Photo by Evan, the new site photographer

I woke just before dawn today, to the sound of roosters crowing and a cat bawling in the stairwell.  I felt intensely relieved–I am already sleeping through the first call to prayer, which in Dhiban can sound from anywhere between 3:30-4:30 in the morning and is incredibly loud. It’s a major achievement in sleep and sanity, but it also attests to how tired I was.

I have been on site for three days now, the bulk of which has been cleaning the dig houses and organizing equipment in preparation of the start of field work. It has been good to be back; I didn’t realize how much I missed Katie, Bruce and Danielle, the three on-site supervisors this year and everyone is in high spirits. It’s different than last year as well, the team is still sex segregated, with the boys staying in their old house in the middle of town and the girls on the edge of town, just far enough to have to drive back and forth. The girls’ house is a big improvement on last year and has a small olive orchard, more room, and a nicer layout.  There are also seven sisters living downstairs, and our initial chat over tea was fun and relaxing. 

This year it looks like we will be testing the three terraces of Tall Dhiban to see the extent of the various occupations–we know it was intensively occupied during the Iron Age, Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, and Mamluk periods, but different remains occupy different parts of the site. By better testing we can target different occupation levels without putting large trenches through the tell, which is how people have dug them in the past.  We are also trying to see how surface collections that were performed last year relate to the remains below the ground.  While I’m a little disappointed that I am not opening up a nicely defined piece of architecture, it should be interesting to dig in different areas on the tall.

I look forward to the rest of the team arriving and for work to officially start.  I’m also putting on a photo show this year, the details of which will become clearer after today.

(cross-posted on the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project Blog, dhiban.wordpress.com)

Why do people litter?


It’s hard to escape it in the Middle East–loads of garbage lining the streets, blowing across the desert, and covering the beaches.  I was surprised at how shocked and outraged I was the first time I saw people casually throwing large bags and empty bottles out their car windows–we are fairly well-indoctrinated in the States against that sort of behavior, outside of smokers who still toss their butts on the ground.  I try to carry a plastic bag with me to the archaeological sites I visit so that I can pick up at least some of the trash, but it feels pretty futile.

Like any good anthropology nerd, I started doing a little bit of research.  I realized that while we research trash exclusively as archaeologists, there isn’t a whole lot about modern attitudes toward trash beyond William Rathje’s Garbology.  (As a side note, Rosemary Joyce mentions the excavation of Spoerri’s “Lunch Under the Grass” over on the Berkeley Blog – I have to look into the project!)

In the journal Waste Management–and it thrills me beyond all belief that there is such a thing, I mean, they have articles on food waste as a peat fuel replacement and the physico-chemical and calorific values of poultry manure! Pure gold!–there is an article on solid waste management in Jordan by H.A. Abu Qdais cites the increase in population and life-style pressures combined with lack of funding from individual municipalities as exacerbating Jordan’s problems, especially in large metropolitan areas.  Still, this does not explain behavior in a very satisfying way.

In Fall of 2008, Keizer, Lindenberg, and Steg published a fascinating study in Science about disorder, crime, graffiti, and the Broken Window Theory.  As it is taught in most intro Sociology and Anthropology classes, Broken Window Theory (or BWT) is a familiar concept, introduced by Wilson and Kelling in the early 1980s and used in the 1990s to clean up New York.  Basically, if there are existing signs of neglect or vandalism, more neglect and vandalism will follow.  This concept has been hotly debated in social science ever since.  The Science article, The Spreading of Disorder, describes six field experiments that specifically test the BWT, providing high correlations between visual (and audio!) disorder and the increase in bad behavior, including littering and even theft.  So if you are surrounded by garbage already, according to this article, you are much more likely to litter.  Indeed, you are more likely to behave poorly in general!

This all seems a bit too easy though.  Richard Sampson’s publication Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: Social (Dis)order revisited (freely available!) claims that these perceptions of disorder are contextually shaped by social conditions and that “Seeing disorder…is intimately bound up with social meaning at the collective level and ultimately inequality.”  In other words, if signs of disorder are not perceived and evaluated negatively, it’s not seen as a problem.  So it’s possible (maybe even probable) that the trash just isn’t seen in the same negative light.

