Discovery of an Early Bronze Age settlement at Jabal al-Qarn near Petra, Jordan

Clive Vella, Thomas M. Urban, Emanuela Bocancea, Christopher A. Tuttle & Susan E. Alcock


Presently celebrating the 200th anniversary of its re-identification by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, the ancient city of Petra is experiencing a surge in interest. In the landscape surrounding this famed World Heritage site, however, there is a wealth of archaeological potential that spans over 1 million years—including occupation by three hominin species (Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens)—to more recent historical settlements. This short article introduces an Early Bronze Age site north of Petra, discovered by a Brown University project designed to document the entire range of occupation in the Petra region.

Project outline
Figure 1
Figure 1. Aerial map with location of Jabal al-Qarn and Umm Saysaban (outside map view) within the Petra region.
Click to enlarge.

The Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP) has worked to explore comprehensively the immediate region north of the Petra city centre (Alcock & Knodell 2012) (Figure 1), including prehistoric sites which have been largely overlooked or examined through micro-regional perspectives (Byrd & Field 1989; Lindner & Genz 2000; Lindner et al. 2001; Jansson 2002). Between 2010 and 2012 BUPAP conducted a systematic intensive fieldwalking survey covering c. 500ha, identifying around 1000 sites and features. While elsewhere such surveys have increased exponentially over the last three decades, they still remain uncommon in Jordan and the Middle East at large. To deal with the multi-period range and variable archaeological situations encountered in the survey area, BUPAP was designed to seamlessly integrate systematic survey, features documentation and test excavations.

While the best-known prehistoric occupation in the Petra region is typically considered to be the Natufian and Neolithic levels at Bayda (Kirkbride 1968; Byrd & Field 1989), our survey has discovered, amongst sites of other periods, a significant Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age presence. During the 2012 season BUPAP undertook test excavations to better assess the stratigraphic potential of significant artefact scatters. Geophysical survey of particularly promising sites was also conducted, thus allowing interaction between fieldwalking, geophysical prospection and excavation.

Jabal al-Qarn

The Early Bronze Age site, on a hill locally known as Jabal al-Qarn, was discovered in 2012 at the eastern limit of the Amareen tribal village of Bayda and earmarked as a site worthy of further attention. Aside from Jabal al-Qarn, the only other confirmed Early Bronze Age site within the survey area is Umm Saysaban, immediately southeast of Wadi Mirwan. The latter site revealed scattered rectangular structures, which seem to have had a storage and perhaps seasonal function (Lindner et al. 2001: 304–308; Phillip 2008: 190).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Plan of Jabal al-Qarn (drawn by Felipe Rojas and Michelle Berenfeld).
Click to enlarge.
Figure 3
Figure 3. The geophysical survey at Jabal al-Qarn revealed a number of architectural features as well as a burned surface probably used for cooking (image by Thomas Urban ; survey by Thomas Urban and Susan Herringer).
Click to enlarge.

In contrast, Jabal al-Qarn is located close to the Shara Mountains, on a large sloped hilltop surrounded by a drystone wall (Figures 2 & 4). Although the function of this wall is currently interpreted as a boundary, it appears that the wall, largely made up of sub-angular sandstone, would originally not have been higher than 1.5m. Within the walled perimeter the remains of several prehistoric structures were earmarked for geophysical survey (Figure 3).

Figure 4
Figure 4. The outer boundary wall looking towards the Jabal al-Qarn settlement (photograph by Emanuela Bocancea).
Click to enlarge.

The geophysical survey, which included magnetometry and ground penetrating radar, revealed rubble, walls and heat-intensive features. Following this, to evaluate the chronology and sequence of the site, a 2 x 2m trench was cut in the southernmost portion of the hilltop, placed over what appeared to be a structural wall but which proved to be superficial rubble. Our trench's topsoil (under the rubble) produced mostly ceramics and lithics typical of the Early Bronze Age. Below that was another rubble layer, interpreted as collapse, deposited in an irregular manner and probably over a prolonged period; it contained some residual ceramics but predominantly Early Bronze Age ceramics and lithics.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Plan of archaeological features in the 2012 test trench at Jabal al-Qarn, including cooking surface (STU 6) and structure wall (STU 3) (drawn by Clive Vella).
Click to enlarge.

