Going into the fifth week of the Petra North Ridge Project, it has become common to hear students discussing their return to the United States, but recently with a subtle shift in vocabulary. Where, at the beginning of the trip, post-PNRP plans would be discussed with a prefix of “when I get home”, or describing cultural differences as “at home [it’s this way]”, now I more often hear students discussing “when I get back to the States” or “in the U.S. [it’s this way]”. Indeed, the PNRP house has become home for many of us. There are certainly aspects I won’t miss (I can’t wait for air conditioning and decent water pressure!), but there are many traditions, both within Jordanian culture and the PNRP house, I will miss. For every frustration I’ve felt over the omnipresent heat, dust, and room-temperature drinking water, I’ve had two redeeming experiences. The people I’ve met and relationships I’ve forged over the last few weeks alone are enough to make the entire trip worth it, let alone the incredible experiences I have had.
The PNRP experience has been an all-encompassing one. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the desert, dig, and days off have been unforgettable. Who on the project will be able to forget the first time they saw the Khazneh? Or the grating tune of “that song” that the Bedouin workers play constantly in the trenches and tombs? For lack of a better organizational pattern (thanks, high school English classes), I figured it’d be easiest to describe my experiences by enumerating the senses.
Jordanian culture and the PNRP experience has been at the very least a treasure of visual stimulus. The view from my new dig site (B.7) alone is more beautiful than any work environment I’ve been in. I’ve beheld the glittering waters of both the Red Sea and the Dead Sea (glittering because of the reflection of the blistering sun, but that’s a different matter). I’ve learned (or, let’s face it, am still learning) skills such as balk drawing and recognizing minute differences in soil color. I’m also becoming more proficient in identifying bone fragments, a skill I sorely lacked upon arrival. In terms of culture, it’s been a refreshing change to enter a store and, instead of being greeted by sullen teenagers working minimum wage and ever-present price tags, be met by friendly store owners who, though often over-eager, name you a price with a shrug and a smile. Everywhere we are met by welcoming smiles.
View from the tombs
PNRP has definitely provided a cacophony of sounds, to the point where I’m not sure how I’ll sleep at home without the familiar symphony of donkey braying, children shouting, and the 3 AM call to prayer. Those who are musically inclined could make their way to the roof to join in the musical stylings of Diana and Daniel, but woe to those without a prodigious knowledge of folk and bluegrass. Pottery washing, or really any gathering of students or staff, is punctuated frequently by raucous laughter. I don’t think I’ve experienced a silent moment since I arrived.
The taste experience has been a singular one for me. As a self-identified picky eater, I was wary about traveling somewhere so foreign, but have been pleasantly surprised by most of the food. Badriya’s “upside down” is a dish unparalleled by any other I’ve tasted here. I didn’t even know I liked tea until I became a regular at the daily break for Bedouin chai. And somehow, someone always has Pringles, which I would definitely call an unexpected taste experience.
Unlike the other senses, I think my fellow students would agree that the smell experience has not been as pleasant. With the ever-present smell of dirt (or is that just dirt caked to the inside of my nose?), donkeys, camels, sweat, cigarette smoke, and the dig bathrooms with toilets that don’t flush, I think I’ve stopped being disgusted by bad smells. Even this is redeemed, however, by the smell of dinner cooking wafting to the roof during pottery washing, chai brewing in the mornings, and the sweet smoke from the narghile (hookah).
There have been many new sensations I’ve experienced in the dig and on my days off. The one that sticks out the most is probably the sense of weightlessness I felt when floating in the Dead Sea, and then, soon after that, the intense burning of salt water in every tiny cut or scrape on my hands, arms, or legs. As many of us were plagued by bug bites and small excavation-related cuts or scrapes, I think this is a feeling we share. An almost constant sensation is that of the sun burning and sand blowing on any exposed area of skin during the day in the field or on the roof during pottery washing. I’ve learned to distinguish between human and faunal bone by touch more than sight and have crumbled more sandstone between my fingers than I can remember (it’s oddly cathartic). I’ve felt the muscles in my arms, legs, and back grow stronger with each hike up the North Ridge and each goofah I sift. I’ve savored the soft fabric of brightly colored pashminas and worn down the pads of my thumbs rubbing dirt off of pottery sherds, faunal bones, and rocks (most often thinking them to be bone or pottery sherds). I have certainly learned how important the sense of touch is to the field of archaeology in properly identifying and excavating artifacts and bones.
PNRP has been a wealth of new experiences, and I can honestly say that I’m very sad it’s almost over. As I sit in the kitchen writing and looking out the window to the village of Umm Seihon and the desert landscape, I know that Petra and the PNRP will always have a special place in my memory.