Mummies, Snakes, Bones and a New Cave Record

Updated September, 2013


From Germany: Dr. Horst-Volker Henschel & Prof. Dr. Stephan Kempe, Darmstadt

From Jordan: Prof. Dr. Ahmad Al-Malabeh & Mahmoud Fryhad (MS Student of Geology), Zarka

Driver: Abu Jusuf.

A few of the skulls found in Al-Haya Cave


...The main features of the cave are its very dusty and dry sediment and rich bone deposits: many skulls of dog, wolf, horse, cow, sheep…and one human skull cap. We also find a mummified fox... Overall, the cave is a prime target for a paleontological investigation!

Tuesday, 13th September, 2005:

Ahmad and Mahmoud meet us at the airport. Mahmoud Fryhad makes his living as a police officer but at the same time works on his MS (Geopotential of the new Al Fahda Cave). We are quickly guided through immigration and customs. It is shortly before 1:00 AM as we pass into the cool night air of Amman. Ahmad drives us downtown in his Mercedes (imported from Germany) where we take a small dinner before we drive to Ahmad’s home in Zarka. There we arrive by 3:00 AM at night, talk a little bit and sink to bed after the first cock and Muezzin called. Luckily we do not hear the next ones but wake up in hot and broad daylight at around 9:00 AM.

Dabie Cave

After visiting the University President and other dignitaries, we shop for batteries and food and leave town by 4 PM, heading down the road East toward Baghdad. Before quite getting there, we take a left to drive some 4 km N to our first speleological project: Recovering the mummified hyena from Dabie Cave (Hyena Cave). This hyena will be shown at a mummy exhibition at the Reiss-Museum in Mannheim, Germany in 2007. Dabie Cave was shown to us last year by a Bedouin called Abu Saddam (we managed to resist the urge to call the cave Saddam’s Cave). It is short of 200 m in length, mostly walking size but not very wide. It has ledges on both of its sides (the first ledges we found in Jordan caves) and is very well preserved and reminds me very much of a small Hawaiian tube. Only a few breakdown blocks occur. Nevertheless walking is difficult since the cave is littered by thousands of bones. Some are intact camel bones; some are hyena broken-bone splinters.

Ahmad, Horst-Volker and I have been there last year but from the NW. Now we approach from the south, following our noses. Low and behold! We take the correct choices at the right forks and arrive shortly before six at the wadi’s northern rim above the cave entrance. A true masterpiece of orientation out in the stone-strewn nowhere.


Prof. Dr. Ahmad Al-Malabeh at a conference in Jordan.


Beady eyes in the darkness

Ahmad and I dress for the recovery: Full paper suit (white) and dust protection mask. We certainly look professional and out of place. I will go in first alone to avoid kicking up so much dust and I will take the first set of photographs. Then Ahmad will follow, then Horst-Volker to take pictures with his camera too (slides), then Mahmoud will follow also to help carry. First we have to remove the rocks from the entrance which once served as a bir or  well. I enter and walk towards the back of the cave. Suddenly the reflections of eyes stare at me. After a few heart beats, I realize that it cannot be a hyena, since the stone at the entrance would not have allowed such a large animal into the cave. And surely, as I go further, a fenek, a dusty, skinny little desert fox passed on the lava ledge on the opposite side of the cave, about 2.5 m away from me. The creature knows that it does not have a chance in the back of the cave, so it tries to gain the entrance. It runs past Ahmad and exits the cave almost through the legs of Horst-Volker who is still standing outside.

As I breathe heavily through my filters to keep as much dust and spores out of my lungs, I discover, that our mummy has been further consumed and that we now have two parts. The head is still the same and I take lots of pictures. I also take pictures of other bones and of the hyena fecal pellets. The floor is covered with them. They are whitish balls about three cm across. Bones are everywhere, one cannot avoid stepping on them, making them click like the sound of a skeleton walking and rattling about.

The Ripe-Smelling Mummy

Finally Ahmad arrives, putting on his lab-gloves. Then Horst-Volker comes in, takes pictures of the mummy and us from various angles. Then we put both parts of it back together, as they were last year. Finally I also put on lab gloves and we pick up the smelly parts and stuff them into large grey plastic garbage bags, sealing them with tape. Finally Mahmoud joins us too, takes a look around and helps carry out the two body bags. Actually the fox made it easier for us, since now we only need to carry two smaller bags...

 The mummy,of the fenek or fox found in Al Haya Cave.

