Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.26
de Vries, Bert, Umm El-Jimal: A Frontier Town and its Landscape in Northern Jordan, Volume 1 Fieldwork 1972-1981. Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppl. Series 26 . Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1998. Pp. 248. ISBN 1-887829-26-1.
Reviewed by Melissa M. Aubin, Florida State University
Word count: 1959 words
At the edge of Northern Jordan's "lava lands," the well-preserved remains of Roman Arabian Umm el-Jimal attest to a once thriving agricultural and administrative center, the history of which is now being re-written by de Vries and his staff. This book, the first of several volumes slated to report fieldwork conducted from 1972 until the present year, provides a stunning glimpse of a late ancient town that endured the political and economic vicissitudes of the imperial eastern frontier. Though dominated by domestic architecture, the cityscape is characterized also by the defenses of castellum towers and an enclosure wall, the imperial markers of a Roman Praetorium and provincial temple, and fourteen Byzantine churches. Established in the second century C.E., the town first developed as a Roman military and administrative center, subsuming the nearby village. Epigraphic evidence suggests a bilingual Nabatean-Greek population firmly rooted in the governmental orbit of Bostra. The town grew (due in part to prosperity enjoyed by the greater region in the fifth and sixth centuries), and at its zenith, Umm el-Jimal was home to an estimated three thousand residents. Although this volume reports only on ground-level remains and the fruits of strategically selected soundings, the findings will be recognized as pivotal, re-shaping existing theories of urban transformation along the late Roman Empire's eastern fringe. De Vries' work sheds welcome light on specific issues that have preoccupied archaeologists of Roman Arabia over the last two decades of research on the Roman limites. Among other things, the revised stratigraphic record disproves an earlier misidentification of Nabatean architecture (see below). Furthermore, comprehensive recording and reporting of Umm el-Jimal's pottery corpus will produce a more refined understanding of Cis- and Trans-Jordanian ceramic typologies. Unlocking the reasons behind Umm el-Jimal's long self-sustenance will reveal important information about arid-zone agriculture in late antiquity. Surely most topical, however, is the interpretation of Umm el-Jimal's fourth century castellum, which impacts ongoing debates about the nature of the Roman defensive system. Scholars familiar with the limes arabicus problem and the corollary issue of the relationship between late antique sedentary and urban populations in the eastern Levant should find the commentary on the castellum and defenses at Umm el-Jimal especially intriguing. Carefully categorized as a "town" rather than a city, Umm el-Jimal will stimulate broad inquiry for historians as well, despite the town's minor status in the Empire. Its occupational history sheds new light on the cultural and economic shift from an imperially-chartered city to a bishop's metropolitan seat. Moreover, the data will enrich our understanding of the transition from Christian to Islamic rule in the Near East. Evidence to be published in later volumes will prove essential for exploring fundamental issues in the cultural and political history of the region, such as the relationship between borderland towns and the outlying chora. In all, the evidence at Umm el-Jimal promises a welcome reassessment of the presently overdetermined "decline of the late ancient city." The volume begins with clear presentations of the expedition's goals, research perspectives, methods and periodization (adapted from the Lapp-Sauer conventional scheme), and a review of previous research (Chapters 1 and 2, both by Bert de Vries). Excerpts from descriptions by early visitors to the site provide wonderful, whimsical examples of the literary panache of early explorers whose interpretations, not yet closely leashed to the controls of stratigraphy, bequeathed hasty conclusions only now coming undone. Though De Vries too can write lyrically about Umm el-Jimal (see, for example, the introductory paragraphs of Chapter 4, a vivid description of the environmental conditions at the site), the remainder of the volume shows the high degree to which the precision and skill of his field and laboratory teams exceed those of his predecessors. In the third chapter, David Kennedy, co-author of Rome's Desert Frontier from the Air, provides a careful and thorough lesson on the method (and difficulty) of discerning archaeological features from aerial photographs of the site and its surroundings. His photographs, products of Royal Air Force sorties in the 1920's and 40's and the 1953 Hunting Aerial Survey, are studied as archaeological landscapes, each etched on an occupied and re-occupied terrestrial "palimpsest." The aerial photographs are translated to "photo maps" with comprehensive gazeteers, some of which show several important features, including a Roman road (p. 66), numerous small farms and water-associated sites that still await dating (pp. 67-72). The heart of the volume is an informed and circumspect presentation of the town's design (Chapter 4). Here De Vries corrects earlier attempts to survey Umm el-Jimal and explains construction strategies in the domestic quarters, though it leaves unexamined the problem of water collection and distribution at Umm el-Jimal. The fifth chapter (by James A. Sauer and Bert de Vries) reports initial, selected soundings in the town, which establish continuous occupation from the Late Roman to the 'Abbasid periods. Two brief chapters authored by S. Thomas Parker summarize the stratigraphy of the town's defenses (Chapters 6 and 7), based on soundings selected to determine the construction date and occupational history of a fifth-century castellum and the foundation of the town enclosure walls. The fifth-century castellum is actually the second to have been built in Umm el-Jimal. Its earlier third-century "tetrachic" counterpart (clear evidence that the town housed a Roman military and administrative establishment from the second to the fourth century) is to be published in a separate volume. The later castellum, also referred to as the "barracks," consists of rooms surrounding a central courtyard, and two towers that survive to a second storey. Despite its solid, durable construction, the later castellum signaled a reduced