Tell Madaba, Jordan (1999)

In 1999, I obtained a scholarship grant that allowed me to join Dr. Timothy Harrison‘s archaeological team in Jordan. That year, it was sort of a field school and Prof. Harrison was taking on undergraduate students who had never set foot on a dig before. He accepted my candidacy, saying that a masters student in Egyptology could not possibly be worse than a new recruit!  This was the summer that changed my life….

Yours truly on her very first dig, clearing the dirt of a bone with a very large brush!

Yours truly on her very first dig, clearing the dirt of a bone with a very large brush!

Tell Madaba Archaeological Project, Jordan: June-July 1999

4:00 am The muezzin sings the call to prayer. That’s our wake-up call. I know the eleven girls from the two other rooms will stumble out of bed and go to the bathroom. Thirteen girls in one bathroom would be bad luck (and way too crowded). My roommate Jackie and I go back to sleep.


4:25 am
Jackie’s watch beeps. She gets up and goes to the bathroom, where the rush has quieted down a bit.

4:30 am My watch beeps. It’s now my turn to get up. The bathroom is empty, except for Jackie brushing her teeth and another girl braiding her long hair.

4:40 am Time to dress up. An old cotton T-shirt and a pair of cotton pants will be perfect for the hot temperature of Jordan. Add to that a pair of cotton socks and a pair of wool socks. Shake the brand new steel-toed dig boots (no bugs inside) and put the boots on. Next comes the blue button-down shirt (my favourite) and the hat. Grabbing my tool bag, off I go to get breakfast downstairs.

4:55 am Peanut butter on a slightly stale pita bread or Corn Flakes with powdered milk are the options. I’ll have a cup of tea and… an apple.

5:00 am The archaeological site is about 2 minutes walk away from the dig house. On the way there, I stop at the tool shed to bring hoes, buckets and guffas (baskets made with rubber, probably from the Arabic quffah, the word for basket) for our excavation unit.

5:15 am Everybody has finally arrived on site. Dayle, our square leader, confers with the dig director and gives us the instructions for our unit. We simply continue what we started the day before. We gently remove the earth and the paper bags that cover a pot bust (a ceramic pot was found broken in small pieces, which are lying flat on the ground). We had covered it over the day before because the photographer had not had time to come to our square to take photos. We can’t remove the sherds until he does. Covering the find with brown paper bags and earth was the best way to prevent stray dogs or any person from disturbing the discovery. Another section of the square is explored in the meantime. Tags are written up so each bucket is assigned to a specific locus. That is where we put all the pottery sherds we find in that locus.

6:30 am Finally, the photographer comes around to our square. He has been running around trying to take as many photos as possible before the sun is too high. He takes different shots and I write down the ID numbers on his list of photographs and I write them down on the locus sheet as well. That way, anybody reading the sheet will know that there are photos associated with this locus, and this particular feature.

6:45 am Now, I can work in the area of the pot bust. I carefully remove all the sherds and place them in a separate bag. That way, I know they are from the same vessel and I will be able to glue them back together later on.

7:20 am Our square leader needs measurements and levels to be taken. Since I have finish with my pottery sherds, I volunteer to help. While he peers through the viewer of the theodolite, I stand in various areas of the square with a long metre pole. We measure the height of walls, the depth of an ash pit, the emplacement of the pot bust and all sorts of other things.

7:45 am My workman and the Jordanian archaeology student working with us have found another ash pit. They start excavating that while I fill out my locus sheet and write the morning’s activities in the journal.