...On the way out we observe, that the fox apparently also gnawed on some other bones, among them an articulated camel leg, which surely he could not have brought into the cave. It is astonishing what the Hyenas apparently can carry and drag into the cave, to consume at leisure. Most of the bones, however, are not really damaged, even though we also find typical “hyena artifacts,” pointed splinters of marrow bones.

When we exit, it is almost dark. The evening star is pointing at us from the west and to the south a half-moon lights the shady landscape like a mighty lamp. It takes some time to close the cave, undress, pack and stow the hyena bags into two of the boxes we brought. In the dark, the tracks become even more unclear, but we manage to hit the main road without detour about 15 minutes later. Another 15 minutes brings us to Safawi, the last outpost of civilization before the border (which is still 200 km away). We drop by one of the truckers’ restaurants, enjoy omelets, bread, pickles, humus, Coke and tea and finish off the work day.

Next we unload the heavily dust-laden suitcases at the research center. Ahmad tries to close the boxes of mummy remains more tightly and places them on the roof.  They smell awful. We retire early (10 PM) and I work on the protocol and pictures until about midnight.

Wednesday, 14th of September, 2005

We march across the Hamada composed of ankle-breaking, desert-tarnish-blackened basalt stones. Ahmad and Mahmoud carry the big cooler.

After about 20 minutes we get to a place where there is a group of ancient, hoof-shaped wind breaks (opening to the south since the wind falls down from the north at night). Here a double line of collapsed walls ends. Ahmad and Mahmoud originally followed this structure, which they think is a dilapidated channel to divert water from the wadi north of here. At the end, near those shelters, they found a puka (Hawaiian term meaning “hole whose bottom cannot be seen”) into which the water apparently had been drained! The hole in the ground is about three m wide and goes off in two directions. To the NE a second, smaller puka is found, also offering two entrance possibilities


…Next we unload the heavily dust-laden suitcases at the research center. Ahmad tries to close the boxes of mummy remains more tightly and places them on the roof.  They smell awful!

Al-Fahda Cave

We begin our descent at the larger entrance. We scramble down the scree and enter a lava tunnel 13 m wide and 2 m high with the floor about 6 m below ground. To the west (which is the mauka section (Hawaiian term meaning uphill or “towards the mountain”). To the East the tunnel runs makai (Hawaiian term for downhill or “towards the sea.”) also 12 m wide up to 2 m high. Here we establish “base camp” where the cooler is stationed, a candle is lit and where the driver (at least temporarily) takes refuge from the heat outside.

It is about 9:30 AM when we enter the cave which we will leave only in darkness at 7:45 PM. For the first section the tunnel is very comfortable, large, sediment-floored, easy to walk. After 43 m a large breakdown area is encountered. Here one can crawl upward to the second entrance. This crawl is not on breakdown but on solid lava, steep as in a lava cascade. Apparently this leads to an upper passage level, opening up beyond the entrance puka (hole). If this passage is negotiable, we do not find out, since we want to continue with the main passage. At least this is the first time we find hints of an upper-level tube in Jordan.

Coprolites, Ropes and a Terminal Tongue

The main tunnel quickly turns from a comfortable walking passage to a series of crawls and low passages, connected by stooping or barely walking-height passages. Overall, the back part of the cave is not the most comfortable. In particular, the floor is composed of loose a’a (Hawaiian for rough and sharp) stones and blocks, the interstices of which have been filled with sediment. Crawling therefore is a test to knees and elbows, coveralls and hands and raises a lot of dry dust at the same time (add dust from coprolites to this). The floor appears to be rather flat, and almost no flow-related structures are seen. An exception is a short section of a levee near Survey Station 40 and thick ropes of a viscous pahoehoe  (Hawaiian again, meaning smooth) flow in the two final passages. It appears as if the original large and high cave has been filled with a terminal a’a tongue which got stuck at Station 50, not quite covering the underlying original pahoehoe floor. This would explain why the cave is so low and why the floor is so flat in contrast to the morphology of the initial tube.

Overall the slope of the tube is so low, that our inclination measurements (done with a laser guided digital level) are within the error bars of being horizontal. Only the flow-lobes in the two terminal passages assure us that this section of the tunnel points downhill. St. 54 is only 6.7 m below the entrance and the floor of the cave does not really show a measurable inclination (possibly a meter or half a meter on 480 m length, i.e. c. 1 to 2 per mill).

The cave ceiling is mostly composed of a few cm or decimeter-thick lining, sometimes showing lamination, sometimes not. This lining has flaked off in places, forming curious plates among the irregular a’a blocks.

