Weekly Reports from Jordan

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July 21-27, 2008

Merlè Otto-Steenbergen, Canadian University College

Skeleton FullMonday was an eventful day at the tell. Square 7K33 in Field M discovered what they first thought was a jar with an unusual handle. Further careful digging revealed that it was actually a skull. Square supervisor Sean Haskell and team members Lynne Fulton and Dana Waters worked carefully with osteologist Julie Cormack who painstakingly extricated the complete skeleton of a small male believed to be about 35 years old. Romel, from the Department of Antiquities explained that it was a Muslim burial, indicated by the position of the head (turned south toward Mecca) and the position of the hands. Skeleton Close Up(Usually both hands are on the abdomen, but in this case, the left hand was positioned on the abdomen and the right arm was by the side, palm down.) The remains were carefully measured and analyzed by before they were handed over to the workmen for re-burial elsewhere on the tell. All of this was accomplished with care and sensitivity.

There was also a sad mishap in Field L, but without disastrous results. A balk collapsed, sending Julia Piper about 3 meters to the bottom of her square. Dr. Gary Huffaker and nurse Carolyn Waldron were on site, but an ambulance was called and Julia was transported to the hospital. X-rays and a CAT-Scan revealed that there were no fractures, and Julia came home to ATC to recover. Carolyn Waldron provided ice that had been frozen in plastic bottles, and physiotherapist Alice Holinger provided some practical information on exercises and walking with crutches. Although her injuries are painful, Julia remains courageous, having an indomitable spirit and a strong faith. On Wednesday, her colleagues from Wesley - Patricia Abell, Heather Hartmann, William Hawkins, Frankie and Kerry Revell, Rebecca Richards, and Martha Rose - arranged a pizza and ice cream evening picnic to share with Julia in the breezeway between the dorms and the cafeteria.

The German bone team announced the finding of a lion tibia. This is more exciting than the usual sheep and goat bones and indicates that large predators roamed this area at one time. Later in the week, they announced the finding of some ivory from an African elephant tusk - another exciting find!

On Monday evening, the Umayri team played host to another archaeological team (University of Toronto) led by Debra Foran, director of the Tall Madaba Archaeological Project. They came for supper and stayed to explain their project, including this year's finds.

Little things often mean a lot, especially here. On Tuesday morning, Liz Brown brought an Aero mint chocolate bar to the tell and when she saw all the begging looks of her fellow field members, she kindly shared. She was a bit reticent to divulge the source of this delicacy, but we did learn that it could be acquired locally.

There was some excitement when Ra'ad, one of the workmen, caught a little chameleon and showed it around the tell. Ivan LaBianca rescued the little creature and allowed me to hold it before transporting it to a safe environment. It stared up at me with eyes that rotate 360 degrees and clutched my shirt with its fused toes. This was a close encounter of the most interesting kind!

When special "finds" or constructions in the field are photographed in bright daylight, a large white sheet called a Joshua cloth is used to shield the image. When not in use, it is rolled up and kept in the tent on the site. Aren LaBianca, Field M Supervisor, unrolled the sheet in preparation for some daylight photos of finds in Field M and discovered a good-sized adult scorpion in the folds. He is going to re-think how he unrolls the cloth in the future. When the cloth is fully unrolled on a windy day, it takes at least a dozen people to keep the cloth earth-bound. Such was the case when the skeleton in 7K33 and the plaster "floor" in 7K34 were photographed. Imagine a giant sail, about 8 ft. x 15 ft. and you will have some idea of the challenge.

On Tuesday evening, the lecture was on site at the tell. It was interesting to be at the tell for sunset since we are always there for sunrise. The group learned from Doug Clark about daily life in the Iron Age as it might have occurred in the four-room house that has been reconstructed there.

Abimelech (Garrick Herr) Flanked by Denise Herr & Mary Boyd Abimelech Story From Bible & BAR ArticleWednesday was quite a unique day at Umayri. As Dana Waters tells it, there was "gore" at the tell, and not the "Al" variety. Denise Herr and Mary Boyd led the women of the tell in the assassination of Abimelech. The Bible story in Judges 9 relates that evil wannabe-king Abimelech had been killed by a millstone launched by a woman. Abimelech the WatermelonSeveral recent authors have disputed this, saying that it would have been impossible for a woman to accomplish such a feat, but Denise and Mary countered that argument in an article that they wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review and set out to prove that it, indeed, a woman could have tossed a millstone; thus began the tradition of the Abimelech assassination at Tall Al Umayri. (Of course, this Abimelech is only a watermelon, but it graphically illustrates the point!) We have found many millstones at the dig site and so each woman was invited to grab a millstone (substitute), as these can easily be carried in one hand, and climb to the top of the four-room house. From there, the millstones were launched at "Abimelech" down below.

