From 21 May to 14 June new excavations were carried out at Umm el-Jimal as part of the Calvin College Archaeological Field School and in support of two of the Umm el-Jimal Project‘s ongoing areas of research and development: the Water Project and the Churches Project. This post offers an initial summary of this season’s fieldwork and has been only slightly modified from the end-of-season report submitted to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. This summary describes only the archaeological fieldwork components of this season and readers should note that additional work was carried out in local community development and the opening of the site’s Interpretive and Hospitality Center (look for future posts on these exciting developments).
This season’s fieldwork was managed by Dr. Darrell J. Rohl (Co-Director and Director of Excavations), Dr. Elizabeth Osinga (Co-Director and Ceramicist), and Rebecca Lawson (Field Supervisor). Field School students (representing Calvin College, Lehigh University, and Wake Forest University) included: Kaitlyn Bates, Allison Fan, Katherine Fetter, Olivia Lee, Adrienne Ora, Austin Rohl, Reagan Rohl, Kayla Rowe, Darcy Stubbs, Neil Sutherland, and Kees Van Liere. Dr. Bert de Vries (Director of the Umm el-Jimal Project) advised throughout the progress of excavations. Jamil E. Al-Masaeed was our Department of Antiquities representative.
Additional staff involved in various aspects of supporting the fieldwork activities included Sally de Vries, Jenna Morton, Muaffaq Hazza, Dr. Khaled al-Bashairah, Dr. Allison Mickel, Mais Haddad, Dana al-Farraj, and Jehad Suleiman. Once again, we worked alongside a contingent of local community members, including Ali Aqil Al-Masaeed (foreman), Nial Aqil Al-Masaeed, Fawaz Salem Al-Hdeeb, Awda Helal Al-Masaeed, Sultan Yousef Al-Khther, Abdullah Basem Sweel, Awda Ali Al-Masaeed, Hail Zaid Al-Srour, Hesham Hassan Al-Qutaish, Man’a Muhammad Al-Srour, Muhammad Awad Al-Mater, Omar Ghazi Al-Qutaish, and Ahlam Kurdi Al-Masaeed.
Objectives and Plan of Work
For the 2019 fieldwork season, we had three primary objectives:
- Objective 1: to study and document the stratigraphy and chronology of the West Church, South West Church, and Julianos Church as a first step in the new Umm el-Jimal Churches Project.
- Objective 2: to study and document the stratigraphy of select locations along the planned route of a planned water pipeline running from the Roman Reservoir to an external reservoir located to the west of the main archaeological site.
- Objective 3: to study and document the stratigraphy exposed by extensive looting in Area R, also known as al-Herri. This looting was only discovered in February 2019, so this objective was added after submission of our application for an excavation permit.
In order to meet these objectives, the plan of work focused on a total of nine excavation trenches in five separate areas: two trenches in the West Church, two trenches in the South West Church, one trench in the Julianos Church, three trenches on the planned path of the new water channel, and one trench between two looter’s pits in Area R/al-Herri.
Summary of Results
Good progress was made on all objectives, with final results subject to continued post-excavation analysis of records and collected materials.
All five trenches within the churches excavated this season (3 of the site’s 16 known churches) had been previously looted and backfilled, requiring extensive clearance of backfill materials. Once backfill had been removed, excavations proceeded systematically, with minimal expansion beyond the original looter’s pits in order to clarify stratigraphy and collect new materials for analysis.
Within the West Church (Area U), both trenches reached natural soil that had no occupational evidence but we did not reach bedrock. One trench was located entirely within the chancel/altar area while the other trench included space both within and outside of the chancel, with the altar screen running through the trench. Both trenches provided evidence for two—and possibly three—separate surfaces including two phases of mosaic pavement within the chancel area and both mosaic pavements were observed to seal against the interior of the altar screen. Outside of the altar screen, the evidence for surfaces mirrored the upper-most layers within the chancel but there was no trace of the earlier mosaic pavement. This is particularly interesting because it suggests that the altar screen was an original feature of this church and not a later addition, as previously thought. Puzzlingly, though, this situation would mean that originally one would have to step down upon entering the chancel area, rather than up as is most typical. The latest pottery for the earliest strata (below the observed surfaces) in these trenches was c. fifth century AD with fifth and sixth-century sherds predominant in occupation layers.