Remarkable is the abundant secondary lining of gypsum. It is either milky or clear white, sometimes forming even small crystals. There may be other minerals as well, but gypsum seems to be the most common.


A'a: rough and sharp lava

Pahoehoe: smooth lava

Mauka: uphill

Makai: downhill

Puka: hole

Stephan teaching Hawaiian to his Jordanian and Mexican students in Amman.


Dams, Walls and a Mysterious Monument

The cave also has archeological features. These include two low dams near the second entrance. At the northern wall they retained the sediment of the flowing water. The first one is a mere row of blocks; the second one extends a natural breakdown to the N Wall and may have had a more protective role. There is also a wall near the southern end of the second entrance. The third larger wall, mostly stacked plates on top of a few breakdown blocks is found beyond St. 30 at about 30 m beyond the turnoff to the second entrance. The most striking and mysterious feature is however “The Monument,” a large, 1.9 m high pile of rocks. Here lining plates have been stacked on top of larger natural breakdown blocks. This cairn is 330 m from the entrance and through a series of nasty crawls. This pile of rock is truly a monument to the caving competence of prehistoric man! Ahmad and Mahmoud found three parts of human skulls in the cave. One they removed for studies (the best preserved), the other are just fragments of the upper skull cap and of the frontal skull cap. None of these remains appear to mark intentional burials; they may be just spoiling of hyenas, dragged in here. So far we did not find any tools, torch remains, smudges or doodles which would prove the presence of man beyond the evidence the stacked stones provide.

Inside the Hyena Den

Signs of hyenas are everywhere. First there is a slight odor in the cave; second, one finds hyena coprolites all over. These are 3-7 cm, large, white, spherical balls or agglomerates of balls. The color apparently is from the chewed bone hydroxyl-apatite. Then there are remains of hyenas, most easily discernable skulls, jawbones or skull fragments. Most amazing is, however, the amount of bones which have been carried into the cave. Most of them appear to be camel and sheep bones. Camel bones occur almost to the end of the cave, but become sparser towards the inner parts. Where there is enough sediment, we also find hyena dens, circular pits, 10-20 cm deep, 80 to 100 cm wide, in which the hyenas apparently like to rest. One of such pits we found at St. 50, where a young hyena had died. This is evidence that the spotted hyena (Hyena hyena) can negotiate any length of cave and that they even carry bones with them over such a long distance. Even for the hyenas, some of the crawls were tight, but they must have crawled through them. The temperature was measured to  21°C.

The preliminary length of the cave comes out to 550 meters, preliminary since the mauka (uphill) part still needs to be measured.

The travel to the back has drained us of fluids and we are glad to have stacked some bottles in between. However, when we finally reach the cooler with almost unlimited supply of drinks, we know where paradise is.

When we finally stagger out of the cave it is almost dark! The moon puts enough light into the desertscape and the brightly shining Venus serves as a direction mark to slowly walk back to the pickup. The cool evening wind, however, is a nuisance at first, but once we dried off the sweat and the cooling stopped, it is a rather nice and soothing breeze. By 8:15 PM we are snug inside, ready to fall asleep, which is however impossible due to the shaking and jolting of the car. By 9:00 PM we get a late dinner at the Research Center and retire to the rooms. Horst-Volker and I enter the data of today’s work into our Excel spreadsheet which allows us to look at a first map quickly. 

Friday, 16th of September, 2005

The Longest Lava Tube

Back at Al Fahda Cave the next morning, we split up in two groups: Horst-Volker and I making multiple flash pictures in the larger section of the makai (downward) passage while Ahmad and Mahmoud try to push the southern continuation of the second entrance. They clear the entrance of rocks, but still cannot get more than two meters inside...

Stephan Kempe (left) and Horst-Volker Henschel, (right) on Faial Island in the Azores, behaving just like typical geologists, during a field trip organized by the XI International Symposium on Vulcanospeleology.




At 1:30PM we start surveying the mauka (uphill) passage whose average height is no more than 90 cm  while the width averages 6.5 m. Overall the entire passage is a series of low to very low crawls and stoop passages. One rarely can stand up. Together with a branch beyond Station 67, the new horizontal length calculation for Al-Fahda Cave is a total of  923.50 meters. (This makes Al-Fahda cave the longest surveyed lava tube on the Arabian Peninsula—Editor)

The main passage is pushed beyond the turn-around point of the first exploratory trip by Ahmad, Mahmoud and Ibrahim some weeks ago. The end is reached within 35 m through another “Hall” by 3:15 PM. It is marked by a pile of sediment blocking the passage. How this pile got into this position is hotly debated. So far we have not seen piles of sediment even below cracks where clearly sediment from the surface has entered. Furthermore there is no crack above the crest of the pile. Hyenas have tried to dig beyond the pile. Did they manage to move about one cubic meter of sediment? Why would they do it?

