Sedentarization and Nomadization in Transjordan in the Early Islamic Period: The Khirbet Rufeis Cave Complex Excavations and Wusum

Paul J. Ray Jr. and Oystein S. LaBianca
Horn Archaeological Museum, Andrews University

Presented at:
the Annual Meeting of the
Americam Schools of Oriental Research
Philadelpha, Penn.
November 19, 1995


The late 8th through the 12th centuries A.D. in Jordan are usually depicted as a stagnant backwater. Newer studies suggest a modified view of this period. Two seasons of excavation of the Khirbet Rufeis cave complex seem to lend credence to this newer proposal. The complex, which possibly originally served as a Khan, was destroyed by an earthquake. In its post-earthquake phase, the cave seems to have been used by tribal elements for seasonal habitation. Part of the complex was turned into a divan and outfitted with a black painted panel on which wusum and occasional words were displayed. The latter seems to reflect a digression in literacy following the withdrawal of the dominant powers from the region. Further, the cave complex gives us a window on the nomadic end of the continuum in the late Early Islamic period.

Until recently, the late 8th through the 12th centuries A.D. have been seen as somewhat of a stagnant backwater in Jordan. Supposedly, with the move of the new Abbasid caliphate to Baghdad, there was a drastic decline in population and sedentarization in the area. Newer studies suggest a somewhat modified view of this period in that both written and archaeological sources attest continued settlement well into the Abbasid period. This is so especially at such sites as Beit Ras, Fihl (Pella) and Jerash in northern Jordan (Walmsley 1992). The studies of Piccirillo (1988) and Schick (1988) indicate a similar situation at sites in other parts of the country such as Um er-Rasas and this holds true for Cis-Jordan at sites such as Khirbet al-Mafjar (Whitcomb 1988). The current evidence would thus seem to indicate a continual interest in Jordan and Palestine by the Abbasids until well into the 9th century.

Along with the above reconstruction, there is also a tendency toward a newer dating terminology for this period based on archaeological periodization rather than on dates arrived at from political history which have tended to obscure reality. This terminology has been suggested by a recent reconsideration of the ceramic evidence at Khirbet al-Mafjar (Whitcomb 1988: 64-65; 1992: 385-387).

Two seasons of excavation at the Khirbet Rufeis cave complex, part of the hinterland component of the Madaba Plains Project, seem to lend credence to this newer proposal. The Khirbet Rufeis cave complex (map reference: 238.139) is part of the Amman Silicified Limestone Formation, of Cretaceous origin, consisting of undulating and alternating layers of chert, chalk and limestone. A large 8 m. x 6 m. portion of the cave complex was slightly modified possibly in the later part of the Byzantine Period for use as a cistern. It was plastered on its walls, floor and ceiling. A 6 m. x 2 m. trench (Area 1, Square 1) was cut across this feature. A rim-sherd found in the upper of two plasterings of the floor dated its last period of use as a cistern to the Early Islamic I Period (A.D. 600-800). A tannur measuring over 1.0 m. in diameter was located in Square 5 (a 4.25 m. x 2 m. trench to the north of the cistern) and belongs to the same period. Square 6, located to the west of the cistern revealed part of a contemporary room. It was separated from the cistern by a large wall (locus 5;), whose foundation consisted of 1-2 rows of chert and limestone boulders (.60-.70m. wide), preserved 2-3 courses high in places. The room, though it contained little pottery, had two surfaces (loci 6 and 8) made out of what appeared to be tamped chalk (marl), separated by a soil layer (locus 7) of from 3-10 cm. in depth, which contained 2 body sherds.

Some time later, within the Early Islamic II Period (A.D. 800-1000), the cave complex was damaged by an earthquake, possibly one of a number of shocks in the 840s and 50s. At this time, the cistern seems to have been damaged beyond repair and went out of use. Due to the earthquake, a significant portion of the front of the cave complex collapsed and large boulders destroyed both the cistern and the room to its west. This is reflected by the large amounts of debris found within these areas. In square 5, the tannur and all of the excavated area above it was littered with large boulders for more than a meter. With the collapse of part of the roof area above it, the former cistern was exposed to the elements and thus, wind blown and sheet washed soil and living debris began to collect in it. An Abbasid period silver Dirham coin, found just a few cms. above the floor level, seems to be among the earliest of the debris. The area in front of the now exposed former cistern (square 5) seems to have continued to function for tribal elements who were now using the cave for seasonal habitation as a domestic area. Evidence for this included a cobbled surface (locus 10) with a flat lying handle of a basin and a fire pit/hearth (locus 13) a little over a meter above the earlier tannur. The hearth produced an ash layer some 30 cm. in depth.

