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Enhancing historical tourism in Neolithic villages in Jordan

AHRC's Early Careers research grant scheme project title:
Identifying activity areas in Neolithic sites through ethnographic analysis of phytoliths and geochemical residues
PI: Emma Jenkins

The shift of human society from hunter gatherers to settled farmers was one of the most significant changes in the history of our species. But exactly how it happened is still relatively poorly understood.

This multi-disciplinary project, funded via AHRC's Early Careers research grant scheme focused on how the so-called ‘Neolithic Revolution’ happened in Jordan, and fuses tourism and archaeology together in a multi-stranded study of abandoned mud and stone villages, some of which have prehistoric origins.

It was led by Dr Emma Jenkins of the Bournemouth University, and Dr Carol Palmer, of the Council for British Research in the Levant's British Institute in Amman building on a previous four-year AHRC-funded excavation project in Jordan.

Focusing on abandoned villages can help bring clarity to aspects of Neolithic life that can be hard to interpret.

This period - and the origins of 'settled life' - can be difficult to understand, because many of materials that were used, such as animal bones or plants, rarely survive intact in the archaeological record.

However, science can now identify the invisible chemical traces of human life in 'phytoliths', the bodies of silica that form in and around plants, along with geochemical traces in soils that indicate settlement. And both have provided valuable insights for researchers.

"Our project brings together archaeological and environmental science with ethnography," says Jenkins. 

Many Neolithic sites in this region are little more than a series of small structures, which would not have been viable as living spaces. 

Establishing what these spaces were used for and why the villages were built this way can shine a light on this critical period of transition.

But the project has not only been concerned with the distant past and it has greatly benefitted from a growing interest in more recent history.

"In Jordan, there is increasing interest in recent rural lifeways, and the country has some tourism outreach projects, which promote this type of social history," says Palmer. 

"It did start out as an archaeological project. But through having broad contacts in the region it has become much wider than that. And there were people living in the villages who were hugely interested in what we wanted to do, which was to share their heritage and way of life through outdoor and nature tourism.”

Funding from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has since helped the village of Al Ma'tan establish itself as a base for rural and adventure tourism, with chalets that offer accommodation to international visitors, and a visitor centre that has become a hub for local people. 

"We've mapped Al Ma'tan from when the village was originally built during the Ottoman period," says Palmer, "There are aerial photographs from the 1950s, when it was still fully populated.  After that, in the 1960s, people began to relocate up to the plateau, or to cities, and these kind of villages became primarily used for pastoralism. We're keen to record other deserted villages for their own sake, before they are developed for tourism." And, this mapping also helps to preserve the memory of these villages for the purposes of tourism.

"What we've done is help build the case for this kind of tourism in the region, and how it can help to highlight both recent and ancient history," says Jenkins.  "We've made a film of our work that is shown in the visitor centre at Al Ma'tan and the ecolodge at Wadi Faynan. I'd estimate it's been seen by about 15,000 people/year." 

The film was launched in Jordan, with full ministerial support, and the team have seem many similar spin-offs coming from the project, with other villages and other tourism projects starting to come together.