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Petra, Jordan: you ain’t got nothin’ on Nabataea

No, seriously.  Petra, straddling something like ten square miles of Jordanian mountain-desert-canyon chaos, was the jewel of the Nabataean kingdom and makes everything that you or I have done in our lives look like so much small change.

Hey, that’s me!  I’m famous!

Eagle-eyed viewers may just recognise this, ‘the Treasury’, as the resting place of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (as well as the narrow canyon they ride down, which opens directly onto this monstrosity).  Carved into the solid rock, I’m there for scale.  ‘Big’ is a fair description here, and whilst the Treasury is pretty big as Nabataean tombs go, it’s not the biggest.

Would you like to see the inside of one of these opulent tombs?  I bet you would, you’re a sucker for fancy architecture.  Here is one of the most impressive ones:

Actually, that’s a bit lame, isn’t it?

The first thing you’ve got to understand about the city of Petra is that it had serious motivation to look impressive.  For four hundred years before Trajan annexed it to Rome, Petra sat on a number of key trade routes across the Arabian Desert: the Silk and Spice Roads come to mind, with ludicrously valuable materials having no choice but to pass through Petra.  Indeed, that’s exactly why Petra’s there – another Nabataean settlement, Avdat in modern Israel, sits on the frankincense route up through Saudi Arabia.  The Nabataean pattern is, essentially, to exploit the trade routes running through the desert to skim off the cream.

A breakdown of the East-West trade routes until the fall of Rome.  Source: Wikipedia.  Not shown, much to my irritation: sodding Petra.

The wealth of the city of Petra is reported by all contemporary chroniclers as fantastic, and a glance at the various styles of Nabataean architecture reveal obvious influences from Hellenistic, Roman and Persian contact that Petra, producing nothing of its own, absolutely depended on.  Indeed, when the Nabataean kingdom was absorbed into Rome by Trajan, the same expansion cemented their control of the Red Sea, making the sea route to India plyable again, and as a nippier trip with less chance of melting to death, Petra receded into irrelevance, finally abandoned after a disastrous earthquake in 555 AD.

So why isn’t this wealth reflected in munificent tombs?  Why is Petra a wonderful example of style over substance?  The best way to demonstrate this is with the Unfinished Tomb, tucked behind the magnificent temple:

The majestic tomb fronts are carved out of the solid rock of the canyons.  They’re not built, they’re sculpted: here you can see how masons would work their way down from the top of the facade bit by bit unless, for some reason, this were to be stopped, as it was with the Unfinished Tomb.  It’s a lot easier to do this than it would be to build something of an equivalent size, which would need huge interiors just by the laws of engineering if nothing else.  It’s Dwarf Fortress reasoning.  When it’s anchored in solid rock, however, all you need is the impressive front, leaving the burial area, occasionally visited by living members of the family (it’s believed these were family tombs, as the multiple depressions on our second photo suggests) but mostly not accessed.  These weren’t structures for daily use.  What we see, as depressingly frequently with the Classical Era, are the large, grand structures of the local nobility, minus the houses, roads and activity: in other words, exactly what they’d want you to be seeing.

Source: Wikipedia

That’s like less than a third of the site and it’s all up mountains or in valleys or up in mountain-valleys and I’m going to stop writing now because even thinking about it is giving me heatstroke.


Birzeit, Palestine: I don’t mind if I do

N.B. Out of respect to the fact that this work is currently unpublished, I feel obliged to leave out one or two cool things and generally gloss over the details – apparently there are risks of vandalism and theft at the site so I will not specify the name or location.  When the publication comes out, relatively soon, it’s my understanding that it’ll be publicly available so rest assured I’ll bring it up again.

Wandering through the Ramallah Museum I strike up a conversation with the friendly curator (one of the first words I learn in every language is ‘archaeologist’: I’m still at that early stage where I’m giddy with the concept of calling myself one.  “Al-attar”, I routinely mispronounce).

“I’ve been travelling around,” I say, “looking for digs.  I hear field season’s over in Palestine now though.”

“Actually,” he says, smiling, “I know a guy.”