It is tentatively suggested that the cave complex, in its earlier (pre-earthquake) phase may have been a Khan serving the caravans and travellers using the former Roman road which passed in the neighborhood of Qasr Yadoudah. If this was the case, the cistern of area 1, square 1, would have functioned as the main source of water, with several other cisterns of various sizes, in the vicinity, supplementing it. The tannur in Square 5 would have functioned as a baking oven, supplying bread for the visitors and the room in Square 6 as one of possibly a number of rooms for their lodging.

At some point, as the debris collected, black paint was added to the wall of the former cistern. This was applied to the outer of two layers of plaster. The inner, grayish one, being .7-2.5 cm. in width, and similar to that of the former floor on the southern end, was made of well-rounded to rounded clasts with ash and burned root fragments, while the outer, whitish layer was made up of calcium carbonate clasts. To the paint, a number of signs, "letters," hunting scenes, and even an occasional "word" (tribal name) were chiseled, evidently with pieces of basalt, possibly held with wooden sticks. It would seem that this former cistern area was used as some kind of divan.

There is now a tentative scholarly consensus that these "inscriptions" are wusum (camel brands or tribal markings) from the late Early Islamic period on, though a few may reflect earlier Safaitic/Thamudic signs. These signs seem to have been applied by "illiterate" tribemen in imitation of the Safaitic/Thamudic inscriptions which are widespread throughout the region. The appropriated signs however, were probably assigned new meanings. It would also appear that the red "paint" used to make some of the "finger paintings" that acompany these wus m is the same as the dye that is used to mark sheep and goats. This type of activity thus gives us a window on the nomadic end of the continuum in the late Early Islamic period.

While the above scenario seems to reflect a digression from a high point in literacy as indicated by the earlier Safaitic and Thamudic inscriptions in the area to a low point of vistiguality following the withdrawal of the dominant powers from the region, it is also reflective of Jordan's two-layered history. The upper of these two layers is characterized by extensive investment in construction of buildings, including monumental structures, earthen works and water harvesting installations such as dams, terraces, reservoirs and cisterns. The lower layer, on the other hand, is characterized less by an extensive investment in material things than in social institutions whereby the population is inured against losses due to the collapse of transient, foreign dominated central governments.

This lower layer has been held together by such components as tribalism, a multi-resource economy, fluid homeland territories, residential flexibility, low-care water sourcing, hospitality and honor. These strategies have gone a long way in adapting the local population to fatigue and hardship and they have therefore managed to persist despite greatly fluctuating political and economic fortunes throughout the millennia.


Piccirillo, M. 1988 The Mosaics at Um er-Rasas in Jordan," Biblical Archaeologist 51: 208-213, 227-231.

Schick, R. 1988 Christian Life in Palestine During the Early Islamic Period, Biblical Archaeologist 51: 218-221; 239-240.

Walmsley, A. 1992 Fihl (Pella) and the Cities of North Jordan during the Umayyad and Abbasid Periods. Pp. 377-384 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, IV. ed. S. Tell. Amman: Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

Whitcomb, D. 1988 Khirbet al-Mafjar Reconsidered: The Ceramic Evidence, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 271: 51-67.

1992 Reassessing the Archaeology of Jordan in the Abbasid Period. Pp. 385-390 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, IV. ed. S. Tell. Amman: Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

About the Authors

Paul J. Ray Jr. is a graduate student at Andrews University and Assistant to the Curator at the Horn Archaeological Museum. He has been been a member of the Madaba Plains Project since 1987 where he is a Field Supervisor on the Tall Jalul excavation. Correspondence may be sent to the Horn Archaeological Museum, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104, or by email: Paul Ray --

Oystein S. LaBianca is a professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Andrews University. He has been working in Jordan with the Madabe Plains Project since 1971, and has been the director of Hinterland Survey since 1984. Correspondence may be sent to the Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104, or by email: Oystein LaBianca --