Underneath, a wall alignment in the north-western half of our trench (Figure 5) appears to be part of a larger axis crossing the southernmost part of the hilltop, as indicated by the geophysical survey (Figure 3). A burnt beaten surface (prominent in the magnetic survey) abutting the wall was also uncovered, as well as a contemporary deposit of chippings, a doorway and a beaten lime surface. The burnt surface included six discernible depressions (perhaps for stones to raise foodstuffs) and a quern with pestle.

Sadly, overnight the trench was vandalised. The damage to the beaten lime surface and part of the burnt surface may have been due to BUPAP's failure to employ local people for this small-scale operation. Nevertheless, the disturbed deposit was sampled and sieved. Below the loosened material, it became apparent that the burnt surface was contemporary with an occupational floor and doorway. The removal of this floor uncovered an earlier wall alignment, made of flat hewn tabular stones, and a carbonised ashy grey deposit. The latter suggests that an earlier structure was burnt and then sealed by what appears to have been an enclosing wall for the most elevated portion of the Bronze Age site.


The investigations at Jabal al-Qarn demonstrate the potential for prehistoric archaeology in the vicinity of Petra, and our preliminary results shed light on an under-studied aspect of the region. Unlike Umm Saysaban, the open hilltop of Jabal al-Qarn was a multi-phased settlement located at the lower range of the Shara Mountains. It had a 360o view of the surrounding landscape and a perennial spring to its east. Future work will investigate Jabal al-Qarn in light of its regional interactions in the Petra region. Regrettably, sites like Jabal al-Qarn face a very real threat from encroaching settlement sprawl, vandals and looters, a matter that increases the urgency for further research.


This research was generously supported by the Curtiss T. and Mary G. Brennan Foundation, the Platt Fellowship (American Schools of Oriental Research), the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University, and the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Geophysical investigations were also supported by the Weidenfeld Research Fellowship. We thank Dr Tali Erickson-Gini and Alex Knodell for their assistance in analysing ceramics and surveying the area respectively.


  • ALCOCK, S.E & A.R KNODELL. 2012. Landscapes north of Petra: the Petra area and Wadi Silaysil survey (Brown University Petra Archaeological Project, 2010–2011). Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 42: 5–16.
  • BYRD, B.F & J. FIELD. 1989. The Natufian encampment at Beidha: Late Pleistocene adaptation in the Southern Levant (Jutland Archaeological Society Publication 23.1). Aarhus: Jutland Archaeological Society.
  • JANSSON, J. 2002. From the Acheulian to Aretas: the Petra area in prehistoric times, in J. Frösén & Z. T. Fiema (ed.) Petra: a city forgotten and rediscovered. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.
  • KIRKBRIDE, D. 1968. Beidha: Early Neolithic village life south of the Dead Sea. Antiquity 42: 263–74.
  • LINDNER, M. & H. GENZ. 2000. Five Early Bronze Age sites north of Petra (Jordan) discovered in 1993–1997, in H.D Bienert & B. Muller-Neuhof (ed.) At the crossroads: essays on the archaeology, history and current affairs of the Middle East. Amman: German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Amman.
  • LINDNER, M., U. HÜBNER & H. GENZ. 2001. Early Bronze Age settlement on Umm Saysaban north of Petra (Jordan) and its topographical context: report on 1998/1999 survey. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 45: 287–310.
  • PHILIP, G. 2008. The Early Bronze Age I–III, in R. Adams (ed.) Jordan: an archaeological reader. London: Equinox.


*Author for correspondence

  • Clive Vella*
    Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA (Email:
  • Thomas M. Urban
    Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, Dyson Perrins Building, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK
  • Emanuela Bocancea
    Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA
  • Christopher A. Tuttle
    American Center of Oriental Research, P.O. Box 2470, Amman 11181, Jordan
  • Susan E. Alcock
    Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA