Exploring Petra’s Diversity

This year’s Day of Archaeology falls during the first half of the field season of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP). Managed by the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, BUPAP is a multi-disciplinary research project that hopes to understand the development of Petra and its surrounding landscapes diachronically, both through regional survey and excavation at individual sites.

The Petra Area and Wadi Silaysil Survey in action (Photo by Linda Gosner).

Portrayals of Petra have historically focused on the monumental city- images of the Siq, the royal tombs, the Treasury, and the Great Temple imbedded into popular culture through the likes of Indiana Jones and countless other representations. BUPAP looks to build upon this past research and public interest, to contextualize our understanding of Petra’s diversity, and to ask new questions of the city and its surroundings including periods and places that have generally received little academic attention. Our fieldwork is split into four interrelated projects: the Petra Upper Market Area (PUMA) involves excavation, geophysical survey, and architectural studies in the city center; the Petra Area and Wadi Silaysil Survey (PAWS) is an intensive and systematic regional survey focused on the area north of the city; the Bayda Islamic Village (BIV) features excavation and mapping of an Islamic settlement; and the Petra Routes Project (PRP) investigates local and regional communication and travel. These are four diverse and exciting projects which we hope will bring some new ideas to the study of the city.

Our excavation team hard at work.

The diversity of both the site and the project is also represented in our project team. We’re lucky to work with an international group of established scholars, graduate students, and professional architects from the US, Jordan, Malta, Canada, Italy, Germany, Colombia, and Macedonia. We also rely on strong ties to the local community to understand the site in both its ancient and modern context. Besides the obvious academic benefits of such a broad range of contributors, our international team also makes for a lively and enjoyable workday and dig house.

Since Friday is our day off, we don’t have much to report from site today- you can check out posts by our team members Andy Dufton or Allison Mickel to learn more about what our team gets up to during the break. You can also check in at our Facebook page if you’re interested in learning more about the project, or keeping up with our latest finds and updates.

A Day of Archaeologists

Much of archaeology, especially in academia, comes down to how you spend your summer vacation. After finishing up the first year of a PhD at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University, this summer I’ve been making the project circuit in Italy and Jordan, the latter as part of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project.

Today was the day off for the team, and met with a slow start after a late night of football and dancing under the stars on the roof of the dig house (aka Club Sayhoun). Day off or no day off, five of us were up early and ready for a six hour hike to Jebel Harun, the grave of Aaron (Arabic: Harun), brother of Moses. And what a hike it was- you can all check out Allison’s post detailing just why visiting the tomb has been a pilgrimage for almost two thousand years. To add to her sparkling narrative would hardly do it justice, so instead I’m going to focus on the archaeologists with whom I spent the day hiking to the top of the known Petra world.

The hiking team (from left to right): Sarah Craft, Andrew Moore, Linda Gosner, and Allison Mickel

Crafty just finished up the fourth year of her PhD at the Joukowsky Institute. She researches pilgrimage sites in central Turkey, so was mixing business and ‘pleasure’ in hiking up what seemed like 10000m in 30+ degree desert sun. She’s also been a great friend in my first year at Brown in showing me both the school and the city, and will be sorely missed this coming year as she lives in Istanbul with a fellowship at the Koç University Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations.

I just met Andrew this year at Petra, where he’s working for the first time after finishing his MA at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the last week I’ve already discovered he has a wicked sense of humour and, after today, I also know the man is a beast when it comes to an intense hike. I’m sure there must be some goat blood in his family tree somewhere.

Linda is another Brown student, so I’ve had the chance to get to know her pretty well in the last year. Aside from a shared love of dance (NB- she can actually dance, and I cannot), and a mutual hope for a Spain win against Italy on Sunday, we’ve also spent the last year in classes and brushing up on Latin to varying degrees of success. If I wanted to embarrass us both, I’d post the video of us re-enacting the opening scenes of the Lion King on the mountain today. I think this time discretion is the better part of valor.

Allison is another person I’ve had the good fortune to meet this season at Petra, and has just finished up her first year of a PhD at Stanford. We’ve already had some great chats about communicating archaeology to the public. I don’t know how she made it up the mountain after a serious bout of sickness yesterday, but after some strategic shady stops, a lot of water, and even more stairs we emerged victorious to greet the others and have some lunch.

Exhausted. A pilgrimage really is all about the journey.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of the discussion of archaeology focusses on the archaeology itself- on the site, the materials, the landscape, the archive, the publication. But at least to me, the personal interactions on days like today leave a more lasting impression. Meeting and developing friendships with these people- the archaeologists, my peers- is the thing that is ultimately the most rewarding aspect of a career in archaeology. I’m looking forward to similar days of archaeological pilgrimage, both in the rest of my season with BUPAP and in the future.

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.