military presence in the thriving town, affirming that locals in frontier towns depended on tribal federations for protection. The enclosure walls were dated earlier to the second century, the era of the town's foundation. According to Parker, these walls were constructed to ward off raids from desert nomads and establish Roman control over an important nomad migration route. This thesis, countered by de Vries in Chapter 14, is based on assumptions about Roman-nomad relations that have attracted controversy in Parker's other works. Nomads aside, the walls, along with the earlier castellum, point to sustained imperial interest in the late Roman town. The following two chapters focus on the dating and function of the so-called "Nabatean Temple" (Chapters 8.1, by S. Thomas Parker and 8.2, by Laurette de Vaux and Parker). Rather than an early Roman Nabatean holy site, as earlier proposed by H.C. Butler, the structure is likely to be a fourth-century provincial Roman temple, re-used for domestic purposes in the sixth century. Chapter 9 (by Robin M. Brown) presents soundings that date the occupational history of the late Roman Praetorium, the venue for the civil administration of the city while under the jurisdiction of Bostra. Its plan is dominated by a basilical and cruciform room flanking an atrium, with five rooms standing behind. Portions of its corbelled roof still survive. In the late-sixth or early-seventh century, its space was re-used for residential purposes. In Chapter 10 and elsewhere, the authors highlight the priority of domestic spaces in the city plan and emphasize the functionality of the homes rather than their luxury. Given that the "standing town of Umm el-Jimal is the best preserved example of late antique rural domestic architecture in the eastern Mediterranean," with "the drama of public monuments mostly absent" (p. 126), the volume as a whole is disproportionate in its attention to public structures. The remains of more than one hundred housing complexes survive, but only a single chapter on the large residence House XVIII (Chapter 10, by Robin M. Brown) is included in the volume. More typical of the rest in size than in fashion, this house was the product of notable wealth, with rich architectural detail. Illustrated reconstructions of House XVIII and other representative houses would be helpful additions in a later volume. Three studies on certain groups of material remains from the excavations form the final section of the book. Parker's chapter on the pottery (Chapter 11) thoroughly documents ceramic evidence, and is both unusual and laudable in its attention to late Ottoman and Mandate period wares. Chapter 12 (by John Wilson Betlyon) is comprehensive in its presentation of the very few recovered coins, though bibliography on each of the identifiable coins would have been helpful. The following chapter by Michael R. Toplyn documents animal and human skeletal remains. The brief essay is detailed in its quantification of bone evidence, and it is as analytically sophisticated as possible within the means available in the late 1970's, when the chapter was written. A final chapter offers provisional interpretation of the site, contextualized within the larger questions of the culture and history of late antique Arabia Readers might question the length of delay in publishing the report: fifteen years have elapsed between the volume's release and the latest fieldwork published therein. The editor is credited for acknowledging the prompt submission of chapters completed and submitted in 1977-78 with little or minimal revision before the 1998 publication. The delay between fieldwork and the availability of the results of that work to the scholarly community is always a necessary disadvantage of any archaeological enterprise, due to complexity of the enterprise and the required cooperation among multiple specialists and field archaeologists. In some cases, however, the length of delay is so long that the project director, despite current sophistication about his or her field, is left to publish materials derived from a previous era in the course of the discipline, excavated earlier and without the benefit of intervening advances in the field. This appears to be the case for this volume's report on the skeletal evidence, which, the editor admits, was prepared using means that are now dated. Despite these problems, which are endemic to the field, de Vries has succeeded in creating a usable format that should effectively convey his data to a diverse audience. The reader is helped by generous photographs, maps, figures, interpolated plates, as well as indented, locus summaries (distinguished by a smaller font size) meant to accompany the synthetic stratigraphic reporting. In this way, all pertinent field observations are taken into account in the syntheses, but the narrative itself is liberated from masses of details. Quantitative summaries of artifactual evidence are thorough, and the several tables provide at-a-glance synopses. In all, authors and editors have produced a welcome presentation that is readily usable for students of ancillary disciplines. A final, modest criticism concerns the issue of terminology. De Vries and his colleagues have persuasively ended any speculation that Umm el-Jimal was an early Roman period Nabatean town. Readers might ask why the authors, having thoroughly discounted earlier interpretations at great effort, continue to refer to the buildings according to the original, incorrect names. For example, why continue using the term "Nabatean temple" for what appears to be a Roman provincial temple? Why propagate the misnomer of "Julianos Church"? And why use the term "barracks" and not the more precise "castellum" (p. 131)? Such minor caviling is not meant to detract from the importance and effectiveness of the reports contained in this book. In all, the volume is highly commendable and should be of great use to students of Syro-Palestinian and Arabian archaeology and late Roman history. Readers will look forward to the subsequent volumes reporting on the excavations from 1981 to 1998, the ceramic corpus, and the churches; the next volume will address "Religion and Society" at Umm el-Jimal. Formerly known by local Bedouin as "works of the Old Men" (p. 84), the remains of Umm el-Jimal are finally showcased by clear reporting and informed commentary. The quality of this volume and the promise of subsequent reports will no doubt direct renewed attention to fundamental questions of culture and society in the late ancient Roman Near East.