Arts, Culture & Humanities

On the precipice of fieldwork: Preparing for the Dhiban Project’s 2012 season

Benjamin Porter

“When are you headed out?” my colleague asked me casually over coffee one sunny afternoon recently at Strada.  “Next month,” I told her.  “A big season?” she asked. “Yeah, pretty big – 40 people.”  This is typical banter for what I call “Month of May” conversations among archaeologists.  The semester is over, grades are turned in, students are graduated, and now it is time to head out.  Out to the field, that is, wherever that might be.

‘Out’ for me is Jordan, specifically a rural town called Dhiban (pronounced Thee-baan in Arabic) that sits on a large plateau east of the Dead Sea.  The town is home to about 60,000 Jordanians, almost all of them Muslim and members of a prominent tribe, the Bani Hamida.  Sitting just north of the town is a 37-acre (15 hectares) archaeological site my colleagues and I have been investigating since 2004 under the auspices of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.

Our work at Dhiban has discovered that people have been living off and on here since small-scale urbanism began in the region around 2500 BCE.  Since that time, Dhiban has seen repeated attempts to organize large sedentary populations in unique ways, only to see these efforts languish after only a few centuries. Evidence from several different Middle Eastern societies — Iron Age Moabites, Nabataeans, Romans, and early and medieval Islamic societies – is present here, making it an exciting window into the region’s past.

What makes this persistent attachment to place surprising is Dhiban’s relatively inhospitable semi-arid conditions.  The place receives barely sufficient amounts of annual precipitation for non-mechanized grain agriculture.  Building a sustainable livelihood was possible, but not risk free.  The likelihood of droughts and famine must have been on the minds of farmers and pastoralists throughout the growing season.  Even more risky and challenging were attempts to intensify production to supply markets or political administration.  We know from both archaeological evidence and written historical sources that such endeavors were undertaken during periods of imperial rule, when the Assyrian, Byzantine, Mamluk, and even the twentieth century British Empires controlled the region in which Dhiban was based.

How did each community, in its own time and in its own way, pull off these economic development projects?  Although simply put, this question is the Dhiban Project’s principal concern. The project is collecting all kinds of data to answer this question, from ceramic vessels to carbonized seeds, from animal bones to glass fragments.  More specific information about the project’s goals can be read here on our website.

This season is unique because 17 Berkeley undergraduates and four Berkeley graduate students are joining the project.  The undergraduate students are enrolled in a Near Eastern Studies Department course offered through Berkeley Summer Sessions.  The class is designed to teach students the joys and hardships of Middle Eastern archaeological fieldwork.  By the end of the six-week class, students will have learned basic field techniques, from sifting dirt to cleaning artifacts, from managing paperwork to processing photographs and drawings.  On the weekends, they will visit Jordan’s most remarkable archaeological sites, like the Roman city of Jerash and the Nabataean city of Petra.

These Berkeley students will actively participate in the research process, but some students will be carrying out their own projects.  Alan Farahani, a graduate student in the Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology (AHMA) Program, will be excavating a new area where buildings dating to the Late Classical Period exist below the surface.  Here he will gather evidence for his dissertation project exploring agricultural production and consumption during Roman and Byzantine imperial rule.  Alan will collect preserved organic remains – seeds, woods, and weeds – from the soils associated with these buildings.  He will analyze the evidence next fall and include the results in his dissertation.

Anthropology student Nicholas Ames, a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow, or SURF, recipient will also gather data for his senior Anthropology thesis project.  He is studying extremely small (less than 2 cm) artifacts found on the floors of ancient buildings.  His project is asking what new cultural practices can be discovered when often overlooked artifacts are collected and studied.  His laboratory work this past year has already identified evidence for fish consumption from a fourteenth century CE floor excavated in 2009.  Not only does this discovery describe people’s diets, but it also reveals commercial connections between Dhiban and the Red Sea, the likely source of the fish.

Our work this summer is made possible by so many financial sponsors, including the National Science Foundation (#1135042), the Gerald Avery Wainwright Near Eastern Archaeological Fund, and the Fondation Max van Berchem.  Berkeley sources include the Archaeological Research Facility’s Stahl Fund and a Committee on Research’s Faculty Research Grant.  The project is especially grateful to the late Warren Hellman; the Hellman Family Faculty Fund Award is supporting student participation.  Collectively, this funding covers all kinds of expenses, including the hiring of local personnel, car rentals, tool purchases, the lodging and feeding of the team, and more.

I will write again as time permits to report back on how the 2012 season is going.  For now, you can read more about the project at the Dhiban Project website, blog, and Wikipedia entry.  And away we go …

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