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22 May 2004
Ancient fort provides insight into history of weaving

Weaving has existed in the Middle East for thousands of years. And yet exactly how far back in the history of the region it goes is a matter of some debate. However, a recent discovery of a cache of clay loom weights at Khirbat al-Mudaybi in Central Jordan is shedding new light on ancient textile crafts and industries. Physical evidence for weaving has not always been forthcoming; now, the evidence that the early Mudaybi weaver left behind is permitting scholars to reconstruct the details of this ancient industry.
     Khirbat al-Mudaybi is a mid-size Iron Age fort constructed around 700 BCE on the eastern Karak Plateau of Central Jordan. During antiquity, Mudaybi was located on the edge of the eastern frontier of Moab, an Iron Age state located east of the Dead Sea. Knowledge of Moab is mainly derived from the lengthy Mesha Inscription, an inscribed orthostat discovered in 1868 at Dhiban, the capital of the Moabites. The inscription describes how Moab regained its sovereignty from ancient Israel and established an independent state around 850 BCE. After a century of independent rule, Moab lost its autonomy when it became a semi-independent client state of the Assyrian, and later, the Babylonian, empires.
     Three seasons of excavations carried out by the Karak Resources Project have revealed that sturdy basalt and limestone walls, towers and gates enclosed the settlement. Most notable is the four-chambered monumental eastern gate where volute capitals rest on top of each pier wall, supporting stone lintels, wood beams, and a roof of mud and reeds. The gate faces the Fajj al-Usaykir, an important commercial route connecting the Arabian Desert with the interior of the Karak Plateau. Given the fort's strategic position, it is likely Mudaybi protected ancient Moab's eastern frontier and provided security for passing caravans.
     Tthe excavation team was surprised to discover a weaving installation in the fort's domestic quarter. Here, at least 68 small, perforated clay loom weights were concentrated in the northwest corner of one of the rooms. Each weight was hand-molded from local clay into a round or cylindrical shape, ranging from 32 to 61 millimeters in height, 48mm to 86mm in width, and weighed from 70 to 437 grams. Multiple threads could be strung through a perforation in each weight, and multiple weights may have been needed for each group of warp - or vertical - threads to provide the necessary tension for weaving.
     It is likely that the Mudaybi loom weights were portable and could be easily moved from place to place. Unfortunately, neither evidence of a loom nor any weaving tools have been excavated in the fort. A senior researcher from the Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, observed, "the discovery of so many loom weights makes me wonder if perhaps carpets or tents were being produced in this location by a family or specialized craftsman."
     On the same area, evidence for food preparation was excavated including a small tabun - or cooking oven - as well as a grain-grinding installation. Typical Iron Age II bowls, jars, and a lamp were scattered on the floor, strengthening the room's domestic interpretation. Dr. Larry Herr, director of the Madaba Plains Project in Jordan, said "It's enthralling to discover the domestic side of the Mudaybi fort. That weaving and cooking activities occurred side-by-side suggests to me that women may have lived in the fort, as well."

Source: The Daily Star (20 may 2004)

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