Parker: More on Petra and other projects

November 18, 2012 

Archaeologist S. Thomas Parker, 62, has been teaching at N.C. State University since 1980; since 1994, he has directed the Roman Aqaba Project in southern Jordan. He was raised in Illinois and received his Ph.D. in history from UCLA.

About the Petra project: “Dr. Megan Perry of ECU did the initial surface survey of this site at Petra and excavated two shaft tombs discovered under a church on the ridge. That was before we launched this joint project.

“For 80 years or more, excavations have focused on Petra’s monumental projects – the royal tombs, theater, temples…. Now we’re asking about the non-elite population.

“We’re doing this in three ways: First, excavating houses were ordinary people lived. Second, opening shaft tombs – not royal tombs – where non-elites were buried, and looking at bones and artifacts. Third, looking at texts – carbonized papyri – found in a church discovered on Petra’s North Ridge. The church was destroyed around A.D. 600. These church papyri turned out to be family archives – tax receipts, land registers and contracts that give insight into socioeconomic life.

“This combination of documents, and material culture and human remains is not often employed in this region.”

How science comes into play: “Megan has a background in medical anthropology. One of her exciting areas is using strontium isotope analysis to try to figure out where the people of Petra came from.

When your teeth are growing, they absorb strontium; when they’re fully formed, the absorption stops. If the strontium levels of teeth found at Petra are different from levels in the local ground and water, this would suggest that these people weren’t from Petra; they were immigrants to the site.

“Also, the bones she’s looked at so far show little evidence of disease except for osteoarthritis in the population. There are few other pathologies.”

Personal Indiana Jones moments: “In terms of discoveries, I’m most known for 1990s digging at Aqaba, Jordan’s port on the Red Sea. We quite unexpectedly found the remains of what could be the oldest purpose-built church known in the world. It dates to the late third century, before Christianity became a legal religion.”

Are there still “lost cities” out there? “I’d say there are a few. Ubar, in the southern Arabian Peninsula, was a great caravan city that disappeared. It’s the subject of a ‘NOVA’ documentary from the ’90s called ‘Looking for Ubar.’ American archaeologists claimed they found the site, but the jury is still out.

A city mentioned in the Bible – Elath – is supposed to be from where King Solomon sent fleets to Ophir, presumably in East Africa, to bring back exotic products. It was long thought to be right at Aqaba, on the border between Israel and Jordan. But excavations prove what was built there came after King Solomon’s time. There were no Iron Age remains from the 10th century B.C., which is what you would expect, but only from several centuries later.”

On what he does: “I can’t believe I get paid to do this, frankly. I’m so lucky to have this kind of life.” John Bordsen

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