Peeling back the layers of history

Journal Photo Editor Ian Babbitt is hard at work under the Jordanian sun on an archaeological dig in the desert

Queen’s students Rachel Jones, bottom left, and Ian Babbitt, far right, pause for desert morning tea with their Jordanian co-workers.
Queen’s students Rachel Jones, bottom left, and Ian Babbitt, far right, pause for desert morning tea with their Jordanian co-workers.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Ian Babbitt

AL-HUMAYMA, JORDAN—It’s 6 a.m. and the sun is just beginning to illuminate Old al-Humayma, a small town in the Hisma Desert of southern Jordan inhabited from the first century BCE until the 1960s. The sand, which seems bright gold in the daytime sun, is actually a mixture of reds, yellows, whites and even blacks at sunrise. A lone olive tree stands in the distance surrounded by teal tea plants that seem to grow happily from the sand all the way up to the craggy mountain horizon.

The modern-day town of al-Humayma was moved across a highway in the 1960s to allow for archaeological excavation. It’s now defined by the ancient sites of Roman forts, Islamic mosques, Byzantine churches, and the first-century BCE Nabataean settlement that originally stood there.

The Nabataeans were an ancient trading people near Jordan and Syria who eventually flourished around the first century CE.

As the road turns to dirt, we drive deeper and deeper into the desert. The bus dodges goatherds and winds around sand dunes crowned with boulders. This is my drive to work every morning as a member of the Humayma Excavation Project, whose archaeologists have been excavating the region’s 2000 years of history for the past 16 years.

I have been assigned to help excavate and document in photos the Nabataean complex under the guidance of Professor Barbara Reeves, the area’s supervisor and a Queen’s classics professor. Reeves said she hopes to bring more University students to excavation sites in the future, so they can partake in the learning experience.

Driving around to the back of an old two-room schoolhouse where we now store our tools, we park and step out of our bus into the blinding desert sun. We don our hats and sunglasses and make for the schoolhouse. After counting and making a record of every tool and bucket, we split up to our various excavation squares, pushing wheelbarrows full of the tools any volunteer or professional archaeologist would possibly need in a day’s work.

I arrive at Square 37, a six-by-six metre square that’s my home for the summer. It’s partly dug down with slightly slanted walls and has a rather precarious cobble wall. The cobble wall was uncovered just days ago and needs to be removed in order to reveal the older, more important Nabataean wall beneath it. “Archaeology is destruction, carefully planned destruction,” Reeves said when I asked her about my problematic cobble wall. “The big picks can be very precise tools when used properly.”

Even in the few days that I have been working here in Humayma, I have never seen so many implements of destruction used with ease and care. We must pierce the earth delicately so we don’t break the ancient pottery shards, small rodent bones or glass fragments that need to be preserved.

I’ve had much help in my archaeological endeavours. Rachel Jones, ArtSci ’04—one of several volunteers from Queen’s—and UBC alumna Georgina Henderson, are my Square 37 compatriots.

Extra workers from Jordan, including some Bedouins and residents of the rural New Humayma, ably assist the team of 27 volunteers and professional archaeologists working on the excavation project. Since work in southern Jordan is not easy to find, the regular summer excavation seasons are an opportunity for many of the residents of the area—who live near the site in tents and huts—to find employment. I work with Salim and Mohammed, who are both from Humayma. Salim, who drives his camel into the site everyday, is eagerly learning English and teaches us as much Arabic as he can. He smiles and sings as he pushes a dirt-filled wheelbarrow.

Mohammed, who speaks about as much English as I do Arabic—which is only a few words—has worked on the site for two seasons now, and can spot even the smallest bit of glass in the darkest pile of dirt glittering in the overwhelming sunlight. He prefers sitting on the ground with a small pick to shovelling piles of dirt and carrying heavy guffas or rubber buckets.

We excavate every day from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. The midday heat often becomes unbearable. We dig, sift through dirt and straighten our walls. But today we have the incredibly satisfying pleasure of removing the intrusive cobble wall with the Fas Kabir or the big pick.

With care we remove every stone and make sure not to damage the soft purple sandstone of the Nabatean wall beneath. After an hour and a half of hard labour, Samil wanders off to grab his kettle to make a morning tea. The tea, which is sweet enough to put any candy bar to shame, gives all of the workers and volunteers enough of a jolt to make it through the next hour and a half. While most of the archaeologists spend their day in their excavation square, I can wander around more since I’m the documenting photographer. I put down my excavating tools whenever the archaeologists call me from across the site to their square if they find something important or reach a new layer in the ground.

The new layer in the ground is called a locus, and a photo needs to be taken for archaeological recordkeeping. The locus is important because it allows us to see the layers we have dug through in days before and keep a record for future observations in case someone else chooses to excavate the area. Archaeological photography is not exactly the most exciting job on the site. Before I take the photo, I must brush away footprints in the dirt, placing a black and white “to scale” stick in the ground and a black and white arrow on the ground to indicate where north is. The job, however routine, is still important and one that I’m very happy to do.

The next defining moment in the day is second breakfast. This time, between 10 and 10:30 a.m., is when I spend 30 minutes eating with my Jordanian co-workers and their family members who also work on the site.

“Everyone is just so caring—if your hand is empty they will offer you something,” said my fellow volunteer Katie Cummer, ArtSci ’07. “They are just so full of life in an environment that people don’t perceive as such.” Sitting in a circle and sharing all of the food, which the workers make right in front of us, is an experience like no other. This half-hour makes my day. I spend the rest of the morning excavating and running around taking photos as the day progresses and the sun bakes the site dry. The heat never seems to bother the workers; they keep themselves covered completely and smile as the thermometer continues to creep up.

As the clock finally reaches 1 p.m., and the layer of salt on my skin from my evaporated sweat starts to sting, the teams congregate at the schoolhouse. After re-counting all the tools and putting them away, we pile back into the bus and make way for the afternoon side of archaeology: the paperwork.

Working as an archaeologist is an incredibly rewarding summer job but I never realized before what an incredibly technical and tedious job it can be at times.

The job involves a flood of paperwork, each pile dedicated to different observations recorded at different times. That wave is followed by printed photographs, endless elevation readings, paper and plastic bags of all sizes, an endless supply of pottery chips (which all need to be cleaned by hand before they can be submitted for analysis), and, as with many summer jobs, a hierarchy of bosses all looking over your shoulder for progress reports. Reeves offered me her take on archaeological administrative work.

“Without a recorded context, archaeology is simply grave robbing,” she said.

These are all tasks designated for the afternoon away from the site in the comfort of our residence at the Al-Mureigah Regional High School (a 30-minute drive north of Old Humayma). The school is also home to bent chairs, linoleum tiles, saggy mattresses, Turkish toilets, and nibbling black flies to keep you company while you work.

While this isn’t the most appealing aspect of the job, it is comforting to know that everyone around you is doing exactly the same thing. We’re all filling in the same colour-coded paperwork and scrubbing similar pottery looking for that one perfect shard.

While the piles of papers grow with every passing day, the sun does eventually set in the desert and my workday ends. The Humayma excavation team members emerge from their rooms and congregate on the outside stairs. A slight breeze passes through as we sit quietly, exhausted but completely content. People start to wander off to bed as early as 8:30 p.m. We have to get a good night’s rest—we’ll be starting all over again tomorrow morning at five.

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