Archives for the month of: June, 2012

Megan Perry explains the analysis of human bones from one of the excavated tombs to some of her students.

Yesterday we began what archaeologists call “close-down”, the critical phase immediately after the end of excavation but before leaving base camp. These days are devoted to final photographs and drawing in the field, processing artifacts, checking and double-checking records, backing up data, and writing final reports.  It is a hectic time but absolutely vital for the success of any field season as it is often impossible to retrieve missing data once the team leaves the site. And as if the team is not busy enough finalizing all the data collection, many other tasks must also be completed simultaneously, such as back-filling the trenches, moving equipment into storage, and paying many bills and other expenses.

Normally close-down takes several days. But this season we need to do it all in just two days because another team from Brown University is coming in to our house the day after we leave to begin their field project here at Petra. Nevertheless at the beginning of our second day things are proceeding rather smoothly and we should complete our work by tomorrow morning and be ready to leave Petra.

Tonight, Dakhalah Goblan, our host and foreman of our workmen, has generously invited us to a traditional dinner here at his house for the entire team. It should be a wonderful way to end the 2012 season.

S. Thomas Parker

Workmen back-filling one of the trenches after completion of the excavation.


True to any archaeological field project, especially one involving large tombs, the “good stuff” turns up at the end. Most of the “tomb team” (Lauren, Lizzie, the two Annas, Rachel, Jessica, Carlos, Gina, and me) have spent our early afternoons (2:30 – 5:30) working on burials in the tombs. I am using that term loosely – really what we are dealing with is a mass of commingled skeletal remains above the floor, including 12 skulls in tomb B.5.  A few articulated skeletons are turning up in the mess, and in the built features within the tomb such as niches and “troughs”.

Today we spent most of our time getting the jumble of remains at the eastern end of B.5 ready for photos and drawing, and tomorrow we will remove them and work our way westward to see if there are more remains laid out at floor level.  After that we will tackle the two remaining niches and one floor shaft burial partially covered with capstones.  The skeletal remains in the “troughs” along the western and northern walls of tomb B.4 had mostly fallen to the floor, probably due to the occasional rainstorm that would wash into an open tomb.  Thus after clearing the “troughs”, we began articulating the bones in the soil below the troughs.  We also found an intact, articulated burial with a complete unguentarium next to its (her?) head.  Tomorrow we will finish drawing this burial and continue trying to find skeletal remains at floor level.

The strangest feature within tomb B.4 was the discovery of a “window” of sorts carved into the northwest corner of the chamber.  Within this space we found large pieces of flat molded window glass, suggesting that a window actually had been installed at some point.  There also is a round “window” opening into the tomb shaft.  It is unclear if these windows are accidental features due to carving the tomb through the bedrock face or were created on purpose.

We decided to close Tomb B.6 and tackle its tomb features in future excavations.  We feared that we would be so rushed that we would not be doing good archaeology.  At this point, in addition to tombs B.4 and B.5, excavation is ongoing only in Russell, Emily, and Caiti’s trench B.1, where they are trying to reach the structure floor but keep finding interesting things that slow them down!  As we are closing trenches, we also are planning our strategy for conservation and backfilling.  Petra’s role as a UNESCO heritage site means that we need to be responsible for leaving the site in serviceable condition.  At this point, until we have, for example, enough domestic structure walls to consolidate and restore, that primarily involves backfilling.  The tombs also will be backfilled, as they constitute a hazard with their deep shafts.  We anticipated this outcome at the end of the season, and so in most cases left our excavation dumps close to the excavation trenches, allowing easy backfilling.  However, the soil from the tombs present a difficult situation.  We sifted almost 100% of the soil removed from the tombs, and logistics regarding placement of the sifters, the prevailing winds, and the nature of the bedrock outcrops limited where we could dump this soil.  Unforunately, it will not be easy to remove the soil to backfill the tombs, or to even remove the soil to protect the integrity of the site.  We hope to come up with a workable solution the next couple of days.

–Megan Perry

Tom explaining our discoveries in the Area B domestic structures to the ACOR board and staff

Last Wednesday and Thursday Tom and I were in Amman for the meeting of the American Center of Oriental Research Board.  In my experience most people at the very least are ambivalent about, or even dread, board meetings – but the ACOR board consists of a lively mix of U.S. and Jordanian archaeologists/academics along with lay members with an interest in Jordan and archaeology – directors of other non-profits, former diplomats and

Chris Tuttle, ACOR Associate Director, discusses the work he is directing at the Temple of the Winged Lions while Director Barbara Porter, Tom Parker, and James Wiseman look on

government ministers, lawyers and financial folks…I look forward to our biannual gatherings.  We share a love for Jordan and supporting ACOR’s mission for Jordanian culture and archaeology.  I personally have benefitted from ACOR through my academic career, from receiving a Jennifer Groot fellowship to assist in travel expenses to my first excavation in Jordan in 1993 (at Tell Nimrin) to various pre- and post-doctoral fellowships to assist in my ongiong research, to their facilitating paperwork and other logistics for setting up archaeological field projects in the country.

