UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Autumn 2005,
Volume 26, Number 2

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Scenes from the dig: Prof. John Oleson near the site of the Roman fort at Humayma.
By MIKE MCNENEY
Photography by ROBBYN GORDON, BFA '02

A team of volunteers spends autumn evenings inside the nocturnal world of a little-known, very curious owl species.

An archaeological expedition begins months before careful digging reveals the secrets of long gone cultures. Lead a university team to an ancient settlement in southern Jordan and you can count on a pile of prep work, endless data and enough red tape to challenge all of the political finesse you can muster.
But experience pays, and the results of your group’s efforts can be amazing.

John Oleson, the adventurous Greek and Roman Studies professor “knows the ropes pretty well” after some 15 summer field trips to Humayma, the site of an ancient desert trading post established by the Nabataeans in the first century BC. Humayma also features a Roman garrison established around 110 AD—offering “spectacular” evidence of the empire’s occupation of the eastern frontier.

Since his first foray into Humayma—in 1986 to survey the Nabataean water supply system for this hyper-arid region—Oleson has directed excavation of the site. Over the years more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students (mostly from UVic) have travelled with him to Humayma, 300 km south of Amman, for six-week field trips. They’ve endured 40-degree heat, persistent 20-knot desert winds and the thousand-metre elevation. It’s the altitude, more than the heat, that’s the real challenge.

With the hired help of the region’s Bedouin clans, Oleson’s crews have uncovered houses, churches, ivory panels, gold and silver coins, furniture and thousands of other relics of ancient life. The Jordanian Department of Antiquities has established visitor’s centre at the site and a permanent exhibit at the Aqaba museum holds many of the finds yielded by the Humayma excavation. Oleson figures another 100 years of archaeological work remains to be done.

Here’s an abbreviated checklist for Oleson’s Humayma field studies:

“None of this happens without money. Lots of it,” says Oleson. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has been a regular supporter. As well, students pay a $1,000-camp fee (about a third of the cost).

Get a permit from Jordan’s Department of Antiquities. It’s more of a formality now than it was in the early years of the project.

Select your team. Along with co-director Barbara Reeves of Queen’s University, the staff will include an architect, photographer, conservator, ceramicist and excavation staff. An administrator looks after groceries, tools and housing arrangements at a high school dormitory.

Assemble the volunteers. Usually about 10 or 15 students who can withstand the physical demands. This year’s group ranged from 20 to 60 years of age.

The teams head out to the site each day at 6 am, bussing across “fabulously beautiful” sandstone desert and along 600-metre cliffs. Photographer Robbyn Gordon, BFA ’02, says the bus ride and location reminded her of the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Up to 35 Bedouin workers are employed at the site. The jobs are in high demand and Oleson is careful to divide the postings among the clans (who don’t really like each other that much).

Meal breaks, served by the locals, are a big part of the whole experience but best to heed Oleson’s advice and avoid the camel yogurt—it can knock you out for a couple of days.

Prepare for the unexpected. Security in the region is relatively good and the Jordanian economy is booming. But sometimes red tape can come out of nowhere. This year’s team was told at the last minute that each member would have to take an AIDS test before getting tourist visas.

Write, write, write. Oleson will skip next year’s trip so he can catch up on volumes of reports due to be written about the history of Humayma.

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