So the dig I’ve wangled my way onto is courtesy of Birzeit University, Birzeit – a university town some ten minutes out of Ramallah.  Dr. Hamid Saleh is leading the excavations here at this early Byzantine village (i.e. before the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century), as an opportunity to train his large number of students, ranging from first years to Masters students.  Some of them are first-timers on site, whilst others have seen it all.  In-house excavations are generally like this: it’s a good model educationally, allowing students to learn as they go both under professional supervision and with the assistance of contemporaries.  I only spent a week here, but it’s better than nothing.

I find myself, for the first time in my life, supervising.  Fortunately for the data I end up supervising a desperate search for bedrock that comes up empty.

My main square, before I failed to find rock.  Personally I blame whoever built the terraces on these rolling hills: everywhere else they were like ‘bedrock?  No problem!’.

Much cooler stuff is happening around the basilica.  I use basilica in the architectural sense, as structures that evolved out of the pre-Christian Roman Period into the default style for Orthodox buildings after the adoption of Christianity.  Often relatively modest things, the one we’ve got here is no more than 10 x 20m in area, but it’s very well preserved and is frankly really nice.  This has all been done before I got here, in the space of three weeks: for supposedly new students they know how to work.

Incidentally, this is all geometric mosaics under there.  It’s a real shame you can’t see them.

This view is running along the nave of the church away from the altar, before the recovery of the mosaics ,which will be reburied under breathable material and sand just in case someone else wants a look.  The atrium or open courtyard also borrowed from Roman architecture doesn’t seem to have survived but the narthex has: the narthex, an officially unconsecrated area of the church structure, was for the purpose of permitting heathens to enter the church for baptism and general ‘ooh, look at the artwork’ chicanery (the facetious jerk in me wants to call this the ‘try before you buy’ room).  These things stop appearing in structures once Christianity is dominant in an area, and as such can either be used as an upper limit for construction dates (when the Christian trajectory of a province is known) or as an insight into Christianity’s status in an area (when the construction date is known).  To make this a little easier to visualise I’ve stolen a map from Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia, a floor plan of Old St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The basilica we’ve got our hands on seems to have fewer aisles than this one – Greek and Latin churches are different long before the Schism – but balances this out with a sacristy (base for the priest) at the back, sadly collapsed along with the NE wall.  This collapse seems to me to signal the end of the settlement, probably not long after the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate and the socio-populational upheaval implied: the only indication that anything happened afterwards is the fact that the terracing stones clearly came from buildings here.

The one thing that I’m curious about is the basilica’s position relative to the rest of the settlement.  There’s been a bit of work done on an unidentified public building to the west, where most of the settlement is (a modern road runs just E of the basilica and cuts off any remains from there, but it seems that it sits on the settlement’s E edge anyway).  This itself is only halfway up the hill, but the basilica sits at the bottom.  I always thought that religious buildings went on high ground: seeing as we’ve got hints of a Roman presence maybe the structures of the time simply made this impractical.

Back on the road: stay tuned for more oversimplification and self-regarding waffle.

Jericho, Palestine: Old as all hell

You know Jericho.  Seriously, you do: it’s one of those Old Testament stories that we’ve all heard of.  The Israelites invade Canaan, sweeping all before them until they reach the grand city of Jericho, thick-walled and belligerent.  Joshua pulls his stunt with marches and trumpets and the walls come down, and that’s that.  Suddenly and briefly this unknown city of a barely known people is thrust onto the world stage, and then disappears from the Biblical narrative.

To be fair to Jericho though, the Israelite invasion is barely an eyeblink of its time.  Excavations at Jericho in the early 50s by the fantastic Kathleen Kenyon, whose work pioneered archaeological principles like stratigraphy, took the site of Tel-es-Sultan just north of modern Jericho, and what she found made it abundantly clear that Jericho was a damn sight older than Joshua, the Bible, Canaan, Egypt or the concept of monotheism.

