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An ECU team unearths priceless treasures in Petra, Jordan

By Kelly Setzer
ECU News Services

Long before Indiana Jones was swinging through Petra, Jordan, on the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the city had a story of its own to tell.

East Carolina University professor of anthropology Megan Perry was immediately fascinated by the ancient city’s story when she first visited in 1993. “I’ll definitely have to return for another trip before I can truly see this place,” she thought back then.

And return she did; multiple times over the next 21 years, most recently with ECU students and staff in tow.

Perry is co-directing the Petra North Ridge project with fellow archaeologist and historian Thomas Parker of North Carolina State University. Their task is to piece together the puzzle of an enigmatic people. In doing so, Perry hopes to build a unique cultural competence in her students by exposing them to the larger global society.

Pictured above, from left, ECU students Mansi Trivedi, Tara Stanko and Kathryn Parker, faculty member Megan Perry and student Laurel Appleton examine artifacts brought back from an archaeological dig in Petra, Jordan. (Photo by Jay Clark)

Courtney Canipe '14 uses a surveying instrument near Petra, Jordan. She received her master's degree in anthropology in August. (Contributed photo)
Their research has involved group excavations during 2012 and 2014 with another scheduled in 2016.

Petra is an archaeologist’s dream. Beneath the rose-colored rock and sandy cliffs lies the complex story of one of the oldest metropolises in the world.

The city was the center of the Nabataean Kingdom until it fell into ruin sometime between 300 and 700 A.D.
It remained virtually unknown to the Western world until a Swiss explorer discovered it in 1812, at which point the civilization’s relics were still beautifully preserved thanks to the protective nature of the rock formations.

Since then, researchers like Perry have been asking questions about the lives of ordinary people who lived there.

“To answer these questions, we’re excavating tombs from the first century A.D., which is sort of the height of Petra’s urbanity; it’s the florescence of the city,” Perry says.

“And then also domestic structures that date from that period up until about the fourth century, when the city started going into decline.”

The much larger Roman Empire had taken over Petra by then, and a number of economic and political factors led to its fall years later. Tons of artifacts were left behind, though, which allows Perry and her team to look for clues about the Nabataean culture in everything from pottery and coins to bones and beads.

“In the tombs, of course, we’re looking to see what kind of evidence of health and disease we can determine,” Perry says. “We’re doing chemical analysis of the bones to look at diet from that perspective.”
Megan Perry

The Petra North Ridge Project focuses specifically on understanding the “invisible” people—the non-elites who weren’t written about in historical sources. Perry says this makes their work even more interesting.

“Their bones provide intimate glimpses of their life—a chipped tooth, a broken foot, even a fetus not carried to term,” she says.

“I like to imagine how they got that injury, or how they reacted when the mother gave birth to that stillborn baby.”

But more than just an imaginative adventure, the project exemplifies a broader goal of putting human behavior into a global perspective for ECU students, according to Perry.

“It’s important to understand humans in the larger picture, not only through (geographical) space, but also through time,” she says. “And understanding different cultural frameworks that exist and have existed around the world…is a necessary part of the educational experience.”

Benefits to students

The most recent excavation took place from June 26 to Aug. 6. Eight ECU students, two alumni and two faculty members took the 6,100-mile trip to participate. They were among 27 total staff and 19 multi-institutional students working together on the dig.

Laurel Appleton, an ECU graduate student in anthropology, jumped at the chance to be a part of the research. Petra’s selection as one of Smithsonian’s “28 Places to See Before You Die” is reason enough to want to go, but she says participating in the excavation was crucial for her career.
A view of Petra facing east. The Great Temple and Pool and Garden Complex are in the foreground, along with the main colonnaded street. The North Ridge is off to the left. The so-called "royal Tombs" are carved into the cliff in the distance. (Contributed photo)
“It’s important for anyone who wants to be an archaeologist to (attend) a field school,” Appleton says. “You can learn many things from a book, but it can’t replace the value and necessity of hands-on experience.” She added that whether her next step is a doctorate or a cultural resource management job, this trip gives her an advantage.

Separate from the undeniable career opportunities offered to students attending the field school, culturally, it couldn’t have been farther from Greenville.

The 2014 excavation took place during Ramadan, an Islamic observance that involves fasting from dawn until sunset. The timing of their trip gave students and faculty a rare opportunity to see the religious celebration of the Muslim holy month firsthand.

