In my last post I talked about Oberlin’s collection of archaeological pottery from the Levant, our efforts to catalog that collection, and my work with a group of Early Bronze Age pottery. This post will go over my second project researching Oberlin’s collection of Bab edh-Drah vessels and documenting how they came to be acquired by the college. Additionally, I’ll use this space to record a couple of final thoughts regarding my work over the past month.
For a bit of background, Bab edh-Drah is a site which was occupied throughout the entirety of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3500-2000 BC). It is located on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and is especially notable for its large number of burials and burial types which differ from the types used throughout most of the southern Levant during the same time period. The pottery of Bab edh-Drah also possesses a slightly unique character which it shares with the sites in its vicinity.
Between 1965 and 1967, Bab edh-Drah’s tombs were extensively excavated. This led to the intake of a huge amount of pottery which ended up in inadequately stored and inadequately cataloged in Amman. Due to the sudden death of the site’s excavator, this material was left untouched and unstudied and so it remained in these storerooms taking up space.
When a group of excavators wanted to continue work at the site in the mid-1970’s it became clear that a solution was needed to create additional room for the new intake of material which further excavation would surely bring. The late excavator’s wife proposed the solution of permanently loaning out tomb assemblages from the site to ASOR affiliated institutions and the Jordanian government soon after acquiesced. Amongst the ASOR affiliated institutions that received assemblages on permanent loan was Oberlin College. In 1980 a collection of 13 objects from a shaft-tomb known as A 7s arrived at the college. Unfortunately though, the man who had organized Oberlin’s acquisition of these artifacts the then head of the religion department, Tom Frank, passed away before the could be shipped. As a result, when the artifacts arrived, nobody really knew what to do with them and they were put into storage.
Unfortunately, after this, there is no documentation which discusses what happened to the objects once they arrived. In order to find the missing pieces of the story, Professor Blakely had spent part of the past month tracking down people who knew about the collection of Bab edh-Drah pottery and could perhaps tell us about what happened to it once it had reached the college. While this was able to fill in some gaps, it was not as conclusive as we had hoped. We found out that the objects were mostly kept in storage until 2002 when they were put on display in honor of the 50th anniversary of Oberlin’s Religion Department. All that’s known after this is that at some point this exhibition was taken down and somehow the collection of 13 vessels was divided in such a way that today only the location of 6 of these vessels is known.
While looking at the Bab edh-Drah pottery, Professor Blakely and I had noticed that of all the vessels which we did have, all had flat or mostly flat bases. This meant that they had all been easier to display and we assumed that this is the reason that they were all kept together as opposed to the round based objects which would be more difficult to display. Throughout the month we had been searching for possible locations of the remaining objects including the college’s art museum, in library storage, in departmental storage and in other locations. Unfortunately though, as of the present moment none of these locations has yielded a positive return.
In spite of this, I made use with what we had and typed up what vessels I could. This was a much shorter project than what I had been doing for the general Early Bronze Age pottery which I had been working with. This was due to the fact that the material I was working with had already been published. As a result, I was able to identify which vessels we had and which ones were missing. It was refreshing to know so much about the artifacts down to the exact locations where they had been found as opposed to going in blind as I had done with the other Early Bronze Age material.
I learned quite a bit this winter term. First and foremost, I learned the amazing value of archaeological publications. Although I’ve read site reports before, I was blown away by the information which these tomes contained. These helped me to find parallels for the objects which I was working with and told me everything I could possibly want to know. Secondly, I learned the power of double checking. For most of the project we had assumed that the cataloging that had been done at the start had covered every box of artifacts. However, we did not realize until we double checked everything on the last day that we had forgotten to catalog an entire box of artifacts. This led to our finding an additional Bab edh-Drah vessel which was gratifying due to our missing many of these objects. Thirdly I learned the value of archives. I’m amazed at the documents and letters which the college had that described the entire acquisition of the Bab edh-Drah material. I also learned about the importance of oral history. Although it didn’t fill in the gaps as much as we had hoped, we were still able to learn a great deal about what happened to the Bab edh-Drah pottery once it reached Oberlin College through the testimony of professors who had been active at the time of the collection’s arrival. Last but not least, this project gave me my first chance to actually write about archaeological materials. I look forward to using it as a springboard for further archaeological writing in the future.
In addition to these general lessons, I also learned a great deal specifically about the Early Bronze Age. I had no idea how interesting I found this period until I really dug into it (don’t mind the archaeology pun) this winter term. I look forward to learning more about this period in the future and perhaps further research will help me to narrow down my main archaeological interest. I also learned a lot about pottery. Yes. I’ve been out in the field before. But, the pottery types from this period are different than the ones I’ve interacted with at Abel. As a result, there was a whole new world of pottery types to explore and while I only touched the tip of the iceberg, I left with a newfound appreciation for the pottery of the Early Bronze Age. I also left with an appreciation for Ruth Amiran whose book covering the pottery of the Levant from the Neolithic-Hellenistic periods made everything I did possible. I look forward to using her book as a resource again at some point in the near future.
I hope that at some point I can continue working with Oberlin’s collection of artifacts from the Levant and Ancient Near East. I’ve considered improving the database and continuing to photograph objects on account of that task not being finished. But, of course, everything is tentative and who knows how I’ll feel once the semester starts up. In any case, last but not least, I wanted to thank Professor Jeff Blakely for his help over the last month. Hopefully I’ll be able to join him for a day or two at Hesi this summer and if not, it’d be great to grab a coffee or a beer.
(Note: all historical information on the Bab edh-Drah tomb pots not relating to Oberlin College comes from Morag M. Kersel. “Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 3, no. 1 (2015): 42-54.)