Khirbat Iskandar—A New View of Urbanism in Early Bronze Age Jordan

Recent ACOR-CAORC fellow and senior archaeologist Suzanne Richard writes below about how her ongoing excavations at the central Jordan site of Khirbat Iskander are revising long-held views of the Early Bronze Age urban collapse.

The site of Khirbat Iskander in central Jordan. The site’s archaeology testifies to the continuation of settled, urban traditions during the Early Bronze Age IV period. Photo courtesy Khirbat Iskander Expedition.

In the southern Levant, cities were destroyed and/or abandoned and urbanism disappeared at the end of what scholars call the Early Bronze (EB) Age III, ca. 2500 BC in the new “higher chronology” (the date was previously thought to be 2300 BC). The succeeding EB IV period was a time of ruralism (agricultural villages and some regional centers) and pastoralism. How can one explain the causes for the complete demise of cities? And why is the subsequent period still, erroneously, called a “dark age” or a “pastoral-nomadic” interlude?

Thanks to my ACOR-CAORC Fellowship, I have been able to present new evidence to support a view that I have been advocating for many years, namely, that there is a higher degree of complexity in the EB IV period than hitherto recognized. The long-term excavations that I have directed since 1981 at the site of Khirbat Iskander in central Jordan have recovered an EB IV settlement—built atop and into the destruction of the EB III city—whose range of “urban-like” features clearly shows the continuation of settled agricultural life (in fact, “town life”) following the collapse. Excavations have brought to light a number of institutions more typical of urban sites, albeit at a different scale: a gateway, fortifications, public complex, cultic evidence, a remarkable storeroom of whole and restorable pottery, and a stratified sequence that demonstrates the settlement’s permanency, recovery, and growth. In addition, there are now many rural sites known from excavation and survey. This archaeological evidence signifies the presence of a considerable sedentary component to the EB IV population, and raises serious questions about the term “pastoral-nomadism” as a model for the period.

Excavated remains of the Area C monumental “gateway” at Khirbat Iskander. Photo courtesy Khirbat Iskander Expedition.

Such evidence of sedentary life provides fascinating insight into the collapse of cities and its aftermath—apparently, there is a greater degree of continuity with the preceding urban EB III phase than was previously assumed. What has also provided new insight on the EB III/IV transition, and resolved a number of issues, is the shift in dates for the end of the Early Bronze Age some 200 years earlier (as mentioned above), on the basis of newer radiocarbon modeling techniques used for chronological sequencing. And, how does all of this help to explain the collapse of cities and resurgence of settled life in the period that followed?

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For one thing, thanks to the “new chronology,” it is possible to eliminate some traditional causative explanations posited for the collapse of urbanism: Egyptian campaigns, Amorite nomads from Syria, and global climate change. Why? Because all these events occurred 200–300 years after the EB III sites were already gone! What we do know is that at ca. 2500 BC, Syria experienced an explosion of widespread and highly advanced urbanism, epitomized by the powerful city-state and kingdom of Ebla. Simultaneously, Egyptian overland trade through the southern Levant ceased, and Egypt—the big power to the south—shifted to maritime trade with Byblos and trade networks in Syria.

Early Bronze Age IV pottery used to make and store olive oil from Khirbat Iskander. Photo by Suzanne Richard.

Although we cannot know precisely what were the causes of collapse (probably a combination of many factors), it is possible to infer a devastating economic blow to the southern Levant from the loss of this important trade network. The non-urban, less-complex sociopolitical and economic institutions of the subsequent EB IV period help to explain the absence of trade with Egypt after 2500 BC. Being on the periphery of core states, particularly Ebla, the southern Levant now reflects strong cultural influences from the advanced northern civilization. For example, the EB IV ceramic assemblage includes a new goblet and painted pottery assemblage, although EB III traditions continue. It is a real hybrid repertoire.

Clearly, the “dark age” and “pastoral-nomadic” monikers for the EB IV period should be consigned to the dustbin of history, thanks to recent excavations of permanently settled agricultural sites and, in particular, the site of Khirbat Iskandar.

Written by Suzanne Richard

Dr. Suzanne Richard is professor of History and Archaeology at Gannon University in Erie, PA. She is a renowned Early Bronze (EB) Age scholar who has directed 12 field seasons at the site of Khirbat Iskandar in Jordan’s Wadi al-Wala—one of the most important sites for understanding the collapse of urbanism (EB III) and transition to a rural economy in EB IV (ca. 2500 BCE). As an ACOR-CAORC fellow in 2016, she worked to publish the second volume of the Khirbat Iskandar Expedition Series.



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