The Mamluk Emporium

As previously mentioned, I have been spending these last few weeks excavating a Mamluk-era barrel vault here at Tell Dhiban. This has meant several weeks of lifting guffaws full of dirt and rocks up out of the building to remove the collapse while documenting brief re-occupations of the building. Finally, on Wednesday, I came down to a nice dirt layer that the collapse respected, meaning that it fell mostly on top of the floor, with a few heavier ashlars more embedded in the softer ground. At first I was afraid that I might have missed the floor—we were expecting flagstones—and had moved on an earlier construction phase by accident. But as we were coming down to the surface we had fewer finds, and the dirt was pretty “clean.” For a tell just lousy with occupation it would have been difficult to get a construction fill that didn’t have loads of artifacts embedded in the matrix. I also didn’t see much of what could have been flagstones—it was all rubble from the collapsed ceiling and floors. We’ll see how accurate my interpretation is when we get more of the building cleared out!

The dirt floor also respected the bin in the south wall, which ended up diving down much farther than I expected. As I was excavating the last of the collapse back, I noticed that it also respected a line of ashlars effectively bisecting the building right at the cistern. We have a similar construction pattern in the west half of the building and whether this is some kind of water management system from the cistern or delineated activity areas, I’m not sure. I am currently leaning against the idea that it was a water system linked with the cistern because it appears that the cistern access was blocked off at this phase by a rebuilt wall. Again, this remains to be seen as we clear more of the collapse out.

From what I’ve seen, the phasing of this building (which I’ve jokingly called the “Mamluk Emporium—everything MUST GO!”) is a bit complicated—it was originally built with two doors, one into another room to the north and another out to a courtyard to the west. Then the north wall was cut away and a cistern was installed between the two rooms. Then, for whatever reason, the cistern was blocked off, but a niche was left where the door once was.

It’s these kinds of puzzles that make excavation so exciting for me—figuring out the architecture, revising my phasing narratives, finding things that completely turn your interpretations around. Not to mention other odd things like there being such an overabundance of Roman, Byzantine, and Iron Age pottery, with a relative paucity of Mamluk artifacts. The Mamluk were re-using stones from other buildings—a fact that makes reconstruction difficult (let’s use a Byzantine column base for a niche corner!) and excavation a bit of a headache. We’re also very near the acropolis of the tell, so wash can only explain so much intrusion from earlier artifacts.

There are a lot of things that happen after the excavation ends—Alan will be running his float samples, there will be other artifact analyses, and a mountain of paperwork—but making sure that the archaeology is properly excavated in the first place is what gives the rest of our work meaning. While this seems obvious, I don’t think that enough of an emphasis is given to the craft of excavation and there is certainly not enough training for archaeology students who want to go on in the field.

Dhiban by the Numbers

17: Flea bites on my left hand
5: Workmen
3: Words I learned in Arabic (horribly transliterated: Gumu, Suu-on, Harrrr = “get out” “chert” “hot”)
6: Hours of sleep (a good night!)
103: Iron Age, Roman, and Mamluk pot sherds from my trench
16: Tags I filled out for finds
8: Cups of tea consumed by 13:00
38: Guffaws full of rocks and dirt that went out of my trench today
3: Slices of watermelon
2: Dustpans that broke as I was using them
1: Seashell from the Red Sea

Touring Jordan


As most people in the states were sleeping in, anticipating beer, friends, and fireworks, I was scrambling over piles of black basalt ruins in the desert near the Syrian border. The ruins of Umm al-Jimal seem to stretch on forever, black against blue sky and gold sand. Our group of nearly twenty rapidly dispersed across the site, no other tourists in sight. Indeed, when we drove into the tiny parking lot there was not another soul around, and we crossed the road and filed in through the open gate. Umm al-Jimal was founded by the Nabateans then occupied by the Romans who used it as a military post. The site has been excavated, but the reports are sadly unpublished. Acres and acres of archaeology remains, and there are bright red Roman pot sherds covering the ground. I walked along the top of a wall with my friend Alan and ducked inside the structures with still intact ceilings—basalt blocks that looked like they had been woven together—an architectural marvel that defies lofty ideas of reconstruction. Would we have been able to figure out this kind of complexity from a jumble of stones? My thoughts went back to Dhiban, to my own pile of rubble.