Abimelech Women Millstone Throwers on HouseThe winning assassin this season was Lynne Fulton, and Kasey Brandt made sure the job was done.

Abimelech Women Millstone TossersWe also had a special visitor at the dig site on Wednesday. Faris Nimry, Executive Director of the new Jordan National Museum, came to have a look. He is interested in the archaeological activity in the region and wants to institute an education program that will encourage Jordanians, especially Jordanian children, to understand and appreciate their history. The new 100,000 ft. museum in downtown Amman is slated to open in mid to late 2009. Our own Ela Dubis has been excavating a Dolmen site at Umayri and has some interesting finds that may end up in the museum.

Excavators in Square 7K24 in Field M found a huge storage jar. The opening of the jar could perfectly frame the face of Jimmy Arsenault, who proudly, but carefully, carried the pieces on the bus back to ATC. Martha Rose from Field L reported finding a bone needle (about quilting size with a very small hole) and a ring.

Although the movie scheduled for Wednesday night was Kingdom of Heaven, it ended up being a whole season of the Canadian TV series, Little Mosque on the Prairie. The administrative staff was out for a dinner/planning evening and the movie crowd was sparse, so the final audience of two (Jenn Ayles and Lynne Fulton) made it their choice.

LB Iron 1 Ceramic FlaskOn Thursday, Field A found a beautiful, almost intact Late Bronze/Iron I painted flask. Krista Watson helped Aaron Davis (the finder) and me to reassemble the flask for one more photo opportunity after it had been dismantled after pottery reading. It is very exciting to find a piece of painted pottery, especially when it is in such good condition!

The two most dreaded crises of dorm life are lack of water and lack of toilet paper. A serious toilet paper crisis was averted when a few crucial rolls were found to tide the two girls' dorms over until more could be purchased. Sighs of relief all around!

Thursday afternoon following pottery reading, we were treated to two demonstrations important in the field of archaeology. The first was a flotation demonstration by Jennifer Ramsay, a doctoral candidate in archaeobotany at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., Canada. She showed how seeds, grains, and other botanical materials can be isolated by flotation in water using a mesh and a series of graduated sieves. The isolated materials can then be studied in a lab to determine many things about daily life in a given period. The second demonstration was given by Germans Angela von den Driesch, retired Professor of Veterinary Medicine, and Nadja Poellath, Professor of Archaeology specializing in bones. Angela has helped to establish many of the criteria by which bones are currently analyzed. It is amazing the amount of information that can be determined from the weight and measurement of animal bones!

Thursday night's Town Hall (the last of the dig) covered the Late Iron Age and Hellenistic Period in the Madaba Plains, as well as textiles in antiquity and a website on the four-room house. Presenters were David Hopkins, Mary Boyd, and Ellen Bedell. Following the presentations, activity spilled out onto the basketball court. While Mary Boyd was demonstrating the use of a rolag for spinning wool, something more "sinister" was happening further out on the court. Field M had delivered a challenge to Field B to engage in a pillow fight at 20:30 on the court. Since Field B was a "no show," Field M simply decided on internal warfare. There was a lot of yelling and whacking as Darren Heslop , Jimmy Arsenault, Elinor Matthews, and Jennifer Ayles took to the court, cheered on by Lynne Fulton; however there was no crying, even when Jimmy Arsenault drew first blood. The victim was Jennifer Ayles and the affronted part of her anatomy was her nose! Being a good soldier, Jenn did not shed even the tiniest tear.

For some of us, Friday was the last really tough dig day (at least as far as moving dirt goes!). Field B had spent the night hatching a way to make up for missing the pillow fight engagement. So, the first thing in the morning, while Field M was still planning the day's dig strategy , Garrick and Stephanie Herr, Lindsey Hill, and Danielle Huffaker delivered their rejoinder as the Mongoose Masters in the form of a little ditty. Of course this was a very clever bit of one-upsmanship and so the Mongoose Masters trumped the Cobra Commanders...at least this time. The toughness of the dig day came later when Aren LaBianca gave the OK for one more peel of Square 7K34. This means digging down 10-15 cm. across the whole square and sifting through all the dirt that is removed. This task might have been impossible given the time frame, but all members of Field M who were finished with tasks in their own squares pitched in and the mission was accomplished. At one point, there were 4 sifts going non-stop in order to process all the dirt and finds!

Friday was also time to say hello to Laurie Waters (wife of Rob Saley ) who arrived from the U.S. Rob had been counting the days (probably hours and minutes, more likely!). Welcome, Laurie! It's great to say hello, but we also have to say goodbye to individuals and groups who leave throughout the season. The 4 Poles who came to work with Ela Dubis left in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and the German team left early Sunday morning.

