Excavations 1988-1992

Tell Abu Sarbut                                              Margreet L. Steiner

Between 1988 and 1992 a team from Leiden University, the Netherlands, conducted four seasons of excavations at Tell Abu Sarbut in the eastern Jordan Valley. This campaign was sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and directed by Hubert de Haas, Edouard LaGro and Margreet L. Steiner. The aim of the project was to excavate a rural site from the Islamic period in order to collect enough pottery to establish a typochronology of the common household wares.

Tell Abu Sarbut is located in the central Jordan valley in Jordan, approximately three kilometers west of Tell Deir `Alla, a large Bronze and Iron Age site where Dutch archaeologists have been digging since 1960. The tell measures about 250 m east-west and 125 m north-south. From the highest point, -248 m, it gently slopes to -252 m at the east and south sides and to -255 m at the north and west sides. Shards, which are amply found on the surface, indicate Roman-Byzantine and extensive Umayyad-Mamluk occupation. No previous excavations are known to have been carried out. The tell is mentioned by Nelson Glueck and in the East Jordan Valley Survey.

In 1988 work started on Tell Abu Sarbut with the opening up of some squares of 10 x 10 m (squares A-F) on the eastern side. However, the Islamic occupation layers proved to be very thin here. Everywhere the feared `thin red ware’, so typical of the Roman / Byzantine periods, was encountered some 60 cm below the surface of the tell. Test trenches on the western side revealed thicker occupation layers from the Islamic periods there. So in the following season three excavation squares of 10 x 10 m (squares K, L and M) were opened up there as well as some smaller trenches. Later two additional squares (P and S, obviously) and some additional test trenches were excavated. The result of the excavations were unexpected. Although we had planned this to be a very small project, the amounts of excavated material were astounding More than 150.000 pottery shards were dug up, as well some sixty (almost) complete pots, circa 1850 fragments of glass, among which 400 glass bangles, besides botanical remains, animal bones, iron and bronze objects, coins, stone pestles and several ostraca.

The earliest remains excavated consisted of an heavily burnt building, the walls of which were preserved up to one meter high (phase A). Complete pots and other objects filled the rooms. Only a small part of this building was excavated. The pottery dated from the Late Roman period (2nd-4th centuries AD).

Unexpectedly it was found that all layers from later occupation levels on top of the Roman building had been dug away when the site became an industrial centre in the Ayyubid/Mamluk period. Thus Byzantine, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid layers of occupation were missing. This extensive leveling operation provided a large horizontal working surface for some kind of industry (interface B). Excavated on top of this surface were thick layers of ash running up to a small building with mud brick walls, some with low stone foundations (phase C). The ash layers had clearly been dumped there, as the surfaces on which they were found were not burnt at all. It remained unclear which industry had generated the ash. At first it was thought that they constituted the remains of a pottery workshop, but no wasters were found anywhere on or near the tell. What was found were many sugar pot shards. Sugar pots are large conical and sack-like industrial jars, used in the sugar industry. Of course the sugar industry generates a large amount of ash, as the juice from the sugar cane has to be boiled for a long time to become a thick syrup. It is known from historical sources that sugar cane was grown in the eastern Jordan Valley during the Mamluk period, and it is certainly possible that Abu Sarbut was a sugar production center then. Analysis of the botanical remains present in the ash could not confirm that sugar cane was processed on the tell.

On top of the mud brick building a much larger building was erected, its heavy stone walls still standing up to one meter high (phase D). It consisted of a series of rooms around a large courtyard, of at least 18 x 10 m, access to which was gained through a four meter wide entrance with an impressive stone threshold. During excavation this building was called the “sugar building” because some 90% of the pottery shards found on its floors and in its debris consisted of sugar pots. This building was either a storehouse for storing the refined sugar, or a sugar factory where the actual process of boiling the cane and refining the syrup took place. No ash, however, was found in connection with this building. One room contained five conical sugar pots set into a low bench. It is unclear what their function was. LaGro suggests that not only sugar was processed and/or stored on the tell, but also indigo.

Several ostraca were discovered in the debris on the floor of this building, their writing only partly decipherable. They contained contracts or messages about certain quantities of (unknown) goods that had been or had to be delivered or paid at a certain date. The word “sugar’ is, eilas, not mentioned. Analysis of the faunal remains has shown that 7.5% of the identifiable animal bones came from dromedary, which was probably used as a pack animal for transporting the sugar.

At a certain moment this building fell out of use and its debris was (again) leveled to provide a large working area (interface E). On this plastered surface thick layers of alternating black and yellow soils were deposited, probably (again) the remains of some industrial process. Botanical analysis of the contents of the black layers did not provide a clue as to their origin. Some houses and courtyard with bread ovens were excavated, belonging to the people who were living amidst this industrial rubble (phase F).

Then the tell seems to have been abandoned for some time, as borne out by a hard grey layer extending over all earlier levels (phase G). How long this period lasted is unknown, but after some time the site was again occupied. The pottery is still clearly Mamluk, but the site seems to have changed from an industrial site into a village (phases H and J). Its inhabitants were no doubt still working in sugar cultivation and production as sugar pot shards continued to be found. Most household pottery was undecorated, although some glazed wares were present. Among the common wares were many specimens of what is called “Arab Geometric Ware”, the hand made painted pottery so common all over the Levant. Besides pottery many other objects were found made from glass, metal and stone.

No later levels of occupation were discovered at the site. As with so many other villages, Tell Abu Sarbut seems to have been abandoned when the sugar industry in the Jordan Valley declined during the 15th century.