A multi-isotope base map for Jordan: a tool for re-examining movement and community in the past

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Archaeology


The relationships between mobile pastoralists and sedentary agricultural communities, between "the steppe and the sown", have historically played a key role in the formation of the national identity of the modern state of Jordan. In recent decades, however, a high rate of immigration has had a significant impact on Jordan's social fabric and its natural environment, with substantial implications for sustainable development and for its sense of self. Issues of identity and community, and of how these are constructed, have become matters of significant debate. We seek, therefore, to use a case study from the past to advance new perspectives on the nature of community and expand consideration of these issues.
A recent project at Durham University demonstrated through isotopic analysis of skeletal remains that more than 50% of the individuals interred in a major 7th-9th century CE cemetery at Bamburgh, capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, did not originate from northeastern England, but from a world extending from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia. The diverse nature of the community at this major Anglo-Saxon site raises important questions about traditional narratives around British identity. We therefore seek to explore issues of diversity in a Jordanian context through a comparable case study. For this purpose, we have selected the site of Pella, an important community in the Jordan Valley that has produced a long sequence human skeletal material spanning a period of ca. 4000 years.
Traditional ways of identifying migration and mobility in the archaeological record, which often rely on substantial changes in material culture, are problematic. Isotopic analysis of skeletal remains, in contrast, can provide direct evidence for mobility, and its application has informed major reconsiderations of the European past. The accurate interpretation of patterns of movement requires an understanding of spatial variation in local isotopic signatures in the natural environment - in effect, baseline mapping. The absence of this information in Jordan has hampered previous efforts to employ isotopic studies and has prevented the kind of nuanced understandings of past communities that are now reshaping our view of the European past.
As a result, this project seeks to create through laboratory analysis an essential baseline dataset that will enhance the value of existing archaeological collections by using isotopic geochemistry as a technique to understand patterns of movement in the past. We will use this technique to investigate the relative homogeneity/diversity of an important Jordanian community at different points in time. While this case study offers exciting possibilities, we first aim to create a major piece of research infrastructure, in the form of a multi-isotope base-map for Jordan. This will provide the underpinnings for this project, but will also provide an essential point of reference for all future isotopic analysis in the country. We believe that this base-map will spur a rapid increase in the uptake of isotopic techniques within Jordanian archaeology.
We therefore propose a two-part project:
1) Construction of a multi-isotope base-map for Jordan (87Sr/86Sr, 18O, 34S, 13C, 15N), comparable to the Biosphere Map of Britain. This would represent the first bioavailable multi-isotope map for any country in the Middle East. The data underlying the construction of this map will be made available as an online database, and map resources of spatial variability in bioavailable isotope values will also be made freely available online, to allow them to be used for future studies.
2) Undertake a study that employs a deep-time approach to the history of mobility and community in Jordan, by analyzing human remains from multiple periods at Pella. This site, located in the Jordan Valley, has one of the longest sequences of human burials in Jordan, and thus offers an ideal long-term case study of changes in mobility.

Planned Impact

One of the primary impacts of this project will be in the area of capacity building in the higher educational sector, via a collaboration between Durham University and Yarmouk University. By involving Jordanian researchers fully in the project lifecycle, this project will make a major contribution to capacity building by creating a major piece of research infrastructure. The multi-isotope base-map will be the first of its kind for any country in the Middle East, and will become an essential point of reference for all future isotopic analysis in the country. Its impact will be significant, as it will encourage the rapid adoption of isotopic techniques within Jordanian archaeology. This will have a major impact for academic research capacity in Jordan, as isotope research is rapidly emerging as an essential growth area in archaeological studies, and is an area of study that has previously been underutilized in Jordan primarily due to restricted access to analytical facilities.
In addition, through the creation of a post-doctoral research associate position, we are aiming to contribute to professional career development for early career academics in Jordan. This position will provide advanced skills training for a Jordanian post-doctoral researcher to participate in the project throughout the entire research process, and will enhance the employability of an early career researcher through hands-on training in analytical and laboratory skills.
The datasets created by the isotope base-mapping effort will also have widespread impact outside academia, as knowledge of underlying geographical variation in isotopic values has a wide range of applications. The data produced can be used for food security purposes through the determination of the provenance of foodstuffs (authentication of food origins; tracking illegal food imports); studies of modern bird and animal migration; hydrological & water quality studies; and for applications in climatology and ecology.
Because isoscape maps of biosphere isotopic variation have such a wide range of applications, the potential impact (both academic and non-academic) of such an important shared resource is very high. As a result, the number of such maps is rapidly increasing as researchers worldwide recognise the need for them to underpin a wide range of investigations. The likelihood is thus high that new applications for the datasets created by the project proposed here will continue to develop in ways that remain unpredictable at present. Furthermore, new data can be integrated into the dataset as it becomes available, so it will not remain a static resource, but one that will be continuously evolving.
In addition, the study of mobility and community at Pella, a site in the Jordan Valley with a long history of occupation, will contribute to ongoing public discussions about the nature and formation of past identities and communities in Jordan. This investigation of the changing patterns of mobility and relative heterogeneity and diversity within the lifespan of an ancient Jordanian community will provide new perspectives to enrich public discourse and popular conceptions of community and identity in the past. The results of this case study will be shared with a popular audience through the creation of a bilingual Arabic-English exhibition to be displayed at Yarmouk University. Exhibition materials will be made widely available, so that they can be used in additional locations throughout Jordan, and employed as teaching resources in schools and other educational settings. This research will thus help to challenge, in both the academic community and the popular imagination, entrenched assumptions about how we view and recognize change in the past, and create a means for alternative possibilities to be heard and explored.