This tower, some four metres tall, dominates the defensive walls of its period.  This period, incidentally, is the pre-pottery Neolithic – approximately 9400 BC.  The defensive structures enclosed what was a sizable city-state, comparable to Catal Hoyuk.  Indeed, the Palestinian Authority goes so far to market it as ‘the oldest city in the world’, celebrating its 10000th anniversary in 2007.  Claims of ‘oldest’ are never possible to substantiate, as radiocarbon dates (also pioneered by Kenyon, in fact) still give error margins of +-400 years for such old material, and of course we’ve not excavated everywhere: Jericho can, however, make a reasonable claim to oldest continuously occupied city, which is also pretty cool.

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Day of Archaeology 2012

Important plug inbound.


I’m going to be posting for the Day of Archaeology 2012, and so should you be.  Due to a series of visa-related confusions and a myriad of potential options (yes, I’m about a week behind – I’ve been through Jerusalem and you don’t even know!) I’m not actually sure where I’m going to be on June 29th but I’ll be doing something, and I will be blogging about it in-depth to talk about the actual grind of a working day.  So will some 400+ others, one of whom could be you!  Stuff like this can only make us even cooler than we, y’know, are, and seeing as I’d be doing it anyway it’s hardly bad for me.

It’s being run through WordPress, and all you need to do for now is email to give them a heads-up that you’ll be involved.  We’ll get details closer to the day.  So no matter where you are or what you’re working on (it doesn’t have to be excavation: it just has to be archaeology), I suggest you start thinking.  Could be fantastic.

P.S. stay tuned tomorrow for not so much a blog about Jerusalem as a blog about a Jerusalemite RIOT FANTASTIC (definitely not archaeology)

Istanbul, Turkey: Surprising Visitors

N.B. with thanks to Professor Neil Price, whose lectures I am shamelessly cribbing.

So instead of waxing lyrical about the timeless qualities of the East-meets-West city that I’ve been sleeping in bus stations and crossing Turkey in fantastic time to see, I’m going to show you the single most mindblowing thing in the entire metropolis, which basically has nothing to do with Greeks or Turks.

Preserved under glass now which is cool.

That right there, on the upper level on the right hand side of the Hagia Sophia, the grandest achievement of Byzantine Christendom, scratched into the stone, is a nice little set of Nordic runes.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

So this leads to the obvious question: what on Earth are Vikings doing hanging out in Constantinople?  The answer is surprisingly simple, but in explaining it we’re going to have to zoom out a little.

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Çatalhöyük – About goddamn time

N.B. the official spelling is Çatalhöyük but as I am no longer in Turkey and don’t have the necessary keyboard this is not happening.

I’d just like to kick off by pointing out that this is pretty much the sole reason I decided to bother with mainland Turkey, having wanted to see this place since I was about ten and it appeared in the Reader’s Digest of Vanished Civilisations (1983), and that I can now die content.  I’d have much preferred to help out with the excavations run by so many different universities, but I needed to decide that six months in advance to get the appropriate visa.  Oh well.

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Adana and Konya: So this is Turkey then

So the boat from Turkey worked in prinicple.  Four hours late in leaving (people didn’t even show up until two hours after) and somehow eight hours early I beached at Taşucu at ten at night, tired, disoriented, and with absolutely no idea what was there.

It would be fair to say that I hadn’t really planned this part (or, indeed, any part).  For a while the Internet had been swearing blind that a direct Girne – Istanbul route was running, but pretty much no-one in the TRNC seemed to agree (yes, I know, the Internet is a brazen liar).  Only boat on offer, then.

A taxi tore out of the dark, preying on the people escaping customs, before spotting us, the only tourists on the boat, Scottish, Iraqi and Sri Lankan,  holding up the Turkish labourers who were looking for work in Cyprus as the border guards reacquainted themselves with passports and their own visa laws.

”Bus station?”

Sod it.  ”Evet.”

The bus station obviously has one goal in existence: getting people on buses.  Reps from the myriad of bus companies patrol the corridors of all Turkish bus stations, shouting destinations like metronomes, escorting you to their booths, like wraiths on commission.  ”Adana?”

I’m fairly sure this is a city I need to go to.  ”Adana.”

”Bus in 20 minutes,” he says, taking my money.  No time to think, no time to plan.  The bus passes an open cheap hotel on its way out of the bus station, dragging me the 200km along the southern coast of Anatolia to where I think Adana is.  I sigh.

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