Weekly Reports from Jordan

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(Re)Discovering Jordan

Richard Dorsett, seasoned volunteer from the past

Back on the Tell – A Letter from ‘Umayri

Richard Dorsett, seasoned volunteer from the pastSo much that is ancient is underfoot when one stands on a tell. When you begin a new excavation season you imagine what lies below. To know, you have to dig. A mid-sized tell such as ‘Umayri, where I am working this summer, is a multi-period site that was once sustained by a now dry spring and was heavily occupied during the bronze and iron ages. We can’t, won’t dig it all up and wouldn’t if we could. Instead, we target key portions of the site and leave the rest for future investigators to explore. This year, on the south side of the site, we laid out a new ‘step trench,’ which is a series of excavation squares lined up to probe and expose ‘Umayri’s occupation history. It will provide answers to some of the questions we have about the history of the site and it will inevitably raise new ones.

I am fond of ‘Umayri. It was identified as ancient by an explorer in 1876, but then went unnoticed by archaeologists for the next century. It’s a good-sized tell, but until the modern highway to Jordan’s Queen Alia Airport was built, it was surrounded by other natural hills and missed by archaeologists until our regional survey team re-identified it in 1976. Digging began in 1984 and this is now the fifteenth season that our team has excavated ‘Umayri. (A dig season typically lasts 5-6 weeks and they occur about every other year.)

An archaeological excavation demands gear and supplies, perhaps more than you might think and our first task is always to unpack the storeroom, sort it out and arrange it so that it can be put to use when our team arrives. I had hoped a suitcase Daughter Kate and I had stored in 2002 would be around, but after a decade its contents were offered to local workers. Not an unreasonable fate, but I wish our Frisbees had survived the years. I had better hopes for the guitar I left behind and even brought new strings for it, but alas, it too went to a new home. When I arrived a crew had already been hired to haul the heavy tools from their third floor storage. It’s a lousy piece of work to carry sheets of plywood we’ll use for tables down flights of stairs. Lots to be hauled: crates, cups, crimpers, a photo drone (drones are in all of our futures), guffahs (buckets from recycled tires), handpicks, meshbags, nails, string, tags, knee pads, graph paper, rulers, brushes, paper bags, clothes pins, rubber bands, tables, dust pans, work gloves, clipboards toilet paper (lots) trowels, pencils, computer routers and all their supplies and wires, sledge hammers, rebar, buckets, plastic baskets, plumb bobs, sifts (we sift all that we dig), counters (to keep track of the numbers of buckets excavated), hoes, shovels, lights, teapots, first aid supplies, a basketball, notebooks, i-pods (yes, we enter data electronically now), metric tape measurers, and zipties. You get the idea, there’s a lot of detail that goes into our dig.

I think it auspicious that we have a colleague named Sashiere. Another digger has a new friend named Sturgis whose day job is collecting bodies for a morgue in Portland, Oregon. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories and why they are here to dig with us. Our staff is small this year and we expect about forty for the six-week season, most arrive from Canada and the United States. In 2008 the team surpassed a hundred and many were turned away. For whatever reason, perhaps dissuaded by news from the Middle East, we’ll have fewer characters on the site. Meantime, I look for my own season focus to guide the evenings and weekends. I plan to lie low, take what comes, and not push too hard for the experiences that inevitably make each season memorable. One afternoon, for example, a group of us visited nearby Araq el Amir, a Hellenistic structure at the end of a beautiful valley where I used to take women on first dates when I was in my early twenties.

There’s no single, simple way to understand and explain Jordan. You can consider its ancient history as we do in the practice of archaeology or you might consider all that has happened since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of the modern Middle East. It’s a complicated place. Many here come from elsewhere, whether the Hashemite family that originated in the Hijaz or the Palestinian refugees who sought safety in 1948 and again in 1967. Tragically, even today, others flee violence in their homes for refuge in Jordan. Each time I wander down memory lane and visit my old stomping grounds, I feel melancholy creeping up on me. So much of the experience of Jordan comes from its heritage and it is the heritage that most seems to be disappearing. Can the Hashemite Kingdom sustain itself in an era of the Arab Spring?

I patiently await the pulse of the project to develop. Each season has its own character and this one too will have a rhythm. Decades ago I enjoyed the interesting older diggers telling tales of the giants of archaeology. Now my buddy David Hopkins and I are the interesting old diggers telling tales.

Jordan has changed. Because my visits here have stretched over four decades, I notice differences. Some of what I see I simply don’t recognize. Parts of the country that I loved so much are being squeezed out by an ever expanding population and the housing and road networks that accompany an insatiable demand for goods and services. I’ll bet it has been quite awhile since a sheep herder, like the ones I used to see, took his flock anywhere near downtown Amman. I will skip visiting Petra, one of my favorite places in the world, because its development has become a machine to capture the money of its visitors. Some of the magic I experienced is not to be had anymore and I think I’ll rely on my memories. Just a hundred miles from where I sit are a million refugees from Syria awaiting the outcome of a civil war there and even more are likely to arrive as they seek refuge from the latest violence in Iraq. A hundred years ago there were just over a thousand people living in Amman; today there are more than three million. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia that gets to me or that I just miss old friends and lovers. Jordan breaks my heart. As I look about it is hard to believe that what so many have enjoyed here will continue unscathed by regional developments. I was lucky to have experienced Jordan forty years ago, when a visit to Petra verged on the mystical. Today, I wonder where water will come from to satisfy the thirst of this growing population.

On Monday morning I was on the tell. I opened a new square and am ready to find what is in the earth layers I will excavate. When I dig I am content and the swipe of my trowel never fails to provide surprise and discovery.

July, 2014
Ramadan, 1435
Amman, Jordan

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