Monday, January 18, 2010

Archaeological Finds at Abila

     The thing about digging (besides the fact that it is hot as hell!), is that unlike teaching, you can actually observe some immediate progress. Plus, while you may not know how far down you're going to dig (I think all supervisors keep this to themselves, or else are figuring it out as they go along, observing what you're actually uncovering), it doesn't matter so much because that's all you've got to do all day anyway! As for how wide and long your square will be, that you pretty much do know in advance, as your supervisor has announced to his crew that "we" will be putting in this many squares in this area during this dig season, looking for such and such because "I expect we should be coming down on that at some point pretty soon." Now this could be anything from mosaic tile floors, to an important wall, to paving stones, to a water channel, or anything else once it becomes more clear what had most likely once been located in that particular area.
      Like I said earlier, Abila was once a very large city, especially during the Roman period. There had once been as many as six churches, shops, roads, a theater, houses, quarries, water tunnels, cisterns, gates, a defensive wall, as well as other structures that have yet to be determined. Located up on Area A, where I was digging, once sat a large Byzantine church (not an overly exciting find for most archaeologists, as remains of these exist all over the Middle East). J wanted to do several probes (meaning, purposeful digging down past several stratigraphic layers) to determine if there had been earlier occupation. The thing with a probe is that eventually one does begin to get the feeling that he's digging all the way to China (and these probes can get very dangerous). Sometimes when the American workers started to get really irritated with the Director (which like I said, didn't take all that long!), lots of good humored plans would often be discussed as to how a person might push him into a probe and make it look like an accident. If nothing else, this just offered everyone a good laugh, helping relieve the collective tensions that were building up due to our very trying living conditions, combined with the realization that each person on the dig (except for a few of us; a fact I kept very quiet about!) had paid almost $2000 to be there!
     Anyway, back to digging. Lots of interesting objects and materials were found at Abila that season, just as had been the case in all the previous seasons. Loads of ceramic pottery has been found, dating from the Islamic period and going as far back as the Early Bronze Period (3300 -1950 BC), even while the occupation of Abila is known to have gone back to the Chalcolithic Period (4250-3300 BC). There may even have been occupation during the Neolithic Period (8000-4250 BC), as potsherds were found during an initial survey of Abila that suggested this possibility! So, as anyone can see, Abila has been a rich site to excavate. Besides all the pottery (including large and small storage vessels, jars, jugglets, dishes, lamps, and other objects), there have been finds of bones (both animal and human), glass vessels, clay figurines, an abundance of tesserae, loom weights, jewelry (both women's rings and signet rings, bracelets, and earrings), shell objects, limestone busts, plaster, chert spear blades, coins, tools, and other metal objects, along with the many columns and capitals belonging to another Byzantine church in Area D that had toppled over during a major earthquake (AD 747), which had destroyed much of the architecture in that region. Besides destruction from earthquakes, several occupation periods had witnessed large scale destruction from fires, which I came down on evidence of while digging in my own square.
     Abila is also rich in painted tombs, descriptions of which the French have also been recording and publishing. Loads of Abila’s objects have been discovered buried in these tombs, but word gets out quickly to all the local villages, and then tomb robbing becomes of great concern, not only to the archaeologists, but to the Jordanian government. J has spent more than one night in a newly discovered tomb, along with one or two other members of the American excavation team, in order to keep "guard" over it until it has been excavated. It's impossible to keep it a secret whenever another tomb has been found, as all the locals quickly spread the news, thinking there might be gold or something else really valuable in it. While the Department of Antiquities hires guards to keep watch over the excavation site during the off seasons (as well as the "on" season--there was a guard's tent up on our area), black marketing of antiquities is a huge business, and guards are easily bribed. Every season, under their “watchful” eyes, tomb robbers comb the hillsides in search of any indentation that might suggest a door or passageway into a tomb, knowing that Abila is famous because of their sheer number, boasting more than any other site in Jordan. Unfortunately, no one ever witnesses any theft! Besides the black marketers, there has been a lot of general looting and destruction of property from the Abila site, a process which has been ongoing and well entrenched in the local villages, even among the more affluent residents, in whose well-landscaped gardens have been found stolen columns, statues, and the like. Fortunately for everyone, a large percentage of the finds have been preserved in the archaeology museum in Amman, though due to lack of space, much of the antiquities of Jordan is in storage.