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4

Saudi Aramco World

The landscape near my shelter is littered with fragments

of knapped flint—remnants of the former inhabitants’

hand tools—as well as lumps of hollowed-out stone that

were used to laboriously pulverize grain by the handful.

A few meters away are the telltale bumps and contours

of at least 30 round structures that may have been stor-

age buildings, with floors aboveground and with multiple

chambers, some like the one I am sitting in now.

Although radiocarbon dating of charcoal deposits

suggest that this place was inhabited first more than

100 centuries ago, my hut is a replica, constructed

a few years back on the one-hectare (2-ac) site that

archeologists have been excavating on and off for

nearly 20 years.

It’s beginning to grow dark outside. Mohammed De-

fallah, a local Bedouin goat herder turned travel guide,

calls. I emerge from the shelter and my reverie. He’s

brought me here from nearby Faynan village. Earlier,

he’d also baked some bread for lunch here, mixing a ball

of flour with water, then kneading the lump of dough

and forming it into a perfect flatbread on an ancient

mortar stone he found nearby. Sweeping aside the em-

bers of an acacia-wood fire, he placed the dough under

the fire-hot sand, and minutes later it was some of the

freshest bread I’d ever tasted. It struck me that I had just

witnessed a scene that may have been little changed since

bread was first baked here thousands of years ago.

T

his site at Faynan is just one of the dozens of

Neolithic settlements discovered in the southern

Levant, but it is proving one of the most signifi-

cant. Faynan shows evidence that the great shift

from hunting and gathering to crop-raising

—the

“agricultural revolution”—took place not only

widely across the region, but also much farther

south than previously believed, and it offers clues

to how that change took place.

Dating to between 10,000 and 8500

bce

,

Faynan is one of the earliest of the Neolithic sites

discovered in the entire Middle East, which in turn means “it’s

one of the earliest in the whole world,” says Steven Mithen,

an archeologist from University of Reading,

uk

. An expert in

the origins and spread of farming, Mithen first visited Faynan

in 1996, and he has been working here since 1997 alongside

both Bill Finlayson, regional director of the London-based

Council for British Research in the Levant (

cbrl

), and Mo-

hammed Najjar, former director of excavations at Jordan’s

Department of Antiquities. “It’s an especially well-preserved

site, probably used by people who were just experimenting

with the cultivating of plants,” Mithen says.

Beyond this, one particular discovery makes Faynan even

more significant: In 2010, the archeological team, which in-

cluded university students and local Bedouin, unearthed—to

their astonishment—an amphitheater-like structure measuring

22 by 19 meters (70 x 61'), or roughly the size of two tennis

Excavated remains of stone-wall structures dating to 8500-6250

bce

—before the development of pottery—lie along Wadi Ghuwayr, uphill

about 15 minutes’ walk from the older site of WF16. These show evolution in architecture from WF16’s mud walls, and here archeologists

have also uncovered evidence of the cultivation of cereals.