BMCR 2007.11.25

Gerasa and the Decapolis: A “Virtual Island” in Northwest Jordan

, Gerasa and the Decapolis : a 'virtual island' in northwest Jordan. Duckworth debates in archaeology. London: Duckworth, 2007. 216 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780715635674. £12.99.

David Kennedy has over the last three decades published the results of a wide range of archaeological fieldwork projects in northern Jordan. His new book, Gerasa and the Decapolis: A ‘virtual’ island in northwest Jordan, is based on this fieldwork and takes as its point of departure the theory that the Mediterranean region in antiquity consisted of a collection of distinctive micro-regions. As stated by the author the theoretical framework is heavily influenced by Purcell and Horden, The Corrupting Sea (2004).

In chapter 1, “Defining the topic,” Kennedy sets out the geographical framework. The book focuses on the so-called micro-regions in Northwest Jordan, which were part of two worlds, looking west to the Mediterranean as well as east towards the Arabian desert, during what he calls the Long Classical Millennium (fourth century BC to eighth century AD). He argues that not only was northwest Jordan made up of these micro-regions, but it was also a ‘virtual island’ as it was isolated on all sides. Kennedy discusses well-known urban centres and more obscure towns and villages. The evidence with regard to these lesser known sites is certainly what is most interesting for scholars who study the region. Umm el-Jimal , for example, has almost as many inscriptions as we know from Gerasa, a city that we normally consider rich in epigraphic evidence. Furthermore, Umm el-Jimal has 15 churches and remains of 128 houses.

Chapter 2 “Evidence and methodologies” tackles the scale and survival of the evidence, both material and epigraphic. The briefness of this section does not allow for a satisfactory treatment of the problems connected with the interpretation of the material, but instead it reads as an introduction to the problematic. The methodology section introduces the various ways of approaching archaeological and epigraphic evidence and stresses the strength of comparative studies. Various events are highlighted which could have had an impact on the development of a region as a whole, such as imperial benefactions, politics in general, nomadic activity as well as urban growth as a result of agricultural wealth. In chapter 3 “The natural and human landscape and environment” Kennedy sets northwest Jordan into the theoretical framework based on Purcell and Horden and explains how the region can be viewed in three ways: firstly at the core, a micro-region, the Ajlun Highlands and secondly, the Jordan River valley to the west and the immediately surrounding micro-regions of hills and plain to the south and steppe and desert to the east. Finally, the group of micro-regions are connected to form a unit of their own, a “virtual” island, which is characterised by isolation through geography and to some extent by environment, both to the west and the east. Kennedy explains the region as a “virtual” island and breaks it into five regions, as he takes the reader through the broad patterns of development. He gives compact, but comprehensive insight into climate, geography, infrastructure, settlement and farming patterns. One gains a wonderful, though brief, overview of the region. We can only look forward to the larger publication on settlement in the region.

Chapter 4 focuses on some of the main influences on settlement patterns in the various periods between 300 BC and AD 850, including the period of Roman rule, with the strengthening of infrastructure and the architectural development of urban sites. The chapter is on many levels closely connected to chapter 3 and also bears testimony to the fact that the author has a broad and in depth knowledge of this theme. Once again one wishes that the chapter had been more extensive. Treating settlement patterns over a period of 1150 years in 23 pages cannot be satisfactory.

“Population and people” is the title of chapter 5. Kennedy outlines the methods for estimating populations both of cities, regions and provinces and their reliability. He talks about literary sources and inscriptions as well as how territory sizes based on the location of boundary stones might help to estimate population size at a given point in time. He brings to the discussion the “missing” cemeteries. These are the cemeteries that are not present in the material evidence of the region, but which one could expect to find if they were actively sought. Kennedy estimates that for a city such as Gerasa, we are looking at 150,000 “missing” graves. He outlines the various problems to tackle when estimating the population using northwest Jordan as a case study treating aspects such as the ratio of military personnel to civilians and the density of the urban population. As interesting as it is, the estimation of population remains highly speculative, which Kennedy also fully acknowledges. His suggestion that aerial survey perhaps could reveal some of the cemeteries is a plausible one. However, the problem with dating graves that are not found in a firmly datable archaeological context is considerable, considering that cemeteries and single graves could have been re-used, perhaps several times and over a long period of time.