Within the South West Church (Area GG), both trenches reached bedrock and there is clear evidence for two occupational periods, as two separate plaster surfaces were separated by a thick layer of boulders and soil. Work in this area was hampered by the good preservation of an exposed incised plaster surface, as removal of this surface was carefully avoided and minimized; both trenches were located within previous looter’s pits, with only minimal expansion in order to collect samples and straighten edges for stratigraphic analysis. There is wider structural evidence that this church was a later insertion into the surrounding structures of Houses II and 32, and the best interpretation at this point is that the lowest observed plaster surface represents a pre-church floor, probably the courtyard for House II. In this case, the boulders and soil would have been brought in specifically to form a new foundation for the church. Ceramic evidence indicates that the upper floor was laid in the sixth century AD and this is our best evidence so far for the date of the church’s foundation.
Within the Julianos Church (Area DD), one trench was located within the area of a trench that had been previously excavated in 1998, subsequently backfilled, and then subject to extensive looting. A probe in the SE corner of the trench, in the curvature between the apse’s synthronon and steps to the bishop’s seat, reached the furthest depths. This probe revealed subtle evidence for a pre-church plaster surface but found no other structural evidence for how this space was used before the church was constructed. Bedrock was not reached and layers continued to produce ceramic evidence, well below the church’s foundation level, with pottery of c. late second to third century AD dominating the lowest excavated layers.
The Umm el-Jimal Water Project is a collaboration with the Clean Water Institute of Calvin University and seeks to preserve and reactivate the site’s ancient water delivery system in order to address current needs in a time of severe water crisis. In light of this project’s plans to lay a new water pipeline that enhances the infrastructure that will be repurposed from the ancient water delivery system, we excavated three evaluation trenches (Area FF) along the proposed line in order to determine the degree to which this pipeline will impact upon the subsurface archaeological remains.
One of these trenches never reached levels beyond collapse debris from one of the several earthquakes that have damaged the site and provided no occupational surfaces and only limited ceramic remains; it is uncertain what was happening in this area when the rough-cut basalt stones fell in here. A second trench also included significant collapse debris of a very similar nature to the first trench but, in this case, revealed a probable basalt pavement overlying a boulder-and-soil preparation layer similar to those revealed in some of the site’s churches; it is uncertain if this was originally an indoor or outdoor surface. The third Water Project evaluation trench was located just inside the site’s western perimeter wall and revealed two wall courses below the present ground surface with no clearly identifiable foundation trench; the wall was laid on soil rather than bedrock and almost no ceramics were recovered below the first few centimeters of topsoil.
These trenches revealed the typical range of ceramics uncovered elsewhere across the site of Umm el-Jimal and suggest that the proposed water pipeline will have minimal impact on surviving archaeological features.
Area R (al-Herri)
One trench was excavated in this cemetery area outside of the main archaeological site and between two (of at least twenty) looter’s pits that had been recently identified. This trench reached the top of an underlying cist burial, which had been looted before our excavation. We made careful stratigraphic records of the deposits above the burial and a rich collection of ceramic material was made, especially from upper layers that represent a period in which the former cemetery had become a dump. The burial itself was disturbed and the covering stones were delicately balanced, making interior examination difficult. Coffin wood, bone fragments, and some ceramics were collected from inside the tomb but no other grave goods were uncovered. The majority of ceramics from this trench reflect Nabataean through fourth-century AD occupation.
Recommendations for the Future
Following this season’s excavations, we can recommend that the proposed water pipeline proceed as planned but that special care is taken as only select locations were checked in this season’s evaluation.
With the exception of these evaluation trenches, every other trench we excavated this season corresponded with recent looter’s pits and this underlines the need for greater site protection; we look forward to continuing to work with the Department of Antiquities and the local community in order to reduce and prevent looting of this important archaeological and cultural heritage site.
For the Churches Project, we should pursue continued and wider excavation of the three churches that were focused on this season. As this project seeks to better understand the relationships between these churches and the wider domestic society of ancient Umm el-Jimal and how this changed over time, we recommend that future work focus on the areas of the alter screens, church entrances, and structural connections to surrounding domestic structures.