The Way It Is

10-2Today was our last day of excavation, but the excavation of my cistern at the caravanserai at Um Guntar ended two days ago, on Thursday – July 17th.

We were on our third day of excavating the site. We had worked hard the previous two days – the terrain is strewn with dark rocks which soak up the intense sun and we were lacking our normal breeze. Not that the breeze would have helped the person in the test square that much, since we had managed to dig down about a meter below ground level. To make matters worse, the soil we were digging through had the consistency of dried clay, which rendered our trowels useless and forced us to use hand picks to loosen the dirt. Still, we were all happy and still excited about the progress we were making.

The previous day we had tried sifting through the dirt in the afternoon, but the results were as expected for a cistern – there were no significant finds except for a few soil samples taken from an ash layer, a few bones (which turned out to be from a rat), and some flecks of charcoal. Therefore, this particular morning I had decided to cease sifting and concentrate on reaching the floor of the cistern, which was one of our primary goals.

About mid-morning we were approached by a young Bedouin man leading two camels and a donkey. I offered him a cigarette (great ice-breaker in this region, since 80% of the population smokes) and tried to start up a conversation with him. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand any English and my Arabic is limited to a few common phrases that we use regularly on the dig site. From what I can tell he wanted to make chai for us in exchange for a few Dinars. I declined, since we had our own chai kit, and he continued on his way.

10-1At around 9:30 am we broke for second breakfast (yes, that’s right – we have four meals a day). Dr. Smith drove up and he joined us for chai and food, then we all went back to work. It is a good thing that he arrived when he did because not long after resuming work a military patrol vehicle approached us. I had forgotten to get the necessary documents from Dr. Smith that morning before he went off to take care of administrative duties, so we managed to avoid a complicated situation.

As it was, the officer leading the patrol was not happy about us being in his area and after collecting our passports, he called his superior officer for orders. I must admit that I found it a little disconcerting that they began to don body-armor, but we soon found out that it was only to appear presentable. For within the hour two more patrol vehicles arrived bearing what I believe to have been the equivalent of a Colonel, with whom Dr. Smith talked with at length. Meanwhile, the team and I, suspecting that all was not right, began to excavate harder and faster. Unfortunately, the test-square by this time was too deep and narrow to allow more than one person with a pick in it at a time.

Finally, they left. Dr. Smith, however, told us to work faster because he had a hunch that they would return. Sure enough, the patrol was back within the hour and their officer told us that we had until 1 pm (it was 12:30 pm by this point) to pack up our gear and get out of the area. Dr. Smith bickered with the officer, while the rest of us took three minute shifts in the trench, tearing up the ground as fast as we could. By Petra’s third turn Greg and I could see that she was getting irritated as she listened to the conversation between Dr. Smith and the Jordanian officer. Finally, she threw down her pick and stormed off toward the vehicle. Greg quickly jumped into the square and began hacking away at the ground as I carried away dirt and encouraged him to dig as fast as possible – we had to reach the floor!

One thing you should understand about Petra is that she understands the culture and knows how to get things done as a western woman in the Middle-East. The daughter of Czech diplomats, she practically grew up in Cairo. In fact, while the rest of us were flying into Amman for this project, her father drove her.

Petra really worked this guy. Within moments of talking to the officer, they were both smiling and giggling and we had our deadline of thirty minutes extended to 5 pm! It seemed like it was “mission accomplished,” but a superior officer called and we were given a final warning to evacuate the premises within half an hour, or face arrest.

What had apparently happened was that while the Department of Antiquities had cleared us to excavate in the area, the military had not. And because this was a military zone, they were not very happy about not being consulted about the excavation. We had tread on their turf without permission.

At this point Dr. Smith told us to do a quick clean up of the area for final photos and measurements. We failed to reach the floor, so calculating the maximum volume of the cistern was out of the question. We would have to settle for a minimum volume based on the depth we had reached, which was better than nothing.

And so ended my excavation of Um Guntra. Through no fault of our own we were not able to wholly reach our goals. Still, I think the team did rather well, given the circumstances and Dr. Smith seemed pleased with us.

The last two days have been spent helping the other area supervisors clean up their squares for final photos. Tomorrow some of us are going back out to backfill some of the more delicate sites that have plaster floors. The weekend is upon us again and after that the majority of us will be heading to Amman. Most are flying out on either the 23rd, or the 24th. I, however, am trying to book a room at ACOR and will be staying in-country until the 30th. I’m hoping to see Jerash before I leave.

Until next time,

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