Saturday dawned with some clouds and cool breezes - a lovely day for our tour of 4 eastern desert "castles." Although these are termed castles, most of them are not really castles at all. Our first stop was at Kharana, which was probably a caravanserai (a place where camel caravans could stop for rest and protection as they journeyed from Arabia to Damascus.) In this 2-storey square "castle," we noted the arrow slits in the thick walls and inscriptions which may have indicated tribal messages such as, "This is a good place to hunt deer." Our bus managed to stay one step ahead of Italian and Spanish tour busses that were also visiting the desert castles, but when we arrived at our second stop, Amra, there was a large truck hauling huge stones (bigger than honkers!) that was stopped right across the entrance road. It appeared that the driver was fixing something on one of the rear wheels and was not interested in moving; however, after some animated discussion with our driver, Jamal, the truck driver reluctantly moved the truck. Amra, a very small "castle" with vaulted ceilings, was an Islamic bath house. This bath house has some very beautiful and unusual frescoes; Islamic art does not usually depict people and animals, but in the frescoes here, there were many depictions of animals and erotic scenes of naked women. Just to embellish this experience, a local native in Jordanian garb played an authentic oud and sang along, his voice echoing in the intimate space. During the journey, we learned about the large teapot sculptures that we had seen in some traffic circles, and also, desert kites. The teapot is a very important symbol of Jordanian hospitality. Desert "kites," lines of stone walls forcing animals into one place and visible from the air, were actually hunting sites similar to the native bison jumps in parts of Canada and the U.S.

Azraq, meaning blue (azure), was our third stop. At one time this was an important bird migration route because of the lakes and marshes, but they dried up in the 1920s. Azraq is an extensive walled basalt settlement built during the time of Constantine and Diocletian; hence, there are many Greek and Latin inscriptions. An important feature of the construction is the corbelling between the spans of rocks. This is the place where Lawrence of Arabia wintered in 1917.

The fourth and last stop on our tour was Mushatta, near the Amman airport. The facade of this impressive palace was taken to Berlin and is housed in the Pergamum Museum, but from the few remaining columns and capitals showing intricate Arabesque decoration, it was not hard to imagine how spectacular this building was in its glory days. Larry Herr compared it to the El Hambra in Spain. As we approached the Madaba Plains on the journey home, our bus driver pulled over and stopped. This was a mystery to most of the passengers until it was determined that there was a "problem." The engine was overheating, but with help from Larry Herr who filled water bottles from the bathroom tap in the bus, the driver managed to deposit us safely at "home," the Amman Training College.

Although the work is not yet finished, Saturday evening was essentially our formal "wrap party." Barely recognizable dig participants, dressed in their party finery, were transported by bus to the Seven Hills Restaurant on an adjacent hill to Tall al-`Umayri. Seated on an outdoor terrace overlooking Amman, we enjoyed a traditional mansaf. To partake of this, you need a clean right hand and some dexterity. Participants gather around a table on which has been placed a mountainous platter of rice and goat meat topped with a yogurt sauce. The object is to scoop a small ball of the food into your mouth without touching your lips or licking your fingers. This is an experience not to be missed! The evening was also an opportunity to present a Master's degree to Husam Shahroor, who was there with his family. Husam had earlier graduated with an MBA from La Sierra University in California, but was unable to attend the ceremony, so the ceremony came to him. Doug Clark officiated and the audience hummed "Pomp and Circumstance." A special highlight of the evening was an appreciation for Denise and Larry Herr, who are retiring from the dig. There were many accolades, and gifts of a teapot and tea set, as well as the promise of a night at the Banff Springs Hotel. The tea set was appropriately wrapped in sticky notes for sticky note queen, Denise. This was a beautiful evening in a beautiful setting with beautiful people. An appropriate "wrap."

On Sunday morning, work continued at the dig and in "camp." There were bones to clean and move, rocks to sort, objects to label, etc. There is a lot of work involved in setting up and taking down an archaeological expedition of this scale. On Sunday afternoon, there was an excursion to the Dead Sea hosted by Larry Murrin. It was termed a "Dead Sea Frolic," and frolic we did. The air can be suffocatingly hot at the Dead Sea, but it was bearable when we went. The temperature of the water is very warm, but all enjoyed the weightless sensation of the water without any salty mishaps. Some took their enjoyment a step farther and covered themselves in mud. This was another great photo opportunity, and Liz Brown and Ivan LaBianca were just two of the many who posed. As we left the Dead Sea in the cool of the evening, we could see the lights of Jerusalem and Jericho on the other side. When we got home, there was just time for a quick shower before hitting the mattress.

[Photos courtesy of Douglas R. Clark and MPP-`Umayri]

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