Chapter 6 “A world of writing” tackles the tradition of writing in the Near East, including the public display of writing and its impact, the extent to which people were required to understand the contents of publicly displayed official documents, the nature of private archives, and the intriguing ‘Safaitic’ inscriptions. These proto-Arabic inscriptions seem to be connected to the nomadic tribes and are mostly found in desert areas as opposed to urban centres or villages. They are thought to date from the first century BC to the fourth century AD. These inscriptions, of which more than 30,000 are known, are important for discussions about the cultural and ethnic grouping of people in northwest Jordan as well as the Hauran region.They also raise issues regarding the overall political, social and cultural development of the region in the period of Nabataean and later Roman rule.

Kennedy addresses the organisation of Roman rule in the Roman Near East and particularly northwest Jordan in chapter 7 “The structures of the Roman state”. He touches upon the various provinces of the region as a whole, including discussions about where the boundaries were. He discusses provincial administration in general, the Roman army as well as the Roman census as an empire-wide phenomenon for which there is now evidence from the Roman Near East, namely the Babatha Archive that held a copy of a property census return for AD 127. Chapter 7 is certainly highly interesting and thought-provoking, but it is more difficult to read than the rest of the chapters, most likely because the theme simply cannot be dealt with satisfactorily in such a compact chapter (19 pages).

“Everyday life” is another theme that is so broad and wide-ranging that any treatment of it always will leave the reader asking more questions than have been answered. Themes which Kennedy touches upon in chapter 8 include: health, disease and poverty, seasonality of birth, marriage and death in the Decapolis, occupations and markets. Under the heading “miscellaneous” figures sacrifices and offerings, names and meanings, landowners with property in widely separated areas, as well as openly practised polygamy and bigamy. The evidence comes from the above mentioned Babatha’s Archive, which certainly seems to be a source worth exploring in more detail.

Kennedy has chosen “Where to next?” as the heading of his last chapter, chapter 9. He broadly summarises the development of the region in the LCM and suggests areas of research, which would bring more knowledge about the region to light. Firstly, he suggests publication of already undertaken ground surveys as well as the implementation of new surveys. Secondly, interpretation of aerial photographs of the southern Hauran needs to be extended across the region and followed up by ground surveys and investigation of key sites. His three main suggestions are: mapping of the infrastructure, mapping the distribution of kites, wheel-houses and all the other traces of man in the Basalt Desert, and defining the extent of evidence for arid land farming. Having recently gained a first-hand impression of the archaeology of the Hauran, I can only agree with Kennedy’s suggestions. The region is overwhelmingly rich on material evidence as well as epigraphic evidence and much could be gained through an intensive study of this particular region, also in relation to the Decapolis region.

The book leaves the reader with the urge to read all the secondary literature. Kennedy certainly shows that he has a broad and deep firsthand knowledge of the region. He also has the ability to ask the right questions and as we have seen over the last decades in his publications to answer them in time. Therefore I see Gerasa and the Decapolis: A “Virtual Island” in Northwest Jordan as an appetizer of what is to come. The book poses a number of important questions, which cannot all be answered in the present publication due to the nature of the Duckworth series. Kennedy expresses that the book should be viewed as a series of essays examining how the region may be explored by investigating various aspects. This is indeed how the book comes across. However, throughout the book, the interested reader misses the in-depth discussions, which would have been illuminating in many cases and which the material deserves. One smaller point of critique is the title of the book, which does not clearly point to the variety of topics that are treated in the book. This is a book about so much more than Gerasa and the Decapolis. The author even states this in chapter 1, p. 26. It is a book about the region as a whole as well as parts of the Hauran, which is a pleasant surprise. Despite points of critique, which all are more or less are connected to the nature of the Duckworth series, the author should be praised for daring to tackle a wide-range of important topics in such a compact publication. Kennedy hints at a major work in progress on settlement in the region. A comprehensive publication on this topic, despite extensive fieldwork, is gravely missing. I am certainly looking forward to more comprehensive and exhaustive volumes of Kennedy’s important work on a region, which has not been studied as extensively as it deserves.