Excavating Jordan

Students uncover ancient civilizations, learn archeology

Students Sarah McCutcheon (left), Rachel Rabey (centre) and Fraser Reed (right) took part in this year’s six week Jordanian excavation.
Students Sarah McCutcheon (left), Rachel Rabey (centre) and Fraser Reed (right) took part in this year’s six week Jordanian excavation.

For six weeks in Jordan this summer, Queen’s students learned what working on a real archaeological dig site is like.

Classics professor Barbara Reeves, who’s been running the program since 2008, said the excavation site at Humayma is home to the remnants of various civilizations.

“The first civilization was the Nabataeans who you probably know from Petra. It’s a small caravan town on the caravan route,” she said, adding that the route would have been used to transport spices like frankincense and myrrh along Jordan’s coast.

Humayma has been an excavation site since 1987. Before Queen’s became involved in the program in 2005, the University of Victoria organized it. Reeves became the sole director in 2003.

“Since then almost all the excavation’s students are Queen’s students,” Reeves said.

Sarah McCutcheon, ArtSci ’11, was one such Queen’s student.

As a Classics major and a first time participant, McCutcheon said she had an amazing experience on the dig site.

“My motivation for going on the trip was to gain archaeological experience. Ever since I was little I’ve always loved archaeology and this was my first opportunity to go out there and be hands-on, out of the classroom,” she said. “I was super excited.”

On the site, McCutcheon said every group of four students worked with a supervisor who provided guidance on the dig.

“You work together. They give you brief seminars and you are constantly getting feedback so it’s learning 24/7,” she said, adding that a typical seminar might focus on how to do field drawings or drawings of pottery.

“What I gained was tons of learning. You are basically immersed in this world. It’s really on three levels: gaining archaeological experience, working with people and then there’s the cultural element,” she said, adding that she learned how to speak broken Arabic from the locals, who helped out a lot on the dig.

“They are so nice, hard-working and willing to teach you everything they know”

Reeves said individuals like McCutcheon paid their own way in Jordan but that funding for this year’s excavation came from the Senate Advisory Research Committee of Queen’s University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

“The students pay participation fees which contribute to apartments in Aqaba, buses to and from the site, food etc,” she said, adding that in previous years students and staff camped near the site.

“It’s been getting a bit more upscale in terms of living.”

Reeves said in order to participate in the program, students need no previous archaeological experience; however, a shown interest in archaeology and the region is recommended.

“They didn’t have to have experience in Classics. People from Classics, History, Development Studies, Art History, and Geography have participated. You don’t have to be a Classics major. Usually people have taken courses,” Reeves said, adding that this shows a basic interest in the subject matter. “It’s a self-selection sort of thing. People do electives or minors in Classics,”she said. “I do recommend anyone wanting to take part take Classics 129 (Introduction to Archaeology). It gives people an overview of excavation.”

Reeves said that every year the team focuses on a different area of the excavation site because there are so many different layers of history.

“A few civilizations have left ruins in the area including Romans from the early second century AD, Byzantine Churches from the fifth and sixth centuries. There are also early Islamic structures from seventh and eight centuries,” she said. “This year we were excavating the Roman garrison’s bath house located in the civilian area.”

Reeves’ primary research focus has been at two sites in Jordan in order to study the relationship between soldiers and civilians in garrison communities in the Roman Empire.

“I’ve been looking at how they all interact with each other,” adding that the excavation site includes the ruins of a Roman fort which would have held 500,000 soldiers.

Excavating the bathhouse near the fort helps to explain the relationship between soldiers and civilians of the time, she said.

“Also, it shows you the area outside the fort is as important as the area inside the fort.”

The site houses so many finds because Jordan offers particularly well-preserved archaeological sites, Reeves said.

“Since the eighth century no one lived there,” she said. “There really is pristine archaeology. The desert is a really good place to go.”

Reeves said her team works alongside Jordanians to uncover the layers of history at Humayma.

“We’ve got one representative from the department of Antiquities by law,” she said. “[The site] is Jordan’s so he oversees it. We have local villagers who take part in the excavation.”

“We’ve been there 23 years. A lot of local villagers are actually very experienced at this point in how to do it. They make it a pleasure to go there every time.”

In order to make sure the students fully appreciate their encounters with the Jordanians, Reeves said she talks to the participating students about being culturally sensitive in terms of dress and behaviours like drinking.

“I meet with them and go over what the expedition will be like and how they should behave in Jordan. Acting culturally appropriate is important. Jordan is a wonderful country in that the people are so inviting. It’s more to be polite.”

Reeves said she finds it gratifying to see students hone their interests in archaeology.

“The students are so interested, so engaged. You take them out of the classroom and plunk them into the middle of the desert. They go from being tentative to excelling. It’s rewarding for an instructor,” she said. “This year there were 16 first-time students who’d never been. Within the staff there were four grad students who had been before so there were about 20 students.”

Even after returning from Jordan, Reeves said her research work is only just beginning.

“The analysis of what you’ve found takes years,” she said.

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