Thursday, August 24, 2006
Local architect returns to country of Jordan for third archaeological dig
By CHELIUS CARTER
This was my third season with the American Archaeological Expedition to Abila of the Decapolis in north Jordan and it was far more interesting than was scheduled. It is usually expected to be hot in the north Jordanian desert — this season it got really hot — and I’m not only speaking of the weather.
Basically, archaeologists are under much pressure to write up and publish their findings, otherwise the information is useless and they are just digging holes in the ground — sort of like an incomplete encyclopedia with no index.
At Abila of the Decapolis, a city that spans from early Iron and Bronze Age settlements through the initial Hellenistic (Greek) town established there as part of the Decapolis (Greek for “deca” = ten; “polis” = city), a confederation of ten cities established for mutual trade, communication and protection, spanning across subsequent Roman rule, then the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires — here at Abila, the pressure to publish is no less a need.
The excavation’s seasonal “design” has lacked focus and a clear and validated overall view of the city’s ancient form, since the first survey work was done in 1982; I have been fortunate to be very much a part of guiding and setting the “excavation design”, since the original excavation director’s death in 2004. Those of us trained in architectural practice only view things: sites and buildings — in a three-dimensional manner; it is that view that was lacking at our excavation.
I’ve been asking for the services of a Civil Engineer since 2000, to properly plot out the entire site and run GPS spot locations to combine with an accurate survey to nail down each structure in its proper place and elevation to sea level at Aqaba, on the Red Sea.
Due to the heavy commitments of my own practice here, in Holly Springs with restoration projects going on in both north Mississippi and west Tennessee — I was only able to give my excavation team 2-1/2 weeks of my time and left for Jordan on 7 July, to return on 27 July.
The team, having already been at work for the previous 3-4 weeks, was busy uncovering the floors of five (3rd-10th century, A.D.) Byzantine churches at Abila, which were the most complete areas of excavation at our site and the primary focus of our publishing efforts in the near offing. The team was to concentrate on those areas of the churches which, unexcavated, still held questions as to the total original form of the floor plan.
My task, and I hit the ground running, was to record all the church plans as they were — now freshly laid open for analysis and then suggest suspect areas where a probe might be dug down to the original structural footing’s construction trench. Only here in the original construction trench can artifactural information be gleaned, which would provenance the original period of construction, as the Byzantine empire spanned several centuries, before being overrun by the Ottoman Empire.
I was told, prior to my arrival “that a GPS man would be working with me at the excavation” — having no idea what that would entail. So, upon my arrival to the site of Abila on July 10, I immediately set out to measure the most undocumented structure in Area “D”, as the architect charged with documenting these structures before my tenure apparently only had experience with contemporary design and did not understand the importance of recording historic structures exactly as they are, with all the crooked walls and lack of symmetry therein — only from such accurate record drawings can a fairly reliable reconstruction drawing be rendered. In other words, most of the previous documentation done on the churches was useless fantasy and basically — done in terms of what a Byzantine church might look like in, say — modern day St. Louis, where this man practiced.
Enter Tawfiq “the GPS guy”, the afternoon of my first day, after spending the morning (we only work in the mornings, starting at 5 a.m.). I soon find out that he is a civil engineer with the Jordanian Antiquities Department assigned to our excavation for ten days and had the Department’s GPS gizmo and a Total Station (computerized laser-guided survey system); on site, I also soon find out that he knows his equipment well and is a great guy to work with — he was comfortable enough with us, after a few days, to share a very bad “dirty” Bedouin joke (risqué’ by Arabic standards; tame by ours) about intimacies involving the Bedouin shepherd and his wife.
