Ever since I was a curious 5 year-old my dad has been traveling to Jordan as an archaeologist, promising every time, every single time, he’ll bring me and the rest of my family with him. At the time I was memorizing the globe and the plethora of countries we share our world with but Jordan became the first place outside of the US and Canada to be a real place for me. A real place with real people, real history and real significance to the global community. Since then I have experienced growing up in another country- the UK- and meeting countless others, including some of my closest friends, who had come from other countries. The globe became a vibrant, diverse and real thing for me over these years, but still I never visited Jordan. It’s about time… 15 years later I finally visited Jordan as an archeology student myself.
Archeology is deeply concerned with time, how places change, what places were once like. Understanding these changes often helps understand the development of our own cultures, global relations and how we live. Every event impacts upon the world in some manner: technology, war, natural disasters impact societies and its the job of the archeologist to uncover these not in the historical texts but within their own context. In Umm el-Jimal, the archeological focus is upon the ruins of a Byzantine town 6 miles south of the modern Syria. The site was also used previously by the Romans and Nabateans and much later by the Masa’eid and Druze peoples up until the 1970s. Over 2000 years, this place has been the centre of the world for countless peoples. Today, the ruins lie in the centre of the modern village of Umm el-Jimal and the excavations and associated projects involve the local community working side-by-side with teams from the US such as my current team from Calvin University in Grand Rapids.
The aim of my trench is to date the construction of one of the churches on the site as well as date the collapse of one of the arches. This is within a greater context of understanding the church’s changes architecturally and possibly religiously, as well as seeking to have a greater understanding of the relationship between the church and the domestic buildings it both is connected to and neighbors.
Facing the apse of the church, known as the South West church for its location on the site, the trench is located on the righthand side, between the rood screen base and an arch base with a few arch stones having remained in the places they collapsed. The majority of the trench is a looter’s trench from earlier this year surrounded by the plaster flooring from the final phasing of the church when used for religious purposes. As a result, this has made my trench less neat than a few other trenches, minimizing the new excavation work in favor of preserving the plaster flooring, some of which has elaborate designs. As there was another trench within the church, comparisons can also be made though the layers of flooring and foundation to understand the construction of the church.
An important part of archaeology is the axiom that the highest point or first layer is the most recent phase in the life of a place. As you excavate deeper the finds begin to clarify possible time periods in which the phase occurred. If excavating under a floor of a building, pottery, glass, organic material and countless other objects can help give a general date for the construction period: during or after the date of the find underneath. As you continue through new layers, called loci in Jordanian archaeology, you begin to become more certain that something occurred in certain time periods, certain historical contexts. In terms of the South West Church, each plaster layer can be dated if organic material, such as seeds, were trapped inside. If I find a piece of pottery in soil layers underneath or in between plaster layers, this also helps date the floor to specific time periods. Charcoal and other organic material can also be used for carbon dating. Thus we do not merely really on the historical record, pottery or architecture to ask the question of ‘when was this constructed?’ but also through a more scientific method.
However, these tests are less than perfect. It is entirely possible over a dig season , or even over an extended time period, for a site to become contaminated. Human activity is not confined to constructing buildings or leaving pottery pieces in the dirt. Through this season cigarette butts left in the trench overnight, collapsed soil from the edges of my trench and other disturbances have occurred. If these are found and not recognized as contamination, the dating of a site can be rendered unverified by these events. Animal and plant activity also may have an effect. Through my dig I have been aware of a hollow on one balk of my trench, a likely occurrence of an animal burrowing into the soil. Furthermore, the presence of plant life on the topsoil of the backfill provides a chance of obtaining organic material which dates to a much more recent time period.
Overall, I hope that the work undertaken in this excavation will help clarify the dating of the church and its architectural phasing, in relation to the other trench, as well as shine light on how it related to those who lived by, worshiped in and walked past this church throughout its own distinct history.
Along with me, and also working with another member from Calvin, were two local co-workers: Mana’a and Mohamed. Throughout the excavation, they have been friendly, helpful and interested in the archaeology. Despite the language barriers of having little English on one side and little Arabic on the other, when communications possible, I have befriended them and learned more about their home and culture, in turn I hope they have learned more about me and my own cultural background, that mixture of English and American.