Review: “A Wayside Shrine in Northern Moab” edited by P.M. Michèle Daviau and Margreet L. Steiner

OxbowP.M. Michèle Daviau and Margreet L. Steiner. Eds. A Wayside Shrine in Northern Moab: Excavations in Wadi ath-Thamad. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Excavations at Wadi ath-Thamad Site WT-13 began in 1996 south of al-Rumayl. This volume presents the findings and analysis of material from the site, significant for its cultic nature. In what follows, I will first describe the site in totality through a summary of each contribution. Subsequently, I will note significant findings and conclusions. Finally, I will explore how the data in this volume contributes to more specific conversations in biblical and religious studies.

P.M. Michèle Daviau provides a broad overview of WT-13—especially concerning its cultic character—and describes the technical aspects of excavation history, stratigraphy, and documentary and recording methods (Chapter One). Because religious ritual is central to interpreting WT-13, Daviau subsequently lays out previous studies on cult behavior in the region and draws from Renfrew’s criteria for identifying ritual behavior with material correlates in order to broadly characterize WT-13 as a site of religious activity, parallel to other sites throughout the Levant (Chapter Two). Next, Daviau describes the site’s stratigraphy, finds, and architecture in order to provide an overview of the site’s history. Stratum IIIB (Late Iron I to Early Iron II) suggests “that rituals related to funerary customs were carried out by the local in habitants” (29). Subsequently, Stratum IIIA indicates that layers of fill “above the cooking installations effectively decommissioned the ritual site” (31), a practice common in Palestine and the Transjordan during the Bronze Age. While food preparation rituals ceased, the subsequent stratum points to a major cultural change, as it features “a wide variety of votive offerings and iconographic representation” (36). Stratum II (Iron II) consisted of three stages: building up the soil layers, constructing a wall forming a temenos, using it as a cultic site, and eventually remodeling the shrine. Materials show clear Phoenician, Assyrian, and local influence, meaning Stratum II should be dated between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Finally, Stratum I (Post-Iron Age, Nabataean–Early Roman) indicates small use during the period; however, Stratum II shows the clearest evidence of activity (Chapter Three).

In Part Two, specific data sets are analyzed: images of gods and worshipers, various small finds, pottery analyzed from the perspective of Central Jordanian tradition, tripod cups and specialized vessels, the provenance of statues, figurines, and pottery, faunal bone collection, shells and fossil invertebrates, sea urchin fossils, beads, and Nabataean and Roman objects. Part Three considers landscape archaeology and how WT-13 may have functioned as sacred landscape in the central Jordan.

A few conclusions and observations by contributions to the volume are notable. First, data provides insight into social aspects of Iron Age II Moab. For example, WT-13 pottery analysis indicates “that household pottery of both the early and late repertoires of WT-13 was locally made and stood firmly in the pottery tradition of Central Jordan” (177, 202). At the same time, though, weight stones at WT-13 are notably like those at Lachish and Tel Jezreel. These conclusions possibly speak to the socioeconomic situation: although there is not clear trade in terms of pottery, using the same type of weight stones indicates that they engaged in similar trading partners that required a degree of consistency between cities in the area. This correlates well with Master’s construction of the southern Levantine economy: “a system of tiered markets radiated out from the ports of the Mediterranean across political boundaries to reach the smallest hamlets on the desert fringe. The impetus for the market was generated by non-local goods which were an integral part of daily life” (2014, 89). In the same paper, he also notes that many objects, such as stone, fish shell, wood or metals, were imported in exchange for agricultural products (87). Returning to WT-13, the finds may fit this pattern: objects perceived as “exotic” or “Other” were traded and used in cult ritual; however, pottery was unique to Central Jordan because they did not trade it as frequently with nearby regions. Considering that WT-13 and al-Rumayl were on an important trade road, though, this is not too much of a surprise.

In terms of religious rituals, two observations are notable. First, though scholars previously posited that fossil sea urchins as votive objects, WT-13 is “the first direct indication of their occurrence in a votive context in Jordan” (221). As such, it is essential to reconstructing cult rituals in the Central Jordan and, more broadly, their diversity throughout the Levant. Second, Daviau places Stratum III of WT-13 into the broader context of rituals in the Levant, connecting the site the patterns of ritual meals, funerary meals, and decommissioning of cult site (274). Interestingly, while it may be explained as simple cultural change, the shift from site of ritual meals (Stratum III) to a temenos for ritual behavior with anthropomorphic figures (Stratum II) makes me wonder if there is any link between Stratum III and II. That is, did Stratum II arise because of the precedent of Stratum III, a sort of outgrowth of previous rituals practices, or did Stratum II arise without any regard for Stratum III, meaning no clear relationship between ritual meals and cult temenos ritual practices? Though I can’t answer here, it would be interesting to consider, as it would clarify patterns of religious development in the Levant.

Also interesting is that the site was “abandoned or destroyed in the late 7th–early 6th century, indicative of significant cultural change throughout the southern Levant” (77). As is commonly known, Samaria was destroyed around the same time period. Thus, the abandonment of the site in this time period is notable because it corresponds well with a period of regional unrest and conflict throughout the region.

Finally, Daviau mention that “the case of the deep perforated cup is challenging because there are no parallels… pointing to their function. This dilemma can be seen in the assemblages from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a site with religious iconography but not one perforated cup” (179; italics added for emphasis). In his recent volume, Schniedewind (2019) argues against approaching Kuntillet ‘Ajrud as a cultic site but rather as a military outpost or trading post. Thus, the relationship between iconography and Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is a poor example to juxtapose with WT-13.

In conclusion, A Wayside Shrine in Moab is a splendid volume for both the archaeology of the Levant broadly construed and for religion in the Levant. As an all too often understudied region, the volume is a welcome addition. Moreover, with a large range of data—data also available online—scholars will undoubtedly engage it and link it with other finds throughout the region.

 

References

Master, Daniel M. 2014. “Economy and Exchange in the Iron Age Kingdoms of the Southern Levant.” BASOR 372: 81–97.

Schniedewind, William. 2019. The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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