Imperial control in Roman and Byzantine Arabia : a landscape interpretation of archaeological evidence in Southern Jordan
Findlater, George MacRae
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The dominant interpretation of Roman imperialism in the provinces of Arabia and then Palaestina Tertia holds that the Empire was seeking to combat external military threats from nomads. This interpretation is based on archaeological evidence of Roman military sites forming a static defensive system linked by a road network. Recent scholarship in Jordan has questioned this interpretation. Alternative hypotheses have been advanced proposing that these sites acted as points of provincial control or were situated to maintain routes for long distance trade. It is proposed here that these interpretations of imperial control are flawed, either because of poorly realised explanatory models or improperly sampled datasets. In contrast, this study achieves an integration of textual and archaeological data through the conceptual framework of landscape. This approach stresses the spatial correlates of human behaviour and allows an alternative interpretation of imperial control to be validated. This study proposes the hypothesis that the aim of Roman imperialism in this area was to control directly imperial material resources. It does not present a historical reconstruction but demonstrates the power of a landscape approach over other models in the interpretation of Roman imperial control in southern Jordan. A rigorous review of existing textual and archaeological evidence from southern Jordan to establish military spatial and temporal development concludes that the scale of military fluctuations to support the hypothesis of a desert frontier sy~tem has been exaggerated. To test this conclusion primary data from the Dana Archaeological Survey (DAS), a three-year survey project directed by the author, was rigorously correlated with existing datasets. By strictly defining military sites and emphasising these monuments as part of wider settlement pattern, the survey demonstrated that military variability was in fact highly conservative and cannot support the hypothesis of frontier defence or provincial control. The DAS data was then used to test an alternative hypothesis that military variation is linked to the control of trade and wider socio-economic integration. This was achieved by correlating military sites with the wider settlement hierarchy through patterns of ceramic continuity. However, contrary to previous interpretations showing highly variable settlement change, the results proved that the correlation with military sites is not exact. These results were then compared with critically evaluated data from four other surveys (Wadi Hasa Survey, Southern Ghors and North Arabah Survey, Limes Arabicus survey and the Kerak Plateau Survey), which broadly supported the DAS results. This study makes clear that there is a spatial correlation between the existence of imperial estates, industrial centres and military sites. Archaeological evidence of an imperial estate in the DAS project area is presented and is contrasted with the different spatial and temporal features of a civilian estate. This imperial estate can be spatially correlated with several military sites. A review of the historical and textual evidence for imperial estates in Arabia suggests a provincial-wide pattern. This re-interpretation of the imperial landscape in southern Jordan views the location of military sites and the road network as a part of a vast integrated resourcing system of the Eastern Empire.