I would be more inclined to believe that had I not witnessed the constant maintenance of the sidewalks in front of shops by shopkeepers.  They are always sweeping and spraying down the sidewalks, pushing trash into gutters. So could it be a differing perception of personal space and civic responsibility? Now we’re getting back into the realm of archaeology.  Hodder’s classic The meaning of discard: ash and domestic space in Baringo describes differing discard patterns among the Baringo in Kenya and how discard is linked intimately with social interactions. (PS: Hodder, you have lots of students, assign one of them to link your publication off-prints to your webpage–it’s the nice thing to do.)

This has gotten too long for a blog post and I want to go for a swim, so I’ll try to wrap it up.  How would we stop people from throwing trash around? Would more trash receptacles help? A nation-wide campaign like Don’t Mess With Texas, the incredibly successful 1980s anti-litter slogan that everyone outside of Texas thinks is just another expression of Texas machismo? Better drinking water so that everyone doesn’t constantly use bottled water?  I’m not sure.

Any ideas?

Haram at the Beach

Dead Sea Family by Lisa

Last night I watched the sun set over four countries. Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all visible from the beach on the Red Sea south of Aqaba and I had plenty of time to contemplate geopolitical vagaries as I dug my toes into the sand.  A hot wind was blowing in from the Jordanian desert and I watched the various families settle in around me.  The beach is a liminal zone in Muslim countries, where negotiations of culture, politics, and religion come into high relief.

The public beaches at the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean all have their own particular local mores and acceptable configurations of the highly contested terrain of women’s bodies.  Haram is a very rough equivalent of the word “sinful” in Arabic.  As a Western lady working in the Middle East, I hear it a lot. Pork is haram, chicken is not haram, exposing one’s hands may or may not be haram.  At first I tried fairly hard to figure out how to behave and dress respectfully, but it is contingent on so many factors that it is incredibly difficult–probably impossible since I am foreign anyway. Even my most conservative mosque-going wear was rejected at the Great Mosque in Damascus and I had to put on an Orko-like cloak to enter.  So now I just do what I can in most situations to not draw too much attention to myself, with one notable exception: The Beach. I wear a regular swimsuit and get stared at, but there are usually enough other scantily-clad foreigners to soften the impact. My tattoos also attract attention, perhaps only slightly more than on Western beaches where people pretend not to notice.

Anyway, I will always remember the first time I saw a conservative young couple come to the beach. She was dressed in a full burqa and niqab (face-veil) and he was in short swim trunks.  She sat down under and umbrella and fanned herself as he went splashing off into the sea.  He occasionally came back to check on her, but otherwise she just sat there, sweating in the 50 C heat.

Since then I have seen this same scenario played out several times, with different age-ranges in different states of dress.  I’ve only seen the vaunted burkhini twice, both times on pre-teens who were passing through another liminal state, becoming a sexually mature (and therefore covered) woman.

So it was a familiar scene last night, a woman with her husband and four children, she completely covered and the rest of the family ready for the beach.  She sat in the sand while her husband played with the children and splashed around.  A scholar that was more sympathetic would probably say that she was still the nucleus of the family, that she guarded with the rest of the beach gear, but she seemed very much forgotten in all of the fun.  So, to my surprise, she started playfully throwing rocks at her family and they giggled and dodged the rocks.  This continued until after sunset, when she finally hiked up her burqa and waded into the surf up to her knees.  I looked around and saw that many women were doing this semi-covert dusk activity and that couples were drawing closer together in the dim light of shisha coals.  There’s been daytime swimming as well, women being held tight by their husbands while their burqa swirls around them.  I guess it might not be so different than when I wore a t-shirt to the pool as a self-conscious little kid.

I think I will continue to find beaches in Muslim countries fascinating for both the changing ideas of how women should dress and how foreigners are integrated into the social scene.

