Desert Life
The war put an end to archaeologist Peter Akkermans’ digs in Syria; he ended up in a Jordanian patch of no man’s land and discovered all sorts.
Anoushka Kloosterman
Thursday 19 January 2017
Archaeologists found more than a thousand rocks with inscriptions on them. © Peter Akkermans

 “You might think: what am I doing here? These far-away countries don’t really count. Everybody just assumes there’s nothing there.”

Using a map, Peter Akkermans points out a region shaped like a new moon; it contains stretches of land in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the northern part of Jordan. “The key to everything is the Fertile Crescent.” This region is regarded as archaeologists as a goldmine, because it was farmed from a very early period. “Nobody ever visits the deserts.”

But he did. His field of research is (literally) in East Jordan, where he ended up by necessity. Akkermans spent 25 years working Syria, in Tell Sabi Abyad, where he conducted large-scale digs. “But the war forced us to leave. In 2011, one week before our departure, the fat hit the fire and I couldn’t reach it.” It was a terrible blow to the research: in 2014, Akkermans told Mare how the jihadists plundered the warehouse where all the finds were kept.

He had always been interested in the outlying areas and ended up in a patch of no man’s land, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Based in a deserted oil camp, he and his team of twelve PhD students and degree students comb through the empty area of desert every year. The camp is on the verge of collapsing and partly buried in sand, Akkermans explains.

Metre by metre, the team is attempting to document an expanse of land measuring three hundred square kilometres. “We are pioneering; we want to reconstruct life in this area”, Akkermans continues. By which he means: all life, from 9,000 BC up to the present day. “Drawings of little lorries done by modern nomads and coins from 1973 – we include all these things.”

This arid, stony desert region soon proved to have countless signs of previous life: traces of a green country that was once heavily populated by nomads, hunters and herdsmen.

“On the satellite pictures – Google Earth is ideal for this sort of thing – you can see all sorts of structures. There are traces of walls, huts or houses, paths, barrows and stables. However, a number of questions remained: “When was it built? When was it deserted? We needed to be on the ground to find the answers, and that’s where we noticed details too small to show up on satellite images.”

On the ground, the archaeologists found more than a thousand rocks with inscriptions and drawings on them. The desert must have teemed with life.

“The drawings are scratched or hacked into the surface – there are no paintings. They show camels, but there are gazelles, emus, lions and hyenas too and people shooting at the animals with bows and arrows; they are often accompanied by inscriptions in Safaitic writing: lists of parents’ and forefathers’ names. They say things like ‘name, son of, son of, son of ….’ and can go back thirteen generations. It’s a huge memory.”

The drawings date from around the early part of the first century AD while other remains could be as much as eleven thousand years old. “We only have tiny clues to work with and preservation is a major problem. The bodies in the barrows were only covered by rocks, so they have totally disappeared due to the affects of the weather, insects and dampness. Even in the barrows that have survived

ntact and have never been robbed only contain dust sometimes; entire bodies can decompose here.”

The landscape must have looked very different. “We have found wood remains, dating from the third century A.D., from seven different species of tree, species that need water all year round. It must have been much more verdant, with plenty of water; perhaps there weren’t any woods, but there would have been copses.”

The fact that the deserts weren’t always deserts was revealed last year, when, after many years of drought, it started to rain again. “Immediately, flowers shot up and large pools formed. The countryside was completely transformed; animals could find food again so the nomads returned too.”

He suspects that the region used to attract lots of herdsmen with livestock but few farmers. “The ground is very stony – even our hiking boots don’t last long. This area would be a farmer’s second or third choice. However, others need room to let their animals graze and perhaps there was some ad hoc agriculture in the low-lying parts.”

He hopes he can bring a forgotten area back to life with this project. “People always ignore these areas, so the records are very one-sided, as if these people never existed. So many activities are missed: people could draw and write; they had wishes and dreams too.”

“Many stories about them are disparaging: they are barbarians, living on the furthest boundaries of the kingdoms so they had a bad reputation. In the tales told by the Romans, for instance, only the tribes burn down the forts. But were they independent? Did they have any interactions with cities? How intensive was the contact? We just don’t know.”