Umm al-Jimal was the last stop on a weekend trip that included Jerash, Umm Qais, and Qala’at Ar-Rabad. Jerash is the famous site, fabulously reconstructed limestone Roman ruins with gladiator fights, chariot rides (I got the reins taken away from me when I made one horse shy, booo) and a view of the modern city. I walked up the long Cardo Maximus and up the stairs to the temple of Artemis, snapping photos of the spare columns against the blue blue sky. Artemis always seemed like a sensible goddess to me, not as silly as Aphrodite or as stern as Athena or as vicious as Hera. The Eastern Artemis was different though, with mysterious spheres hanging from her chest—breasts, testicles, something else? It hasn’t been decided, so said Danielle the Classics prof that chatted to us about the streets and arches that we wandered through. The midday call to prayer was followed by live broadcast of sermons from the surrounding modern town, and the Arabic wound down and around the Corinthian flourishes and faceless lions.

The next stop was Qala’at Ar-Rabad, a castle built to defend against the pesky Crusaders. It’s become an especially dear to the immigrant Palestinians who have re-settled in Jordan and long for a glimpse of their homeland from its ramparts. They’d line up to take photos of their loved ones against the distant horizon and I tried to stay out of the way. I loved the architecture, full of built and re-built walls, arrow-slits, and mysterious feats of creative reconstruction by well-meaning conservators.

After a good night’s sleep (!) and a blessed hot shower (!!) we made our way to Umm Qais. We’ve been having a hard time getting a bus that will hold us all, so we spilt into four rental cars, silver non-descript sedans dressed up with neon pink flagging tape so we could keep track of each other. The rides were long and hot, static Persian pop on the radio, idle chatter about archaeology and school and miscellaneous. Umm Qais is another Roman Decapolis, mentioned in the book of Matthew in connection with a rather silly story about evil spirits possessing people and Jesus casting the spirits out into a herd of pigs who then rushed into the Sea of Galilee to drown. To enter the site you traverse a ghost town of Ottoman houses that were contentiously evacuated to allow for more work on the “important” Roman architecture. Happily most of the houses are still standing, and I enjoyed a few good mezzes, a cold beer and an outstanding view of Israel-occupied Golan and the mountains of Lebanon after my long walk through the ruins. Umm Qais is a mixture of blinding white limestone and black basalt, a breathtaking contrast set in quiet olive orchards. The government was excavating a large plaza, column sections lined up and numbered for reconstruction, their Corinthian caps sitting askew like bleached vertebrae from a long-dead leviathan. Most people think that all the Roman ruins are excavated, but there are thick, fat acres of olive orchards at Umm Qais, pregnant with archaeology, bits sliding out of poorly-executed sections. This was true at all the sites we visited—Ben likes to say that there’s dozens of dissertations at Umm al-Jimal alone.

We ended the trip by flying down highway 15 out of Mafraq, cutting in front of the other cars, trying to get back to Dhiban in time to do our laundry. We got into Amman just as the sun set, the fading light turning the blocky concrete houses into a hilly moonscape, jagged satellite dishes, terraces, rebar jutting geometrically into the skyline. I was happy that Dave was driving, a wry Scouse who was quick and precise behind the wheel of our silver rental car. The story just gets silly and complicated from this point on—ruins behind us, we got kicked out of ACOR (American Center of Oriental Research), went on a hike to get food and beer, and didn’t get back to site until midnight.

I should update again about my barrel vault (oddly single? truncated floor? bin in the south side?), but I think it will wait for a few days.

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