George Washington University

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.

A day in the life of a National Finds Adviser for the PAS

I work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme as the Deputy Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins and part time as a Roman Finds Adviser. It’s my job to help our national network of Finds Liaison Officers to identify and record all the tricky coins and artefacts brought in by metal detectorists to record and to emphasise their research potential. Every day working for the Scheme is different. The past couple of weeks have seen me give lectures at metal Detecting Clubs in Liverpool and the Wirral, attend a conference on Roman coins from Britain and record more than 1000 coins from new sites discovered throughout the country. This entry gives a snapshot of what I’ve been doing today.

9.15am: I arrive at work at the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum and spend the next half hour answering email queries from finders and Finds Liaison Officers. Answering queries is a major part of my role. Today, I’ve identified and referenced a couple of coins from the Isle of Wight, where the FLO, Frank Basford, works very hard with detectorists to record as many objects as possible. As a result, he has recorded more than 1500 Roman coins for the island which has totally changed our understanding of the Roman period there.
9.45am: I check in to the Finds Liaison Officers’ Finds Forum and leave a couple of opinions on objects posted there. One of the FLOs wants to know where he can find examples of iron Roman brooches, whilst another queries whether an unusual wire feature on the foot of a Roman brooch is a repair or part of its decoration. I make a note to flick through some Roman catalogues later to try and find parallels. I post a map of the distribution of Roman knee brooches recorded by the PAS which I’ve been working on and it provokes some interesting discussion from FLOs…
10.20am: I start putting together a provisional object and image list for a display on ‘Roman coins as religious offerings’ which will form part of a new Money Gallery at the British museum. I want to use a combination of objects from the museum’s collections and some reported through the PAS. I choose a selection of coins found in the River Thames at London Bridge, some cut and mutilated coins from a range of sites throughout the country and decide it would be a good idea to also have some artefacts too. I therefore email the curators in the Department of Prehistory and Europe to see whether they have any votive objects in their reserve collections which might be suitable. I’m hoping for a miniature object and a lead curse tablet!
1pm: Lunch and a bit of a rest!
2pm: I check up on my intern, Victoria, an MA student in Museum Studies from George Washington University. She’s spent the summer recording coins on the PAS database and scanning accompanying images and has done an amazing job, entering more than 1000 over the past month. We get a lot of help from students and volunteers and I hope they get as much out of it as we do!
2.30pm: Back to the museum display. I’ve just found out I have to write the general display text to accompany my finds by Monday. It’s only 80 words explaining the theme of my display but I think it’s going to be a bit of a challenge.
3pm: Start recording part of a large assemblage of coins from a site in Wiltshire which looks like it might be a Roman temple site. Amongst the coins are about 20 pierced with iron nails – possible evidence of a ritual practice I aim to investigate in more detail later. I add these coins to my spreadsheet of ‘mutilated coins’ recorded by the PAS and will come back to them next week when I start writing an article on ‘Cut and mutilated Roman coins recorded by the PAS’.
4pm: I start collecting together all the reference works and recording sheets that Victoria and I will need tomorrow. We’re going to a Finds Day in Sussex as part of a team of FLOs and PAS Finds Advisers to record coins and objects. Getting out and about to let people know about the Scheme is really important. We’re hoping to see some interesting finds and meet some new finders..