Wadi al-Jubah: The Latest Volume [Review Article]

Reviewed by John A. Van Couvering, A.M.N.H.

Yemen Update 26:3,5 (1989)

Overstreet, W.A., Grolier, M.J., and Toplyn, M.R., 1988. Geological and Archaeological Renaissance in the Yemen Arab Republic, Washington D.C.: American Foundation for the Study of Man. The Wadi el-Jubah [sic] Archaeological Project, Volume 4: xlii + 505 pp., numerous illustrations; maps and site plans in pocket.

Wadi al-Jubah leads down from the rugged plateau of Yemen to the Ar-Rub' al-Kali, the waterless flatlands that make up the empty interior of southeastern Arabia. In geological terms, the mountains are Rift Valley highlands, which shouldered their way up through the smooth blanket of sea floor strata that covers the rest of the peninsula, and a collar of back tilted beds makes long ridges where the granites slope beneath the desert floor.

One such levered-up ridge of limestone lies athwart the broad mouth of Wadi al-Jubah to form a geological basin. Modern rainfall, at c. 5-10 cm/yr, is no greater than in the great desert beyond the barricade, but the al-Jadidah alluvial plain is patterned with garden plots and orchards. Year-round water is accessible from wells that reach a thin saturated zone ponded behind the barricade, but most agricultural water needs are met by harvesting floodwater by techniques that predate the Islamic period&emdash;by how much is one of the questions addressed in this report. In al-Jadidah as in other rain-deficit regions of Arabia,there is so little surface or shallow ground water that conduits&emdash;canals or subterranean qanats&emdash;have no purpose. Instead, the landscape signature of agricultural society in this absurdly dry terrain are stone walls, known as seil, to intercept and settle floodwater. The seil complex&emdash;including streambed jetties, diversion walls, settling bunds, and terracedsilt-traps&emdash;is a land-graph that communicates without ambiguity how the people of al-Jadidah think about the monsoonal rainfall that pours, not from the skies, but out of the granite gutter of Wadi-el-Jubah once a year.

Farming under such extreme conditions would seem problematic at best, and the Wadi al-Jubah report shows that slight changes in climate, or even religion(!) resulted in major changes in agricultural practice. The present land-use patterns date from historic (i.e., Islamic) times when al-Jadidah valley was a way station on the trade road from Aden northward into the Hejaz and onto Jordan and Syria. Numerous tumuli and ancient seil plot boundary traces, some in presently uncultivated parts of this valley,have long suggested earlier phases of human habitation extending well into the pre-Islamic past. Overstreet (among others) has previously described evidence for the introduction of one-crop seilagriculture in southern Arabia, in place of systems allowing two or more crops a year, but the timing and proximal cause of this change is not fully known. It is clear that agriculture was interrupted more than once in al-Jadidah for long periods; the report shows, on the other hand, that salinization (or other deleterious buildups) did not precede abandonment.

This report exemplifies the new focus of interpreting past cultures in terms of the interaction of people with their environment. The Wadi al-Jubah research is a brilliant demonstration of archaeological forensics, using the chemical and morphological impact of various kinds of land use on the soil and rocks to document a complex agricultural and per-agriculturalhistory, back through the Iron and Bronze Age to the Neolithic. The investigations also turned up a surprise bonus: the first record of Paleolithic occupation (Mousterian and Acheulean) in the Y.A.R.

In the president's foreword, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson gives a warmly enthusiastic appreciation of the importance of the project to Yemeni and western scholars alike, and of the accomplishments of the authors and their associates during the fourth field season. After dipping repeatedly into this impressive volume without, as it were, touching sides or bottom, it is difficult not to share this enthusiasm. In terms of accomplishment alone, I can not think of any other report which contains such a density of hard data from so many disciplines, and of such professional quality,drawn out of an are of so little apparent promise. Perhaps fortunately, no princely tombs, clay-tablet libraries, or funerary art have been found in al-Jadidah to divert attention form the record of simple human achievement under murderous conditions. From all of the burial cairns dotting the landscape, Toplyn's team was permitted to open just one, and to develop what it could from study of the humble and unwealthy burial within, dating to about the time of Constantine For the rest, Over street and Grolier directed studies of geomorphology, soil chemistry, fossil snails, mineral resources,and regional geology to unravel the succession of events. A vital chapter on the native flora of this intensely disturbed enclave was supplied with Robert B Stewart, which gave (as far as possible) are construction of the way the little valley may have looked to the first visitors.

It's really too bad that this excellent study should have such a "frumpy look." Although solidly bound with a well-designed hard cover, it was made with a cheap, soft-finish paper which reproduced poorly&emdash;most noticeably on photographic figures, which came out looking like Xeroxes&emdash;and which added at least 75% unwanted fat. (Although the pages in this corpulent book measured exactly the thickness of a 500-sheet ream of ordinary coated text paper, I counted only 273 sheets between the covers.) In addition, the sans-serif font looked amateurish, like a vanity press,and made a disconcerting impression even when reading the most competent professional discussions. It was also hard to read;presumably in order to save space the characters and lines were extremely crowded, where a smaller-bodied serif typeface of the same point size would have been much more effective.

There is no index (quite understandably),but the table of contents is conveniently broken down to the subheads I could not find any spelling or technical errors at all. Finally, I thought that some sections were unnecessarily heavy going,rather like eating a bale of shredded wheat without milk or sugar,and would have benefited from a session with an argumentative editor. Criticisms aside, I can not imagine anyone seriously interested in cultural prehistory of arid lands being without this volume, and one may hope that the American Foundation for the Study of Man will receive the recognition it richly deserves for furthering competent,careful, and effective science in this sprawling discipline

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