BMCR 2012.01.36

Humayma Excavation Project, 1: Resources, History, and the Water-supply System. American Schools of Oriental Research archeological reports, 15

, Humayma Excavation Project, 1: Resources, History, and the Water-supply System. American Schools of Oriental Research archeological reports, 15. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2010. xxii, 526. ISBN 9780897570831. $89.95.

Humayma is unusual in the southern Levant in that there is almost no modern settlement, meaning the site “and its hinterland [are] well preserved, [and] its identity, a foundation story, and some events of its subsequent history can be documented in ancient sources, along with its names: Hawara, Αὐάρα, Hauarra, and Humayma.”(1).

The site appears to have been founded in the 1 st c BC, by Aretas III or IV, with the public water supply system the most obvious feature. Oleson speculates that it was to “serve as a center for sedentarization of the nomadic Nabataean pastoralists” (3) and as a caravan station. A Roman fort, including a reservoir tapping the Nabataean aqueduct, was constructed in the early 2 nd c AD when Arabia was annexed. Both the reuse of Nabataean spolia in the fort and the increase in pig remains from <1% in settlement contexts to nearly 20% in and around the fort (46-48) suggest both a non-local population and some conflict associated with the annexation, although Via Nova Traiana passing through/by ensured the site remained integrated into the new provincial system after 106 AD. The fort appears to have been empty during, or by, the Diocletianic period (due to Zenobia’s campaign and/or the reorganization of the frontier), and reoccupied during the Constantinian period. A pagan shrine in the settlement went out of use by the early 4 th c AD. Around the end of the 4 th century, the fort was finally abandoned, although Byzantine inhabitants remained at the site , using the fort for spolia, and eventually building at least five churches – a surprising number for a relatively small town. The end of Christianity is not clear, but the Abbasid family purchased the town around 685, building a substantial fortified house, a mosque and planting an orchard, probably of commercial proportions. Humayma as a settlement was still listed by 9 th and 10 th -century geographers. Small but consistent amounts of pottery suggest that occupation, probably concentrated at the fortified house, continued from the Fatimid to Ottoman periods, although based on the evidence of early 19 th -century travellers, the site had been abandoned by the 18 th century at the latest. New Humayma has been established in the 20 th century to the east of the ancient site near the Desert Highway, and several of the cisterns and a reservoir have been “rehabilitated” by Jordanian authorities to provide water for the local Bedouin.

Oleson’s original work at this site was as director of the Humayma Hydraulic Survey in 1986, 1987 and 1989. That work, and subsequent investigations of the water usage system within the site, augmented with preliminary faunal and botanical reports, forms the basis of this volume. Naturally, as the first volume in a planned series to publish the results of excavations which have taken place (with various co-directors) on a regular basis between 1991 and 2005, this volume also includes a discussion of the topography and geology of the site, previous archaeological work, and a short history of Humayma (chapters 1 and 2).1 Chapter 3 describes in considerable detail the water supply system outside the site. This catalogues the springs, aqueduct(s), reservoir, cisterns, barriers, terraces and channels which surround the site – testament to considerable skill in water harvesting, and a variety of techniques employed so to do. Chapter 4 catalogues the system within the settlement, both of supply (reservoirs, cisterns, conduits and drains) and of usage (the Roman bath). A series of probes into the system were excavated in the first phase of the project and the results, with finds also from the survey, are outlined in Chapters 5 and 6.

Oleson clearly sets out the Hydraulic Project’s research questions, which include not only basics of the scale, components and date of the system in and around Humayma, but the additions and modifications to the system by Roman, Byzantine and Islamic authorities. Beyond this, the team sought to examine the role of the water supply system in desert sedentarization. All these questions were addressed in more or less detail by the results of the survey and excavations, and are set out in Chapter 7. The final chapter, 8, relates the Humayma system to “earlier and contemporary water supply systems in the Near East”(5), including Petra, Faynan (Phaino), Qasr et-Telah, Udhruh, the area around Ma’an, Wadi Rumm, small sites along the Via Nova Traiana, Kh. Dharih and the Hegra. Water systems in the Negev are also covered, an area which while desert-like, contains much better soils for agriculture than southern Jordan/north Saudi Arabia, and where several significant Nabataean settlements have been excavated.

The survey found “four springs, one aqueduct system, four reservoirs, 62 cisterns, three impoundment dams, three sets of wadi barriers, and eight sets of artificial terraces or cleared fields.” (7). The catalogue entries of the components of the water system are extremely detailed. Each independent feature has a site number, a UTM grid reference, a Palestinian Grid reference (calculated during the survey from a 1:25,000 topographic map and certainly less accurate than the UTM coordinates) and GPS elevations, although these are recognized as less accurate than the coordinates. Along the aqueduct, features are identified only by their distance from the spring (eg. Km. 1.638) and often also have UTM and Palestine Grid coordinates. Where masonry is involved, measurements of blocks are given, as are slope degrees where relevant. Numerous excellent photographs illustrate the more substantial features. Components within the settlement and those explored by probe also have good plans and sections.

The arrangement of the catalogue is in a hierarchy of types, from springs, through the aqueduct, to reservoirs, cisterns and other features.2 These last include “hillside channels” and “slides” which do not connect to the water supply system but are evidence of water control. The logic of the system is discussed in Chapter 7, where the system of terracotta pipes, including pressure pipes in the Roman Fort which were exposed during post-survey excavation of the settlement, are more fully discussed.