10 25 50
Description (2020 entry) Although the work is preliminary we are making good progress in understanding the distribution across the natural environment in Jordan, of the key isotopes that are useful for provenancing human, animal and plant remains.

(2021 Entry) Environmental Mapping. Fieldwork to collect samples of plant and mollusc remains from locations across Jordan was completed in spring 2020. Laboratory Analysis was severely disrupted by Covid, but was able to proceed at a reduced pace and we now h
Exploitation Route Once the map has been published we expect it to be used widely by other research projects and from a commercial standpoint to be useful for establishing the provenance of a range of agricultural produce, including the identification of non-local (imported) food products that may be falsely claiming to be baladi, meaning of local origin.

We expect that our unique dataset on the human population at Pella will have a significant research impact. Given our likely ability to combine data on mobil
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink



Museums and Collections


URL https://www.durham.ac.uk/departments/academic/archaeology/research/archaeology-research-projects/jordon-multi-isotope/
Description I am adding this note here because of a lack of an alternative place to put this kind of information. Project Aims Research: Construct a multi-isotope base-map for Jordan (87Sr/86Sr, d18O, d34S), comparable to the Biosphere Map of Britain. Undertake a deep-time study of the degree of mobility among past populations in the Jordan Valley by analysing isotopic values in the human remains from the site of Pella, the cemeteries from which span all periods from the Bronze Age to the Medieval - these being informed by the results of our biosphere map. Outputs: Two jointly published (UK/Jordan) articles in Open Access journals (1. Biosphere Map; 2. Pella cemeteries case study). Impact activity: 1. a workshop in Jordan to communicate the results to a range of local researchers, 2. production of an Arabic/English language exhibition at the Visitor Centre at the site of Pella, that would address ideas local / incomers and changing communities in the Jordan valley over time, and be co-produced with the Department of Antiquities and the local community. Outcomes 1 & 2) Fieldwork and sample collection were completed on schedule. Laboratory Analysis was significantly delayed by Covid-19, and we did not receive all of the required laboratory data until April/May 2022, i.e. twelve months after the funding for the project PDRA had ended, leaving us with a substantial amount of data to analyse, which we are doing as best we can. Impact activity could not begin until data analysis is complete. As the grant ended in Mar. 2022, we applied for GCNA funding to run a rescheduled set of impact activities over winter 22-23. This application was unsuccessful leaving us with no funding for delivery of the impact, which is now delayed indefinitely.
Description Parternship between Archaeology Dept. at Durham and Archaeology / Anthropology at Yarmouk University, Jordan 
Organisation Yarmouk University
Country Jordan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution In addition to the work specified under the AHRC-Newton agreement, Durham U has undertaken to isotopic analysis of human remains provided by our Jordanian partners and which originated from burials at two Roman-Byzatine sites in north Jordan (Abila and Sa'ad) excavated by teams from Yarmouk U. The aim is to build the profile of isotopic analysis within Jordanian archaeology, so that it becomes a standard part of the procedure for dealing with human remainas in the country., It will also address the wider theme of building up history from the local level by coming to better understand individual past communities, an apporach that was favoured at the preliminary meeting,
Collaborator Contribution Yarmouk U has provided staff time and logistical suport for the fieldwork undertaken in Jun 2019 and Feb-March 2020.
Impact No outputs as yet as analysis is still ongoing.
Start Year 2019
Description Conference paper delivered by Project PDRA at 2nd International Congress on Archaeological Sciences in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (Nov. 2019) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Increased expsoure for work on the multi-isotope base map for Jordan among research community and practioners in the East Mediterranena countries. Generated considerbale interets among colleagues from other MENA countries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://icasemme2.cyi.ac.cy/program/scientific-program
Description Research Visits to UK by Prof. Khaled al-Bashaireh from Yarmouk University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The first visit by Prof al-Bashaireh took place in summer 2019 and was designed to assess preliminary laboratory results, and make plans for second phase of fieldwork in Jordan. A subsequent visit in 2022, after the official end of the grant was intended to review the final dataset, and to design impact activity in Jordan planned to take place over winter-2022/23, to be funded by an application for GCNA funding.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2022