The big surprise is the side passage branching off at 11m from St. 67. We follow it for 46 m, but then only Mahmoud has the guts to go on. The rest of us either would not fit, or are too tired after those many, many meters of crawling. Thus we have to leave an open, albeit very low lead. Mahmoud says he has visited about 50 m of passage. The plot shows that the “side passage” might joint the main passage beyond the terminal sediment pile. We therefore hope that the cave continues and that another 140 m might be netted to crack the 1 km limit. Whatever the case, Al-Fahda Cave is already the longest in Jordan.

…Ahmad disappears into the horizontal crawl leading SW and we do not hear from him until all of us are in the crawl, trying to survey it, when he comes screaming back: “A snake, a huge snake, at least two meters long!”

Of Hyenas and Caves

The mauka (uphill) passage is a true haven for hyenas—their dens and their typical white coprolites are everywhere! The hyenas tend to dig dens at the sides of the passage, thereby moving sediment to the center of the passage giving the floor a peculiar convex form. There are, however, not so many bones in this part of the cave, but dens, coprolites and fragments of bones occur again all the way to the terminal room. We ask ourselves what is the survival advantage of going that far into caves (birthing places?) and who was the enemy from which the hyenas had to retreat that far (lions? wolves?). Apparently the hyenas play a large role in redistributing the sediment, enriching it with their feces (apatite) and therefore with phosphates. We have seen digging places of the hyenas (or foxes?) at places where contraction cracks reach the floor, as if they where trying to tap water coming down the cracks.

The mineralization in this part of the cave is different. Gypsum crystals and very, very small anthodites and needles occur in the terminal room. In the back there are many calcite (?) speleothems, ceiling crusts, stalactites, draperies and coralloid forms, all of them are in a state of dissolution. This observation contains a piece of paleoclimate information:  The speleothems must have formed when there was more vegetation than today, in order to create a high PCO2 which in turn could dissolve the lime. In the back of the cave very thin, bluish-gray crusts are observed, the nature of which we cannot guess.

The basalt of the cave appears to be rather weathered: at places the ceiling is full of large cavities, similar to the weathering in sandstones. Here a harder outer crust is preserved, while the inner part of the stone is weakened and eventually crumbles and is removed. Also exfoliation is common, causing weakened layers to hang down in curls from the ceiling.

The Lamp of Aladdin

At 5:10PM we are back at the entrance and Ahmad and Mahmoud begin to collect rock samples for RFA Analysis. I therefore hunt around and incidentally discover an antique oil lamp, sticking like Aladdin’s lamp in a little pocket of the ceiling near the entrance and 4 m from St. 5. It is about 8.5x4.5 cm in size and made of reddish clay. It has ornaments on its top. On both sides we find two centered circles flanking a triple strip design. Between the oil infill opening and the wick opening there is a cross like the Greek chi and a sort of roof over it. It could be a so-called Christus monogram featuring the first two letters Chi and Rho of Christos. My guess therefore is that the lamp is of Byzantine age. In the evening we contact the group of Italian archeologists working in the area and their Jordanian colleague. He also suggests Byzantine as a general age. Ahmad will give the lamp to the archeologists in his new institute. Hopefully they will find out a more exact date for this well preserved archeological specimen.

We are back at the car at about 7 PM and can just enjoy the colorful sunset over the desert. At 7:30 we are back in Safawi where we get a large and varied dinner to rebuild our strength.

Al-Haya Cave

Sunday, 18th of September, 2005

We drive to Um Al-Qutain and proceed to the northern flank of the Makais volcano, about 2 km west of the larger and more prominent Quais volcano. It is a c. 150 m high cinder cone which produced alkali basaltic cinders and blocks (fragmented bombs) and some lava flows. These form a star-shaped pattern around the foot of the volcano and here we find the highest concentration of pressure ridge caves yet encountered. At first, we approach a cave Ahmad had entered before and closed up after leaving...

Clearing the entrance to Al-Haya Cave.


This cave opens at the top of a small hill and is surrounded by an old (proven by undisturbed whitish lichen) stone defense c. 20 m across. The place is literally littered with flint flakes and flint tools. All are very small (typically not exceeding 5 cm in length) and we can identify small knives and scrapers. No ceramics are found, thus the site could be Neolithic.