Return to Tall Dhiban


The countryside around Dhiban is greener than last year–it may be because I’m here earlier or I might have gained a bit of perspective from wandering around in the desert beforehand.  It was the same dusty Madaba bus station though, then the same twisty road through the wadi, then Dhiban’s tiny fruit stands and claustrophobic streets.  The businesses were about half-shut, as it was noon–nap time in the civilized world.  There seemed to be a couple more shops though, so maybe things are looking up in Dhiban-land.

I was a little anxious re-visiting the site.  Would I see some of the workmen? Would I even be welcome? I had a particularly harrowing conversation the night before at a coffeeshop, where I had just finished watching the first game of the World Cup.  It was the dawning realization that I was talking to a staunch anti-Semite who thought that we were digging for “Jewish inscriptions” to allow “the Jews” to take over that particular part of Jordan.  No amount of talking could convince him and I was left pretty shaken.  It was a pretty stunning example of the “full-contact community archaeology” that seems to typify work at Tall Dhiban.

None of these fears materialized–it was a hot and quiet afternoon in Dhiban and very still. After a very nice tea with our colleague Feras, we walked down the hot asphalt hill and up onto the tall.  The thistles had grown up thick around the trenches and the stone walls were conserved–filled with mortar and even patched in places.  It looks like the site held up pretty well, with a bit of pre-season “help” from what I assume are the local kids:


I was a bit cautious–the tall was overgrown and it was hard to see the wadi dogs that like to lurk around in packs.  Sure enough, near the Meesha trenches, there was a dun-colored shaggy dog.  She seemed content to sleep on a low wall and didn’t bother us, even after we found what is surely the newest addition to the site:


Puppies! Part of me aches when I see baby animals around site–we can’t really care for them or keep them, and sometimes being friendly invites disease or makes the animals less suspicious of people.  I’ve also seen the broken creatures that they turn into–I had a particularly haunting experience with a kitten at Catalhoyuk, but that story is saved for over beers. Lots of them.

Back to Jordan

We emerged from the Syrian/Jordan border crossing in the white haze of a dust storm. I had my headphones in and the music changed the tenor of the landscape from majestic, mysterious beauty to morbid post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The crossing had gone smoothly, and my passport is beyond full, so they’ve started stamping in strange places, on the top and in the margins. What I remember most about this whole process is looking out the window at one of the guards that had sidled up to the car and checking out his well-worn, pearl-inlay sidearm.  He would run his thumb up and down one side of it, absently, lovingly. So very Texas.

Our driver stopped at the Duty Free shop in the middle and picked up a bunch of cigarettes, which he then delivered to a small shop on the Jordanian side.  A little side business never hurt anyone.

A little while over the border (these are Middle East distances, which are farther than, say, Europe distances, but don’t touch the vastness of the highways stretching across the  great American West) turned a corner and Amman emerged through the dust storm, rolling hills made geometrical by the blocky, concrete houses covering every possible surface. Traffic intensified to a proper Middle Eastern fever pitch, but it is a highly organic mess, with its own internal structure and rules.  Once you know these rules and devoid yourself of driver-related ego (hey, that’s my lane!) then it makes more sense than driving in the States. In fact, driving back home becomes stultifying and other drivers seem dangerously oblivious.

I headed to Jerash and hung out with Alan Walmsley’s team at their deluxe dig house. They’re unearthing some really interesting classical and Islamic archaeology over there and they were happy to let me bother them with methodology questions. I’ll be headed down to Madaba in the next couple of days, to familiar stomping grounds, but for now I’m hanging out in downtown Amman, trying to finish up some work. I added a bunch of photos to my Flickr stream from Syria, etc:


Notes on being hopelessly lost in the Syrian Desert

* No matter what, Homs will be signposted. This will not be helpful.

* Maps vary wildly in accuracy.  There are no accurate maps.

* These maps mean nothing to locals. That said, always ask directions from the dudes sitting down in front of the local stores. They know what’s up.

