N.C. team explores 'lost city' of Petra

November 18, 2012 

S. Thomas Parker is a professor of history at N.C. State whose specialty is Roman archaeology in the Middle East. This summer he was co-leader of a research expedition to Petra, the famous “lost city” in Jordan. This article is adapted from a guest blog written for N.C. State’s The Abstract.

 When most people think of archaeology, Indiana Jones comes to mind – searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant or the Crystal Skull. In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the intrepid archaeologist was on a quest for the Holy Grail. He found it inside a carved cliff deep within a hidden desert canyon.

The movie location of this adventure was, in fact, the famous archaeological site of Petra in modern Jordan. In 2007, it was voted one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

The magnificently carved cliff façade is actually the tomb of one of the Nabataean kings, whose capital was Petra in the last centuries BC and 1st century A.D. These Arabs grew rich transporting aromatics such as frankincense and myrrh in camel caravans from the southern Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean, then ruled by the Roman Empire. Frankincense and myrrh were so precious they were considered suitable gifts (along with gold) for the baby Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

Petra and its extraordinary rock-cut monuments were lost to the West for centuries but were rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt, a real-life Indiana Jones. Archaeological excavation at Petra began in the early 20th century and has continued to this day.

Excavation has understandably centered around Petra’s extraordinary monuments: the magnificent rock-cut tomb façades, the temples, the theater and several Byzantine churches. This has resulted in a rather unbalanced picture of this ancient city, particularly in terms of learning about its ordinary people.

Excavating tombs

In the summer of 2012, a new archaeological project began to address this issue through a two-pronged excavation on Petra’s North Ridge near the city center. The team from N.C. State and East Carolina University excavated several shaft tombs to recover human bones remains and artifacts, as well as two domestic structures, in order to learn about the non-elite residents of the city.

Petra’s North Ridge is pockmarked by at least 50 rock-cut shaft tombs dating to the city’s heyday. Although most of these tombs appear to have been robbed, excavation this summer of three of them revealed that that they still contain much evidence, such as human bones and artifacts – including fragments of jewelry, pottery and glass. Several complete ceramic vessels, such as oil lamps and perfume bottles, were also recovered. These remains should provide many insights into the demography of Petra in this period, such as health history and even the geographical origins of the population.

Excavation of two domestic structures revealed that they date from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD. Several collapsed walls were found with their masonry still closely aligned. These houses appear to have been catastrophically destroyed by an earthquake known to have devastated Petra in A.D. 363. The team recovered quantities of artifacts that give many insights into the socio-economic life of the non-elite population of the city of Petra in the Roman period, including economy, diet, and connections with the outside world. The project also focuses on the conservation and presentation of this area as a cultural resource.

The city walls

Another major discovery was the date of Petra’s city wall. The walls, which enclosed and protected the city, have never been definitively dated. Excavation down to the foundations of the city wall this summer yielded pottery that dated the construction of the wall to the early 2nd century A.D., around the time the Roman army marched into Petra and annexed the kingdom to the Roman Empire. It is still unclear whether the walls represent a desperate attempt by the Nabataeans to defend their capital against the approaching Roman legions or the walls were erected by the Roman army after occupying Petra.

The ongoing project is co-directed by me and Dr. Megan Perry, associate professor of anthropology at East Carolina University. We assembled a team of 10 archaeologists – two from N.C. State, two from East Carolina, the others from elsewhere in the United States – plus 20 students (including 10 from N.C. State, four from ECU) and 20 local workers. Most students earned academic credit through the N.C. State Study Abroad Program. The students also gained valuable research experience in the field while immersed in the Muslim Arab culture of the Middle East.

The team did not find the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail… but did find important evidence that opens new windows of understanding into the ordinary lives of the citizens of this famous ancient city. The team plans to return to Petra for a second field season in the summer of 2014.

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