processes involved in each location. This comprises ground-based archaeological projects conducted in three regions (Figure 2): the Greater Western Jazira in northeastern Syria (by the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main), the Shamiya in central Syria (Université Lyon 2), and the Northern Badia in northeastern Jordan (amongst others, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Universiteit Leiden, and Københavns Universitet). These have revealed that in each area significant urbanisation and possible "nomadisation" processes occurred during the LC and EBA.
This project uses a combination of ground data and regional remote sensing to A) provide a holistic study of the origins and transformations of nomadic and sedentary practices in the Syro-Jordanian steppes during this period, and B) examine overarching unifying factors driving human endeavours in uncertain environmental conditions. This is being significantly supplemented by results from the "Western Harra Survey", a fieldwork project in northeastern Jordan co-directed by the researcher, and specifically designed to provide appropriate data for this project on the prehistoric settlements and landscape of the Northern Badia. Its results will be published as an encompassing academic monograph.

Map showing the climatic landscape of the Syro-Jordanian steppes, and the three case-study regions of this project (yellow shading). Rainfall data from the GPCC.


Dr. Stefan Smith

Prof. dr. Joachim Bretschneider