* There are no gas stations. If you find a gas station, it won’t have any gas.

* If you don’t bring a compass, you will not know what direction you are headed for 2-3 hours in the middle of the day.

* If you see Bedouin settlement camps, you’ve probably gone the wrong way.

* If these camps are abandoned, start to panic.

* If you ask for directions to Damascus, half of the time the person will ask to go with you. The other half of the time they will invite you for tea.

* You probably will not find the archaeological site. Sorry.

* Never follow a wadi.

Life lessons, y’all.


We crossed the border from Jordan to Syria in a cab, our driver humming along to various Islamopop songs on the radio and zig-zagging through traffic.  There were five or maybe six checkpoints, all of them involving giving up my passport and being squinted at by men in army suits.  The Syrian border customs, when we finally arrived, disliked my visa and changed it from multiple entry to single entry, and to only last a week.  I was happy not to have any more hassle than that; I’ve known people who were stopped at that dusty border for days.

We got into Damascus in the late afternoon and headed for the center of the city, a twisty maze of hodge-podge mudbrick and stone buildings.  I took lots of photos of the mudbrick and plaster and tiny lanes full of people in a hurry.  After a very circuitous wander and some of the best mezze of my life, we ventured down the dark alleys of the Christian quarter.  Turning around one corner, we ran into a procession of Christians singing with lit candles, taking over the entire street.  We looked at one another, shrugged, and joined at the tail.  The lights flickering on the walls and the faces of the people was achingly beautiful.

The next day (if I’m remembering–it seems like ages ago now!) we went to the museum and then to the souk for some serious wandering around.  Melissa and I waded through a large protest, with a person speaking into a microphone in obvious distress and flags and Palestinian scarves were everywhere.  It was only later that we figured out that it was a protest over the IDF tragedy.  Before that day, when we told people that we were American they’d smile and nod, and sometimes say, ‘OBAMA!’  After that, it was: ‘well, we can’t all be perfect’ or a just a slight grimace and nod.  Still, the protest was entirely peaceful and people are beyond friendly.

After Damascus we went to an incredible coastal site and Krak des Chevaliers, but my time is running out on the internet.  Tomorrow: Palmyra.


(Actually written from an internet cafe in the tire souk in Aleppo–I’m a bit behind! Also, sorry about the photos.  I left my computer in storage in Amman) 

I’m probably the only one among the hoards and hoards of people that felt a bit sad when I climbed to the Acropolis in Athens.  Its destruction and reconstruction over the years gives it an uncanny feeling, and the measures that preserve the site make it also feel sterile and a bit fallow.  I’m spoiled, of course, and used to climbing up and over ruins and poking my nose into all of the dark corners.  But it was more than that, just a sense that people were there for a photo that they could send back to their friends, regardless of the greater meaning contained within the monument.  I took the same photo, of course.

It doesn’t help that I have been reading a new book called Ruins of Modernity to review for the Visual Studies journal–ruins are in high relief this summer, with all of the interpretive baggage they bring along.  More about that later, though. The Acropolis museum, on the other hand, was incredible–a very strong argument for the return of the infamous Elgin marbles, recent economic struggle aside.  My favorite part wasn’t actually the display that mirrored the Acropolis, but the lower levels that displayed assemblages that had been excavated from recent sites, with interesting and fairly in-depth explanation.  The glass floors showing excavations added a nice metaphoric sense to it all, with layers of history literally beneath your feet.  Sadly you could not take photos within the exhibit–always a poor choice for museums.

The city of Athens was incredibly lovely.  I think my favorite moment was walking down a meandering alley in Plaka behind an orthodox priest, watching him looking at all of the anarchist graffiti covering the walls.  The graffiti was covering nationalist graffiti, with sections crossed out–vandalizing the vandals.  The more touristy zones were a bit crazy with African immigrants selling all manner of things and being periodically harassed by the police.  Cats and dogs fought over scraps and I watched the full moon rise over the city.

I hope that I can go back someday and spend more than a day and a night exploring the city.

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