ECU graduate student Kelsey Roepe attended the excavation for her forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology studies, but she says she would never forget the cultural exposure she gained as well. She described the city as dramatically coming alive as soon as the sun set each night.

“(Ramadan) required many of us to behave differently than we normally would in America,” she says. “We were staying in a small town called Um Seyhoun, and, of course, we stuck out as a group of 50 Americans, so we were always sure to dress, speak and act appropriately to avoid accidentally offending anyone.”

This kind of global awareness and international experience goes beyond tourism to provide an in-depth perspective of another part of the world and enhances what she teaches, Perry says. “Any study-abroad experience is incredibly valuable for ECU students to best engage in a global society.”

Perspectives on death

The group’s 2012 excavation was the first time they were able to systematically dig into houses and tombs. It allowed them to begin building data for grant applications, which would help fund the remainder of the project. In addition to seed money, their efforts earned $290,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In 2014, they focused on specific aspects of the city’s 800 carved tombs.

Both excavations were physically demanding, with long, hot hours of intense work, Appleton says.

Petra is situated in a mountainous basin in southwestern Jordan, along the Israeli border. It is a hot, dry and sandy city, as one might expect in the Middle East.
On the left are five unguentaria, or perfume jars, found within the tombs. In the middle is a polished, faceted agate set within a gold setting, part of a piece of jewelry also found within a tomb. The five lamps on the right were found within the tombs as well.
Appleton was an assistant tomb supervisor, which meant she had to be flexible and worked long shifts where she “could be digging, brushing soil away from bones, helping to take elevations or measurements for drawings, or working the sifter to look for artifacts missed while digging,” she says.

At the end of each day, they were sunburned and covered in dust. But through their hard work, researchers quickly noticed a fascinating aspect of the Nabataean culture: Their views on death were unique.

“The link between death and life was different for them; the dead are not as ostracized as they are in our society,” Perry says. “The tombs show us a very multisensory experience. There’s a lot of incense, perfumed oils and jewelry, as well as funerary feasts. It’s an interactive experience that they had with the dead.”

“The fact that their houses were built so close to where they buried the dead, and that they actually had feasts with them, is extremely interesting to me,” adds Eva Falls, another ECU archaeology graduate student working on the project. “They don’t separate the dead from the living, which is so different than us.”

Perry describes an exciting mystery solved in the tombs over the summer. In prior trips, she had found numerous small copper bell-shaped objects located only near the dead. For years, she struggled to explain them. What were these used for? Were they bells? Small cups?

But this year, they uncovered more in a well-preserved burial site at the bottom of a floor shaft. “The ‘bells’ were scattered around the body in roughly a rectangular shape, and one was still adhering to the coffin wood,” she says. “They were stud-like coffin decorations. We would never have known without luck and the careful excavation of the burial by our students and staff.”

Future impact of the project

Artifacts collected from the latest excavation recently arrived at East Carolina and N.C. State from their overseas shipment. The project team will clean, study and preserve their finds over the coming months to continue painting a picture of Petra’s common people from afar.

Members of the Petra North Ridge Project team excavate domestic structures and tombs on the North Ridge. The rubble seen is from collapsed buildings.
The anthropology department recently acquired a 3-D scanner, and Perry intends for a student on the project team to scan each of the artifacts so that online users can access dynamic 360-degree views of the objects they’ve found. The virtual artifacts library will likewise provide information on each of the objects’ archaeological context and meaning.

Perry is also hoping to work with ECU’s Department of Geography on a geographic information systems project to compile the Petra North Ridge data into an interactive map of the excavations.

Ultimately, the goal is to partner with ECU’s foreign languages and literatures department and others to aggregate these types of digital projects into one publicly accessible website portal, sharing the university’s research with a larger audience.

Plans for the 2016 excavation are under way as well. Scientific articles detailing the group’s conclusions about the Nabataeans will be released after the final trip, which will help other archaeologists working the region and other urban settlements.

In the meantime, ECU continues to strengthen its international footprint with the project.

“Having ECU running a research project in the largest tourist destination in Jordan, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is a really big deal,” Perry says. “It’s not easy to get permits to work there because it’s a World Heritage Site, and (they’re) very strict about what you can do. But we have that recognition, and that says a lot.”

Jessica Walker '07 cleans a burial site for photos.