Zaki Ayoubi (husband of ACOR librarian Humi Ayoubi), former U.S. ambassador to Jordan Skip Gnehm, and Tom at lunch

This year the post-meeting board trip consisted of a jaunt to Petra to see our excavation site along with ACOR’s ongoing conservation and restoration work at the Petra Church and the Temple of the Winged Lions.  Tom and I had a wonderful ride down with John Oleson (former director of the Humayma Excavation) and former U.S. ambassador Skip Gnehm, gossiping about fellow archaeologists and discussing the current Middle East political situation.

After the tour and some cleaning up, we reconvened at the ACOR project house in Wadi Musa for a wonderful catered dinner in the garden.  Joining the ACOR staff and board were members of the local archaeological community and specialists from the Winged Lions project.

Nisreen Abu al Shaikh, ACOR’s comptroller, former Associate Director (and original director of the Petra North Ridge Project from 1994 – 2002) Dr. Patricia Bikai, me, Petra Archaeological Park head of CRM Tahani Salhi, and her husband Sa’ad Rawajfeh (photo by Qais Essa)

The delightful ACOR house garden (photo by Qais Essa)

Today began of course our final week in the field, with most operations centering on removing the remaining tomb fill and revealing some of the internal features.  In B.4 we cleared the western and northern niches, only to disccover that the skeletal remains had been washed or fallen at some point into the residual soil below (which we had noted while clearing the tomb chamber fill).  The western niche contained an unusual array of very large fragments of Nabataean period storage jars.  Most of the students are now back in camp trying to tame our large backlog of ceramics that need to be washed – and have been joined by four local women (who, frankly, beat the students’ progress at an alarming rate!).  Our conservator is scrambling to catch up on photographing the small finds and special objects, many of which were found in the tombs (which means the flow will remain unbated all week).  Onward!

–Megan Perry

Lucy describing her work in the interior of Tomb 781

Today we were treated to a tour of several Nabataean rock-cut facade tombs in the Al-Kubtha area, southwest of the North Ridge but also within sight of the ancient city center. We were guided by Dr. Lucy Wadeson, who excavated these tombs as part of her doctoral dissertation research on Nabataean tombs at Oxford University in the UK. Lucy visited us for a week to learn more about bioarchaeology and Nabataean pottery. One of our students, Lindsay Holman, will join Lucy in Amman for a couple of weeks after our season to help analyze the  pottery from her project.

Last evening Lucy gave a great lecture at our dig house about her project, which made today’s on-site your much more informative. Knowledge of these monumental tombs is a nice complement to the more humble shaft tombs which are the focus of our project.

S. Thomas Parker

The Petra North Ridge Team outside one of Lucy’s tombs at Al-Kubtha at Petra.

Red plaster from the 3rd century (?) walls in Trench B.1

Our third week of excavation has been truncated by the upcoming American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.  As Tom and I are both Board members, we are leaving early Wednesday for Amman, leaving the excavation for the day in the capable hands our our Assistant Director, Jen Ramsey.  We return early Friday morning to give the board members a tour of our excavation, along with the ongoing work of ACOR (directed by Chris Tuttle) at the Temple of the Winged Lions and restoration of the Petra Church, and the Brown University-sponsored project directed by Chris and our fellow board member, Sue Alcock.

The students get the treat of a two-day weekend, Thursday and Friday.  They are heading off to explore and camp in Wadi Ramm, then heading on Thursday to Aqaba for snorkeling and general beach-related laziness, and plan on returning on Friday evening.  I think all of us could use a little break, despite the exquisite weather that we have been experiencing (upper 20s/low 30s during the day, upper teens at night).

We have closed out excavation in two of the three trenches in Area A, having reached the bottom of the city wall, the bottom of 1st century A.D. (?) domestic structures, and finally, bedrock.  The last trench seems to have been reused in later periods, into the 4th century it appears, and Geoffrey and Jordan have been going through successive floor layers, which has slowed down operations in this trench.

Khafiyyehs come in handy for post-sunrise photo shoots

Pamela and Carlos finally also reached bedrock in their room in trench B.3, which seems to have been an open courtyard – the room spans at least 6-7 meters, with no evidence of arch supports/springers – and that plus the beaten-earth surface has lead me to the theory that this is a courtyard, perhaps part of a larger structure.  It went out of use at the same time as the rooms in the structure just below that appears in Trenches B.1 and B.2 – B.1, with its architectural fragments and huge amount of painted plaster and molding, and well-cut ashlar blocks was decorated much finer than the room in B.2, which had the exceptional wall collapse.  We still hypothesize that these three areas (the courtyard and two lower rooms) were destroyed in the 363 A.D. earthquake.

