Living a Day of Archaeology by Hiking to Jebel Harun

This is Jebel Harun:

It’s the supposed site where Aaron (Harun in Arabic) died during the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt.  It’s the location of his tomb, and a mosque was built on the site in the 14th century.  You can see the gleaming white dome of the mosque from many points in the area around Petra, where I’m working this season with the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP).

Two years ago, I was working on a different project in the region, the Bir Madhkur Project, with Dr. Andrew M. Smith II (George Washington University).  Bir Madhkur is about 10 km northeast of Petra, and we talked many times about hiking to Jebel Harun.  But I never did.

So now, two years later, our dig house is walking distance from Petra’s city center—from which Jebel Harun is about a 6 hour round trip hike.  It is the perfect opportunity to accomplish things unaccomplished, to navigate more of this rocky landscape that always yields new discoveries and experiences: new tombs and shrines and beytels carved into the sandstone, more welcoming Bedouins urging you to take tea with them.  Today was our day off at BUPAP, and we planned all week to hike to Jebel Harun.

But then yesterday, I was hit with just another reality of the archaeological lifestyle: the tendency to get suddenly and violently ill.  It was graphic.  My body rejected even the smallest offerings of pita and water with astonishing force while I feverishly dreamt about mutant Bedouin dogs and riding a tractor to site.

And then, as quickly as I felt so sick, I felt much better.  I really, really wanted to hike to Jebel Harun.

I admit it. I was holding back before. This is Jebel Harun:

The hike was extremely difficult; not, as the Lonely Planet suggests, for the reasonably fit at all—more for those who have goat-blood coursing through their veins.  There were several times I was scoping the terrain for a safe helicopter landing. But ultimately, having lunch on top of Aaron’s tomb, being able to see Petra’s monastery from a perspective so few people get to see, looking around at that vast desert landscape and recognizing the tremendous capability of the various groups throughout history who have made it home—all of these things made every single dehydrated step entirely worthwhile.

And for me, this experience is entirely, fundamentally, archaeological.  So much of what we do involves preliminary assessment of resources, identifying sites, performing minimally invasive research like GPR and pedestrian survey—simply finding out what’s there.  Like my first archaeological project in Jordan, archaeologists spend a lot of time gathering the data necessary to make the case that intensive excavation—or conservation—should proceed.  We work extremely hard—and rightfully so—to justify our work since, as we so often repeat like a mantra, it integrally involves the destruction of cultural and historical resources.  We have the capability to determine, with a fair amount of certainty, whether we should excavate, whether this is the opportune moment to move forward, whether the benefits of digging in outweigh the costs.  And in the case of Jebel Harun—despite all the factors indicating this was not the opportune moment—the benefits most definitely outweighed the costs.

I’m certainly not implying that excavation is a perfect analogy to hiking up a mountain.  But as with excavation, there are some things that you can only learn by moving forward and doing.  I can tell you, for example, that the journey to the mosque at Jebel Harun is meant to be a pilgrimage. But no amount of descriptions of the loose rocks on steep inclines, no number of photographs of bleached goat skulls along the path can capture what that really means.

Like I said, my day today was fundamentally archaeological.  Even on a day off, living on an archaeological project, you breathe and eat and drink and sometimes upchuck archaeology.  But then you hike it, and it’s immediately clear why you dig it.