Ahmad and Mahmoud clear the entrance and we proceed with the external survey. In the meantime we are joined by Abu-Hamat, a Bedouin who owns a sheep herd which he and his wife and a son are tending from a camp just 200 m south.

Inside Al-Haya Cave.


Snake alert!

Ahmad disappears into the horizontal crawl leading SW and we do not hear from him until all of us are in the crawl, trying to survey it, when he comes screaming back: “A snake, a huge snake, at least two meters long!” So, we leave and the cave now has a name: Al-Haya Cave.

The Bedouin comes back with his gun and hands it to Mahmoud (who, being a police officer, knows how to use it). However, we agree that it would not be a good idea to fire a gun in the cave. To be safe he takes the cartridge out and we carry (to please our host) the gun to the next corner in the cave and stash it there. After feeling much better about the snake, we all enter and continue the survey.

 The snake is still curled up between several blocks near the center of the cave and we try to get some pictures of it to identify it. The Bedouin says it is a “Rayta” (some viper apparently). It may be a meter long and has a pattern of dark large spots in a light meshwork, a triangular head with a noticeable neck and a marked band across the eyes.  Mahmoud is left to watch the snake as the rest of us survey the cave.


A glimpse of the celebrated snake.


After the initial crawl (6 m) the cave leads down a sediment slope of dark red-brown fine soil (a color we had not seen before and unlike the ubiquitous loess) and then opens up to standing height and a width of up to 6 m. The roof is nicely arched and features some short blunt lava stalactites. After 26 m the roof comes down to 1m and some breakdown has occurred on the right, the place where the snake has retreated to. Beyond, the ceiling stays low. The cave continues for another 46 m. The last 5 m are, however, too low to be negotiated.


Later we ask Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Böhme of the Museum König in Bonn about the snake and he identifies it as a Spalerosophis diadema cliffordii Schlegel, 1837(Arabic: Bou m'raiat or  ar'am (arkam) ahmar, German: Diademnatter, English: Clifford’s snake or Diadem snake). It is a typical mouse hunter and apparently quite harmless and common.

The snake seems to be saying, "Why all the fuss? Are you men or are you mice?"


Skulls and another Mummy

The main features of the cave are its very dusty and dry sediment and its rich bone deposits. We identify many dog/wolf skulls, at least 10, but also horse, cow (skull removed to test if it is an old one) sheep and one human skull cap. We only see one hyena skull. Hyena dens are, however, prominent and occur along the sides of the passages. Again the animals tend to burrow along the sides and to move sediment towards the middle of the cave. We also find one mummified fox which we removed for an exhibition in the Reiss-Engelhard Museum in Mannheim.

Overall, the cave is a prime target for a paleontological investigation!


We arrive at Abu Ali’s house shortly before sunset. Abu Ali was our driver, organizer and tireless tea cook during the last two expeditions. He and his family are waiting to greet us and we spend a few moments in his living room drinking tea, cola and water and talking about “old times” and the adventures of this season. Ahmad relates his snake adventure most imaginatively, worthy of a tale from 1001 nights… On the way back, Venus, Mercury and the full, yellow golden moon keep us company along the Baghdad road to the Badia Research Center in Safawi...


Abu Ali, veteran of several caving expeditions.


...We are home for a late dinner and just manage to put the new data into the computer before hitting the sheets most heavily.

Monday, 19th of September, 2005

Today we split into two groups: Ahmad and Mahmoud plus Ibrahim (a local Bedouin) go and push the mauka (upward) side passage in Al-Fahda Cave. They come back by 6 PM and have in fact surveyed another 50 m in what is marked as “Mahmoud’s Test Passage” on the map, since it was all flat-out belly crawl. Our hope to get around the sediment choke at the end of the main mauka passage did not pan out. The Test-Passage also becomes lower and lower, until too low to be negotiated. The laser Disto showed another 10 m of passage, but there is no way to make progress. As mentioned above, the total length of the cave came to 923 m and we were disappointed that we could not reach the 1 km mark.

Thursday, 21th of September, 2005

We sleep until 8AM have a nice breakfast. Abu Jusuf leaves for the University to return the pickup and bring Ahmad’s car. We then say goodbye to him, ending the expedition.

The only thing to do is to pack the hyena mummy, which is accomplished with more bags, lots of Styrofoam and an old TV-box. We ship it directly to the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim.

At 7:00 AM the next morning we are in Frankfurt. From there we take the bus home and I fall asleep at about 9:30 in my own bed.

Stephan Kempe


Dr. Ahmad and the Pints, in Jordan