8:20 am My workman calls to me saying he found something and I need to come look at it. He says it’s a coin. Coins are good; they help date the material found on site and occupation levels of the site. I call out our square leader, who is busy shooting levels in another square. Putting my gloves on, I reach the others who are all gathered around to look at the discovery. The coin is half buried in the sand and ash of the pit. I gently pick it up in my gloved hands. I stare at it and then I stare at my workman. I seriously doubt that he found this coin there… but he assures me he did. Our square leader arrives, so I show him the coin. An Austrian coin minted in the 1960s. We talk really fast in English. We know that Badawy, the little prankster, planted the coin there and then pretended he found it. Now, it is our turn to play a prank on him. Our square leader announces that it is a great discovery and that I should find a film canister to put it and stick a label to it. It is a great artefact that will be studied later. Badawy’s face falls ; we are taking away his coin. He had not planned that! I sit down, write up a label and find a film canister and put the coin in. Distraught, Badawy comes to see me to explain that he was joking and that he let the coin that was in his pocket fall deliberately to pretend he had found something. He wanted to see if we would figure out it was not found there. The coin is his and he would like to have it back. The coin goes in my bag. The look on the poor guy’s face! He shrugs in defeat and walks away. I can hear the dig director and our square leader giggling. We all return to work.

8:55 am Just before the break, I call Badawy over. He comes over with a sheepish look on his face. With a severe look on my face, I pull his coin out of my bag and put it in his hand. He should never do this, plant artefacts in archaeological context. This time, we knew immediately what had happened because there was no way a modern coin could have been found in an undisturbed Hellenistic context. However, had this coin been much older it could have led to serious trouble.

9:00 am Second breakfast, the moment for which we have all been waiting anxiously ! We all scramble out of our squares and into the shade of a modern wall on one side of the site. This morning, we have falafel as well as potato and cheese pastries. As we munch away, the workmen are brewing tea–Jordanian chai is absolutely amazing. Badawy comes over and offers me tea and apologises again.

9:30 am Halas estraha! Break time is over… every body goes back to work. Quickly, I go visit another square where they have found what appears to be a mosaic floor. Having never seen one in an archaeological context before, I was a little bit curious. I climb back up at the top of the tell, where my square is.

9:45 am We finish excavating the second ash pit. We take levels and I write up the locus sheets, asking Badawy to help me with the measurements. We explore a new section of the square.

10:30 am We haven’t found anything in the new section yet. We even sift the dirt we are removing to make sure we are not missing anything. Nothing has been found. We continue our work, maybe something will come up.

11:30 am We found a rather large and flat rock. There seems to be another one just next to it. It looks like some kind of structure to me, but I am not sure. I tell the others to rest for 5 minutes while I go get our square leader who is now taking levels of the mosaic floor at the bottom of the tell.

11:40 am Having finished with the mosaic floor, our square leader comes over to have a look at the stones. We have uncovered another one. He pokes here and there and borrows my trowel to clear out a wider area. We appear to have found a flagstone floor. This is exciting… we call over the dig director who happens to walk nearby. He finds this very exciting too. We are to clear as much as we can within this locus and try to figure out how this floor relates to the small section of an ancient wall near the middle of the square.

12:15 pm We won’t be finished clearing the flagstone floor today, we’ll have to continue tomorrow. The workmen are starting to put some tools away. We continue working, we have 15 minutes left. We just need trowels, big brushes and a guffa. The hoes and the picks can be brought back to the tool shed.

12:30 pm The sun is boiling… and I am quite happy to leave the field. I make sure all my tools have been returned to me and I pack my bag. I grab three buckets and a guffa and start towards the street. Badawy comes running to help me (the boy really wants to be forgiven – which he already has been). Even though I tell him to go home, he insists on taking all the buckets with the pottery sherds back to the house. He reluctantly leaves me the guffa, which I will drop at the shed on the way. Once at the house, Badawy shows me where he placed the buckets and I bid him farewell. I fill the bucket with water before I go drop off my bag outside my room. I remove my button-down shirt and my hat. I am hot, sweaty and covered in dust. There is no time for a shower before lunch, so I simply wash my arms, scrub my hands and nails and clean my face. I have dust in my ears and in my nose… and I am not the only one. We have a nose blowing concert in the girls’ bathroom.

