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A multi-isotope base map for Jordan:

a tool for re-examining movement and community in the past 


The relationships between sedentary agricultural communities and more mobile groups such as pastoralists have historically played an important role in the formation of the national identity of the modern state of Jordan. However, issues around how identities are constructed, and communities conceptualised, remain a matter of debate. This project seeks to use skeletal remains from ancient cemeteries to provide an understanding of the relative homogeneity / diversity of the communities living in Jordan at different points in the past.  

Traditional archaeological ways of identifying migration and mobility such as changes in material culture can be problematic. For example, incomers may adopt the material culture of pre-existing populations and thus appear invisible to archaeology, while non-local traits can be adopted by communities as a matter of fashionor to reflect changing identities or political affiliation.  

In contrast, isotopic analysis of skeletal remains can provide direct evidence for mobility.  In this case we extract samples from human tooth enamel, the composition of which reflects the isotopic composition of the food and water consumed by that person in childhood – which can then be compared to isotopic values typical of the place where the individual was buried.  However, the accurate interpretation of movement patterns requires an understanding of spatial variation in local isotopic signatures present in the natural environment – in effect, baseline mapping. The absence of this information from much of the Middle East has hampered efforts to employ isotopic studies effectively in the region, and has prevented the kind of nuanced understandings of past ME communities that has resulted from successful employment in Europe in recent times. 

The Project  

A body of water in the desert in eastern Jordon

Image above: Reliable water-sources such Qasr Burqu in the basalt desert of eastern Jordan are an important water source for mobile populations  

The project has two components.

  1. To construct a multi-isotope base-map for Jordan (87Sr/86Sr, δ18O, δ13C, and possibly δ34S). This will provide the first country wide biosphere multi-isotope map in the Middle East. The data underlying the construction of this map will be made available as an online database, and a map of the spatial variability in biosphere isotope values will also be made freely accessible online, so that they can be used in future studies. Sample collection was undertaken 2019-2020, and laboratory analysis will be completed during 2021.
  2. To undertake a study that employs a deep-time approach to the history of mobility and the nature of community in Jordan, by analysing human remains from multiple periods at a single site. For this purpose, we have focused upon the long-lived settlement of Pella in the Jordan Valley, because it provides one of the longest sequences of human burials in Jordan and offers a unique opportunity to act as long-term case study of changes in mobility. The human skeletal remains of Pella have been made available through our collaborator, Dr Stephen Bourke (Director of the University of Sydney excavations at Pella), and are currently being analysed alongside material from tombs dating to the Roman period at Sa’ad and Abila, both located on the plateau of north-western Jordan, and excavated by our colleagues from Yarmouk University.  These will provide an interesting contrast to the data from the Jordan Valley. 

 Pella archaeological ruins in the Jordon Valley

Image above: The site of Pella in the Jordan valley; the cemeteries cover more than 3000 years of human occupation

The completion of this project will result in an open access online publication of the isotope datasets and base-maps, which we believe will lead to a rapid increase in the uptake of isotopic techniques within Jordanian archaeology, and will be of interest to those areas of the economy where the traceability of crops and livestock is important. Several academic publications and a workshop to be hosted at Yarmouk University to present and promote the resulting research to academic audiences are foreshadowed, while a public exhibition to be displayed at a suitable regional locale, will explore the extent of mobility and diversity among the ancient population of Pella.


This project is funded by the AHRC Newton-Khalidi programme Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development in Jordan (Grant Ref: AH/S011676/1), and is a collaboration between Durham University (U.K)Yarmouk University (Jordan) and the Department of Antiquities of Jordanin partnership with the Pella Project at the University of Sydney (Australia), and is affiliatewith the Council for British Research in the Levant. 


The team has presented on the first stage of environmental sampling at the 2nd International Congress on Archaeological Sciences in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Nicosia Nov. 2019, and the British Association for Near Eastern Archaeology, Oxford Jan. 2020, and the International Congress of the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in 2021.

The Team 

Durham University  

Professor Graham Philip

Professor Janet Montgomery


Dr Lucie Johnson

Isotope Laboratories 

Dr Darren Gröcke (light isotopes)

Dr Geoff Novell (radiogenic isotopes)

Yarmouk University  

Professor Khaled Al-Bashaireh 

Professor Abdulla Al-Shorman

University of Sydney 

Dr Stephen Bourke