As archaeology students at Calvin College, each of us were given our own trenches and teams to manage and direct as we excavate to provide further data and research for the Umm al-Jimal Project. The trench placements were all created to serve the research interests of the project and provide further information on the dating and the stratigraphy of where the Churches were built. This season I have been working in the Julianos Church to support the wider Umm al-Jimal Churches Project which is investigating the sixteen churches on the site.
The Julianos Church was named by H.C. Butler who was responsible for most of the original excavation and documentation of the site in the 1900s. He found an inscription located next to the church which had the name and date “Julianos 345AD,” and understood that to mean the name and date of the church’s establishment. This theory was changed when a later survey of the site revealed that the stone likely had pertained to a Christian cemetery, but then the block was looted and reused in the construction of the Julianos Church sometime in the Early Byzantine period.
The Julianos church is highly characterized by its surroundings, with several large houses still remaining in ruins to the east and the south. One of the most fundamental elements of this church is that the only entrance to the hall of the church is through two domestic structures which are built into the sides of the church. The back half of the church, by the entrance into these two houses, is still characterized by heaps of unwieldly black basalt architectural stones which would have made up the ceiling and walls of the church, and this part of the church has not yet been excavated. A future project for this church could potentially be an excavation of the length of the church, revealing important information about the architecture, the entrance, and the layers of occupation in the church.
My work this season was moving toward the goal of dating the foundation layers of the church through collection and analysis of potsherds. The purpose of my trench was also to try to rediscover the floor from a trench previously opened in the apse during the 1998 field season. The excavator working on this project had hypothesized that the rocks in this layer of soil were part of a collapsed wall, however in my excavations, I did not discover any structures that looked remotely similar to a wall. There are a couple of explanations for this: first, it could be that with the relatively poor documentation from the 1998 excavation, the location where they drew the wall was not included in my excavation area; the second, that the previous excavator had made a hopeful hypothesis which I disproved through further excavation; and lastly, that whatever rocks had made up the hypothesized wall had been moved due to looting or removing the back fill which consisted of many very large basalt blocks and other medium sized stones which were likely collapse from the church or the surrounding buildings.
Since I was not excavating around a wall, I focused on the other goal of my trench which was to determine the stratigraphy of the church and collecting pottery which could be useful for dating the construction of the church. My favorite part of this work was finding pieces of pottery which could tell us what era each layer of soil was from. The most fascinating element of this is that archaeologists can generally hypothesize the purpose of the area by the quantity of the pottery which is found and the quality of the dirt. For example, in my 11th locus, or layer of soil, the quality of the soil was very light yellow-grey which seemed to have some ashy qualities and contained a high percentage of pottery for the volume of soil I removed (405 pot sherds in .25 meters cubed). This could be an indication that the area was a place of refuse deposition and burning. This custom of burning trash is something that, curiously, has not disappeared from modern Jordanian routine, as the municipal method of dealing with garbage is taking out alongside of a road and burning it to avoid the pollution and space requirements associated with landfills.
Another feature of my trench that I discovered through the balks, or the sides of the trench, is a band of white, plaster-like material and a layer of palm shaped pieces of basalt directly beneath which indicate that the layer was likely a floor or surface in a structure. The pottery collected from below this layer help to date the plaster surface to no time before the 4th century AD, or late into the Roman area of occupation. This discovery is significant because it definitively proves that the area where the church was constructed had been used before the Byzantine era for at least domestic purposes if not other, more important activities involving constructions with a plaster floor. For example, one of the other churches at Umm al-Jimal, the Southwest Church, has a floor which is entirely made of plaster, and the West Church, also has evidence of several layers of plaster flooring.
In the future, if archaeologists were to reopen this trench in the apse of the Julianos church, the should be able to continue excavations to find the rest of the plaster floor and see if they are able to discern the purpose of such a floor, or if they can find the border of where the plaster extends to. If they are able to find any other architectural elements, they will be able to distinguish with more certainty the purpose of this plaster surface. Through another careful excavation, there will also be more of an opportunity to discover why there would be a layer of dark soil with vast amounts of destroyed pottery atop the plaster surface, and see if there is any chance of finding more valuable identifying information about what caused the disuse of this surface and what the layer of dirt directly above it represents in correlation. Overall, my trench was able to contribute to further understanding of the larger Umm al-Jimal churches project by confirming the dates in the foundation layers of the church, and confirmation of the inhabitation of this specific area of the site before the Byzantine area.