Basically, we were surgically conjoined at the hip for the ten days he was allotted our excavation and together we nailed down the ancient site of Abila upon the global grid, as well as its significant structures and significant inventory of tombs, now exposed. At the end of ten days, we both reached the wall of utter exhaustion and when the team took a four-day holiday to the south Jordanian desert to visit Petra and Aqaba — we went to Amman. Tawfiq went to his home there and I to the American Center for Oriental Research to rest. Slept for about 20 hours and returned to Abila to continue the documentation of the buildings’ remains, that I had started before the arrival of my friend from the Antiquities Department and worked with the able assistance of Maria Deutschmann, one of the archaeologists.
Israel’s unexpected invasion of south Lebanon started about two days after I got to Hartha, the small Arab village where our camp is — we had cause to worry — Hartha is some two miles from the excavation site; two miles south of the Syrian frontier border; 15 miles east of the Israeli border at Galilee and some 35-40 miles southeast-east of the Lebanese-Israeli border where all of what is unraveling daily (hourly, actually) in the news is taking place. In other words, we had an uncomforting “front row seat”. Our fear and the immediate region’s fear was that if Syria folded into this war, our area would become a front. No question. Jordan would be forced to mobilize their borders to protect her neutrality.
Many of us would repair to the roof at night, where it was cool — and watch the nightly “fireworks”, deadly fireworks, mind you — in the not-so-distant hills. The heel of the Golan Heights is in our view and in the last couple of nights, the Israeli bombings got so intense that as I lay on the floor on my sleeping pad — I could hear and feel the bombing concussions through the wall. This was one excavation season that I was glad to get away from, before things spread, in general — which with piddling efforts of the present world powers, this has a very real chance of doing and linking up with current conflicts and unrest already in progress in the Middle East. This should be very bad news for all of us.
So why go there at all? Well, my reasons are personal, the Jordanian people are good people and King Abdullah has a very difficult task to maintain the peace, while in the midst of all his quarreling cousins.
The Bedouin culture there is impoverished and the nation’s economy incredibly fragile. There is little agriculture in Jordan, nominal industrial growth and very little global commerce, as their port access, since the 1948 partitioning, cut off their access to the Mediterranean Sea, limiting them to Aqaba on the Red Sea. What Jordan does have is an enviable inventory of archaeological sites, Abila of the Decapolis being one of the lesser-developed sites in that inventory.
To be quite frank, our work at Abila of the Decapolis will not solve the riddle of world hunger, nor will it stop conflicts between nations.
That being said, the village of Hartha is about the size of the central core of Holly Springs with a social climate that is not unfamiliar to us here — Arab villages come alive at night — when it is cool. The townsfolk, as here, walk about visiting with neighbors, who are on the front porch enjoying the night air or, as at my friend Issa el Said’s home, who has a small store by the mosque and a lovely olive garden between his nice home and the store — half the town of Hartha will pass through his gate and visit to share his coffee, tea, cigarettes and if one is lucky — one of his fine meals in Issa’s olive garden. It is a lovely place to unwind — even if the TV was set up outside with Al Jazeera constantly pasting the hourly carnage upon your mind, just a short distance away, with the sound of bombs clearly audible, as if for needed effect.
If Abila of the Decapolis were developed as a formal archaeological city-site for tourism, then the economic benefit for the village of Hartha would be measurable, as is the slight up-tick in local commerce and employment when the Americans come to work at this site, known locally as “Ayn Qwelbah” or roughly translated as “the springs of Abila”.
Like here in Holly Springs, it will take educating the general citizenry of their obligation as custodians to the unique legacy that is theirs to either preserve or destroy, in terms of both built and natural assets. To respect and protect these assets will bring long-term benefits to the entire community — giving it something that other communities do not have, something unique that sets it apart. Such an educational uphill curve is not conquered overnight, but here in Holly Springs, as well as in the Arab village of Hartha — if that river can be crossed, doors of opportunities open for the locals, in terms of upgrading their overall quality of life by providing some year-round jobs to accommodate visitors and seasonal on-going work at the site. This is all very good news and it would be most gratifying to be a part of developing this archaeological asset to a point of benefit for the good people of Hartha — just as I do here in Holly Springs.
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