12:45 pm We line up for the food that has been laid out on the kitchen counter. Chicken on a bed of rice and lentils sprinkled with pine nuts as well as tomato and cucumber salad (fatoush). Watermelon and plain yogurt is our treat for dessert. Nice cold water or Tang for drinks. We gather in the dining hall, where we chat about things we found today. The other archaeologists at my table laugh when they hear the story of Badawy’s coin.

1:30 pm Field work is finished for the day, yet there is still more work to do. Dayle, our square leader, and I sit down to wash some pottery sherds. Armed with tooth brushes and our water bucket, we clean the dirt off the sherds we found this morning. As I am cleaning the sherds from the pot bust, I try to figure out how the pieces fit together. Once all the sherds are clean, we leave them to dry in the sun.

2:15 pm Finally! Its my turn in the shower… it’s about time! Although it feels really nice to have the water run all over my skin, I can’t stay in the shower for ever. Water is not abundant in Jordan and we have to be extremely careful with our usage. Basically, it’s turn the tap on and get wet, turn the tap off and soap up, turn the tap on and rinse, turn the tap off and dry.

2:25 pm After 5 (glorious) minutes in the water and a quick rub with the towel, I dress in lighter clothes (shorts and a T-shirt) and relax in my room for a while. Jackie is already there, totally immersed in some fancy book. I do the same with my detective novel.

3:35 pm Both Jackie and I fell asleep while reading. Now, we go to the little store down the street to get ice cream. We sit in the courtyard with other archaeologists who are resting in the shade and savour our cold treat.

4:00 pm Dayle and I display our pottery sherds in a corner of a table under the canopy of the courtyard for the “pottery reading session”. We arrange them by locus and sort them in categories (rim sherds, base sherds, painted sherds, body sherds, etc…) The dig director takes a look at the sherds we have found that day, makes comments, and tell us what period to which he thinks they date (generally confirming our guess). We count the sherds, keep the diagnostics (sherds that have distinctive features rather than simple body sherds) and discard the non-diagnostics in a prescribed area.

4:45 pm Finding a spot at one of the dining tables, Dayle and I start identifying ceramic sherds by writing individual numbers for each of them. It is long and tedious, but it must be done. Sherds that come from the same vessel are glued together and we give only one identification number for the whole entire vessel (there is no need to identify the sherds individually). Once I have finished identifying the individual sherds, I start working on the pot that needs to be glued back together. It needs to be done in stages – I start with the bottom, there are three pieces that fit perfectly well with the ring base of the vessel. I’ll let that dry overnight and I will continue gluing pieces tomorrow.

5:30 pm Friends ask me if I wanted to go to supper at the “Hairy Jerry” with them a bit later. The Hairy Jerry (the real name of the restaurant is Arabic words half of us can’t pronounce) is one of my favourite place : it is a pizzeria! They serve really nice pita crust pizzas and excellent French fries. Of course, I want to go!

6:15 pm Half of us are starving, so we leave early. The restaurant is not too crowded yet, so we find a big table for the bunch of us. We order our food and wait for the waiters to serve it by sipping “limoon” (delicious sweet lime juice). We are halfway through our meal when some of the boys walk in and come join us.

8:00 pm It’s past my bed time! Yawning, I take leave of the others and I return back to the dig house. Back at the house, some of the other archaeologists have congregated in the courtyard, sitting around a water pipe and smoking strawberry-flavoured tobacco. Wishing them a good night’s sleep, I go up to my room and prepare for bed. I can hear them laughing and talking about what they will be doing next week-end for our mid-season break. I’ve already decided what I will be doing : travel to Aqaba, which is on the Red Sea Coast, and make one-day trip to Wadi Rum. Then, I’ll travel north and spend a night and a day to visit Petra.

8:30 pm I fall asleep thinking about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which there is a scene filmed at Petra.

One thought on “Tell Madaba, Jordan (1999)

  1. Pingback: Palmyra | An Archaeologist's Diary

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