Probes were undertaken in 1987 “to clarify the design, chronology and function of the aqueduct, reservoir in the fort, pool at the end of the aqueduct, two major covered reservoirs in the settlement centre, one cylindrical and one domed domestic cistern and the dam” (231). Subsequent probes investigated other details of drains and conduits. Each probe entry in the catalogue describes the architecture and concretions of each feature or component, with a locus listing which includes all finds. Good sized plates of ceramic profiles of diagnostic sherds, linked to fabric descriptions, are included, as are plans and sections of some probes.

The construction materials of mortar and plaster appeared different, to the eye, in texture, hardness and composition, so 50 samples were taken, later supplemented by 8 samples from other sites in Jordan. These construction materials were probably made locally, on the escarpment where more fuel was available. Analysis showed “variation in time and according to function” (338), but that it is insufficient to use the plaster or mortar alone to date structures. Oleson notes that apart from very recent work on plaster and mortar from Petra and Um el- Jimal, there is little comparative material available in the region, and of that, not very much scientifically published.

Throughout the book, photographs are exceptionally clear and where details may not be obvious, are indicated by arrows or lines. Given the attention to detail elsewhere in the book, the rather few maps disappoint. Figures 1.1 and 2.7 are essentially the same map although important features, such as the al-Shara escarpment or Jebel Thaur, are not noted on either. Nor are any watersheds marked, and these, critical to the entire discussion of the water catchment system, are not necessarily obvious even on the good topographical maps in this volume. The narrative description of the survey area (5) is hard to follow and could have been marked on map figure 1.1, which is slightly misleading in its caption “Topographical map of survey area …”.

In terms of results, two benefits of examining the water supply system in relation to the site are immediately obvious. The value of the hydraulic survey in determining the site’s history is clear: the location for the foundation not only took into account the proximity of good soil and the King’s Highway and routes to Wadi Rumm and west to the Wadi Arabah, but it is also where rain run-off fields converge and is the furthest point that gravity flow aqueducts could reach from the springs 15kms to the north.

Using the volume of water stored in the reservoirs and cisterns (ignoring for the moment the discharge of the aqueduct) and assuming that there was a 100% safety margin (i.e. an expectation that cisterns would only fill from run off every two years), and that the tanks in the settlement were mainly for humans while those outside the settlement were for animals – all reasonable assumptions – Oleson calculates the water storage could support approximately 448 people (mainly living in the town), 300 camels or donkeys and 3000 ovicaprids, along with 436 soldiers in the fort, whose reservoir lost more water with evaporation and had to hold enough to withstand a long siege. These figures are clearly debatable – in this semi-desert environment perhaps the safety margin might have been 200% – but show the potential of a thorough survey and enumeration of settlement water supply systems.

Studying ancient water supply systems is a burgeoning field of scholarship, related to research on contemporary water management. In the Levant, the hydraulics of Petra3 and the wider “Water, Life, Civilisation” project from Reading University4 have produced a broad background of data. Oleson links the aqueduct and pool system at Humayma with the conspicuous displays of water management at Petra in a programme of “royal or cultural prestige” (446). He contrasts the relative lack of roofed tanks at Petra, compared with Humayma, but does not note that almost none of the settlement of Petra has been excavated, nor indeed carefully surveyed, so that this argument from silence should perhaps be set aside. More noteworthy are the lack of terraces or barriers at Humayma. Oleson reviewed the evidence for run-off fields around Faynan and Qasr et-Telah, and mentions in the Petra and Nahal Hever papyri, showing that the practice, using stone or earth barriers, was widespread in similar topography to Humayma, and, moreover, relatively obvious archaeologically. The conclusion must be that very little agriculture was practised at Humayma. Finally, Oleson considers the relationship of Nabataean water systems with those current in the wider Hellenistic world. He particularly notes the debt to the Theater Cistern on Delos for the idea of arch- covered cisterns in Nabataea, and the general idea of decorative pools in various Hellenistic capitals. While there was no tradition of aqueducts in the Near East before the late Hellenistic period, the idea of using terracotta pipes for long-distance transport was, in Oleson’s opinion, developed by the Nabataeans themselves. One small point to note – Oleson makes no reference to Persian or Egyptian water management systems, which surely were the originators of the paradeisos concept of garden and pool. Otherwise, this comprehensive, excellently produced, volume provides a model for the description of water systems, and an important survey of water management practises in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.


1. The site is well known already, through at least 49 articles and one doctoral thesis published by Oleson, Foote, Reeves, Schick and Sherwood individually or collectively.

2. Tanks greater than 450cum were defined as reservoirs, cisterns having an average capacity of 97cum, the largest with 300cum.

3. An annotated bibliography, up to 2009, is given in chapter 8.

4. S. Mithen “The domestication of water: water management in the ancient world and its prehistoric origins in the Jordan Valley”, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 368, 2010, 5249–5274 – in fact, this entire volume is a discussion meeting issue on “Water and Society: past, present and future”; S. Mithen & E. Black (eds) Water, Life and Civilisation: Climate, Environment and Society in the Jordan Valley (International Hydrology Series), Cambridge University Press, 2011.