Press Release: Excavations at Humayma, 2000

John Peter Oleson, Erik de Bruijn, M. Barbara Reeves

     Excavations at Humayma during the summer of 2000 provided many exciting insights into the Nabataean and Roman inhabitants of an ancient settlement in southern Jordan. Humayma (Ancient Hawara) was founded in the first century BC by the Nabataean King Aretas III  Although the town was located in the middle of the Hisma Desert, it was on an important trade route, and the Nabataeans installed a 27-km aqueduct to ensure the town had enough water to survive. In the early second century AD, after the Nabataean Kingdom was annexed by the Roman Empire, the Romans built a large auxiliary fort on the edge of the town. Humayma continued to flourish throughout the Byzantine and Umayyad periods with the construction of six churches and the estate of the Abbasid family patriarch.

     Excavation in 2000 focused on the Roman fort and the community located outside its main gate. For many years scholars have speculated about the identity of the garrison stationed at Hawara: would it have been a detachment of the former Nabataean army or Roman soldiers relocated from outside the province? The exciting discovery of an altar this summer has confirmed the garrison’s identity, at least in the late-second or early third century AD. At this time Humayma was garrisoned by a vexillation of the Third Legion Cyrenaica. Before coming to Arabia, this legion had been stationed in Alexandria, and it is therefore not surprising that many objects of Egyptian origin were found in the community.

     The altar was found not in the Roman fort, but in a shrine located in the community outside its gates. This shrine contained two dedications to Roman gods of Egyptian origin, and a Dushara block representing that Nabataean god. The simultaneous worship of both imported Roman gods and a local indigenous god reflects the survival of Nabataean culture into the Roman era. Moreover, the placement of a legionary dedication outside the fort reflects the close relationship that existed between the Roman soldiers and the local community.

     The complex containing the shrine was a mudbrick structure incorporating several discrete living and working areas which shared common walls. With the exception of the shrine, all of the units seem to have been residential. The complex was built in the late-2nd century or early-3rd century AD, was crudely renovated in the mid-3rd century, and temporarily occupied by squatters in the early-4th century. In its initial phase, the building was well-constructed and had polychrome figural and geometric frescoes decorating its walls, including the walls of the shrine.

     Beneath the Roman building were discovered the robbed-out walls of another impressive building, this one dating to the Nabataean era. Although we have always known that the Nabataeans built a permanent settlement at Humayma and although the stones from their buildings can be seen in re-used contexts throughout the fort, previous attempts to locate the Nabataean settlement of Hawara have been in vain. The presence of finely constructed Nabataean stone walls beneath both the Roman residental complex and the Roman bath-building (re-excavated this year), however, suggests that the public buildings of Nabataean Hawara were probably located in this area. The fact that the walls of each building were robbed-out and then used as a foundation of a Roman building may mean the transition from Nabataean to Roman rule here was less than peaceful.

     Several areas were excavated within the fort itself. Excavations in the principia or headquarters building revealed many statue bases surrounding the main courtyard where the soldiers assembled daily for their orders. Unfortunately the statues did not survive. Next door, in the praetorium or commander’s personal residence mosaic floors were uncovered in what is thought to be the dining area. These are the first mosaics discovered south of Petra and reflect the level of luxury available to military elite. Regional parallels to their geometric designs suggest they were probably created in the early second century during the initial construction of the fort. Other excavations in the fort uncovered what is thought to be a stable or a granary, a section of the main road. During the Byzantine period some structures were altered as non-military activities too place in the fort.

     Finally, terracotta pipelines were discovered both in the fort and in the external residential complex. As a result of its aqueduct, Humayma was well-supplied with water in ancient times. The aqueduct filled reservoirs which were in turn tapped by pipelines supplying particular areas of the site. What remains to be determined the reasons some areas merited their own pipelines and what was the relation of the pipelines to religious versus industrial versus domestic consumption.

     Humayma continues to be a fruitful and exciting archaeological site. During the next two years the results of the Nabataean and Roman period investigations will be prepared for final publication. Archaeologists will, however, return in 2001 to complete the excavation of the Early Islamic period estate from which the Abbasid family plotted the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate.

For recent publications based on our excavations, see:

      J.P. Oleson, "Water-Supply in Jordan," pp. 603-14 in B. MacDonald et al. ed., The Archaeology of Jordan. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

      J.P. Oleson, "King, Emperor, Priest, and Caliph: Cultural Change at Hawara (Ancient al-Humayma) in the First Millennium AD," pp. 569-580 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, VII. Amman: Department of Antiquities, 2001.

      J.P. Oleson, K. 'Amr, R. Foote, J. Logan, B. Reeves, R. Schick, "Preliminary Report of the al-Humayma Excavation Project, 1995, 1996, 1998," Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 43 (1999) 411-50.

      J.P. Oleson, "Landscape and Cityscape in the Hisma: The Resources of Ancient Al-Humayma." Pp. 175-88 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, VI. Amman: Department of Antiquities, 1997.

     J.P. Oleson, "The Origins and Design of Nabataean Water-Supply Systems." Pp. 707-19 in Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, V. Amman: Department of Antiquities, 1995.