Meanwhile, all man- and woman-power is focused on removing the fill from the tombs.  We appear to have two additional rectangular burial niches in Tomb B.4, and just about 20-30 cm of fill to remove from the chamber.  We have a bit more fill to remove from B.5, but the tomb architecture seems to parallel that of Tomb B.4, with burial niches on the left and right walls and one at the back of the chamber.  There are signs that some of these niches in B.4 may still contain painted plaster, which will only be confirmed once they are opened after the chamber fill has been removed.

Burial niche in the east wall of Tomb B.4 prior to excavation

Tomb B.6 has slightly different receptacles for burial of the corpse, in the form of rectangular graves cut into the floor, at least 4 (three to the north, one to the south).  This tomb was disturbed in antiquity as well as recently, for we found scattered human remains and numerous lamp fragments, almost complete bowls, figurine fragments, etc. in the layers just above the bottom of the shaft.  Today we began removing soil to the south of the shaft, and I hope that we at least find some intact burials.

We and our local workers are struggling through a flu outbreak that seems to have surfaced in Amman and inundated other archaeological teams.  Each day finds 2-3 people too sick to work.  I hope it ends quickly – for all of our sakes!

Megan Perry

Tonight I gave my second lecture of the season.  This is a field school, after all, so we have 2-3 lectures scheduled each week.  I spoke first on how the North Ridge fits into the history of Petra and the region, then Tom spoke about Roman period Jordan.  Jennifer Ramsey gave a talk on the importance of paleobotanical remains.  Christopher Tuttle was supposed to give a talk on his work in Petra, but he cancelled because he came down with theflu that is going around (and unfortunately seems to be working its way slowly through our folks as well).  Tonight I spoke on bioarchaeology and how it can be applied to answer archaeological and historical research questions in Petra.  Later on, our faunal analyst, Daniel Lowrey, will give a talk on zooarch, Lucy Wadeson from Oxford, who is visiting us for the week to learn more about studying human bones, will talk about her excavations with the International Khubta Tombs Project (followed by a tour the following day), and Tom will wrap things up during the final week summarizing the results of our excavation season.

“Everything You Wanted to Know about Paleobotany but Were Afraid to Ask”, a lecture by Jen Ramsey

This week will involve important decisions about what we will prioritze before ending the excavation.  As Tom mentioned in yesterday’s post, we are reaching bedrock in many of the Area A and B domestic structures.  We have decided that students and supervisors in closed trenches will focus on trying to tackle our significant ceramic backlog.  The flow of ceramics has been consistently heavy, and we are behind in washing and prelminary analysis of the sherds, not to mention registration of those being kept for further study.

Carrie precariously taking a photo of the wall fall in Trench B.2

Two areas will likely remain open into the next week – Trenches B.1 and B.2, within which we are exploring two rooms of a 2nd – 3rd century domestic complex (B.1 is the one with tons of red painted plaster that covered the walls, B.2 had the incredible wall collapse), and all of the tombs: B.4, B.5, and B.6.  Tomb B.4 is closest to being finished – at any rate, we know how much excavation is left and have a sense of the amount of funerary structures in the tomb.  We

reached the bottom of Tomb B.5, and incredible 3.08 meters below the bedrock surface, but the tomb chamber is completely filled with soil and we have no sense of how far back the chamber extends.  Hopefully we’ll gain that psychological relief tomorrow.  In B.6, we reached the bottom of the tomb to realize that the floor consists of sub-floor rectangular slots within which bodies were placed.  One can only hope that we finish before the end of the excavation season.

Megan Perry

Because of our relatively short dig season of just four weeks, we work six days a week. So today we enjoyed a day off on Friday (the Muslim holy day) after working six days. Most students took advantage of the day off to hike around Petra, a vast and magnificent archaeological site. One could easily spend several weeks here and see something new every day. Last night most students camped at Bayda (“Little Petra”) several kilometers north of the ancient city center and enjoyed the beautiful sunset.

We are quite pleased with our results thus far, having reached bedrock in several trenches and thus produced complete stratigraphic profiles in these excavation areas. So in some trenches excavation has slowed while we draw the vertical side walls (“baulks”) left in each trench as a two dimensional record of the succession of layers excavated layers from topsoil to bedrock.

We continue to be impressed by the sheer volume of finds, especially fragments of broken pottery (“sherds”). The Nabataeans were prolific and highly skilled makers of ceramics, both utilitarian and beautiful fine table wares. The fine wares, which can often be closely dated, permit us to date the associated structures, such as the tombs, the city wall, and the houses on the North Ridge. Some walls of the latter were decorated with red painted plaster.

S. Thomas Parker

Anna Hendrick with ranging rod for the project’s total station.