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Digging at Ghor-es-Safi on the Dead Sea in Jordan

By Peter Edwell

A preliminary account of the excavation of a sugar mill and ancient city revealing older Roman and Early Byzantine finds.

In 2014 I began working with a team of archaeologists at Ghor es-Safi on the eastern side of the Dead Sea in Jordan. This is an exceptionally rich area for archaeology from the Bronze Age all the way through to the foundational stages of the modern kingdom of Jordan. The age-old flow of the Wadi el-Hasa from the heights of the Karak plateau to the depths of the Dead Sea valley has supported human activity through all those periods and it is vitally important to everyone who lives there today.

In the late Roman/Byzantine period (4th-7th century) and from the Abbasid to Mamluk periods (8th-16th century) this part of modern Jordan was very rich agriculturally and the city of Zoara/Zughar was the most important urban centre. The excavations I have been involved in concentrate on sites in the old city (Khirbet Sheik ‘Isa today) and the remains of a near-by sugar mill from the Mamluk period (Tawahin es-Sukkar). When excavations began at these two sites in 2002, the director, Dr Konstantinos Politis, wanted to establish the relationship between them in the Mamluk period and work back to see what had come before. In the Mamluk period the whole valley was under sugar cane cultivation and the sugar mill operated to produce crystallised sugar. This is the earliest known production of crystallised sugar from cane in the Middle East. Excavations have shown that the area of Khirbet Sheik-Isa housed the workers, mostly slaves brought from Africa, for the sugar mill.

Digging further below the Mamluk period at Khirbet Sheik-Isa, ultimately to a depth of over three metres, some exceptionally rich layers have been revealed and in the earliest layers a large late Roman/early Byzantine church. This included a significant area of mosaic flooring which was unfortunately badly degraded. While this was disappointing, it allowed us to dig a test trench under the mosaic layer allowing us to detail the construction methods of the mosaicists, showing just how skilled they were. We found carefully laid-down beds of finely sifted soil supporting a layer of river pebbles which had a layer of plaster poured over them. This provided the bed for the mosaic tesserae to be expertly placed in.

Underneath the bedding layers was a full metre of clean soil which took us all the way down to the floor of the wadi itself. When we sifted this soil a few worn pieces of late Roman pottery were found but more importantly so were close to a dozen bronze Roman coins of the fourth century AD. One of them is a consecratio coin of the emperor Constantine, minted by his son Constantius II ca. 340, to celebrate the strange anomaly that the first Christian emperor was made into a god himself. The foundational layer under the mosaic helped to show that what was likely a 5th/6th century church probably overlay an earlier church. Zoara had become more Christianised as the fourth and fifth centuries unfolded and its agricultural wealth allowed a larger church to be built.

Many other stories have emerged from these excavations and the full results of archaeological work and analysis of finds will be published later this year by the Palestine Exploration Fund. Hopefully work will continue in the years to come and reveal more of the fascinating history of the area.

Edited by Luke Peloquin, Student Contributor to the Blog.


Peter Edwell

Macquarie University, Ancient History Department. Big History, Ancient History, Modern History. All views my own. Author 'Between Rome and Persia' 2008.