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Faculty and Students Dig Deep for Adventure at Dhiban

Published: December 4, 2009

Archaeological project in Jordan engages the present as well as the past

Working at the Dhiban site

Working at the Dhiban site.

Photo by Colleen Morgan

"This is definitely archaeology as adventure," said Knox College professor Danielle Fatkin, referring to the excavation site in Dhiban, Jordan, where she and a team of about 20 colleagues and students spent seven weeks last summer. "This is not a plush dig."

It's true that water is in short supply in that arid, rural slice of the Middle East, and the accommodations are "like camping out in somebody's house or apartment," as Fatkin put it. There are also the constant heat and dust, language barriers, scorpions scuttling about, and thorns that go right through a leather glove.

On the other hand, the sunsets are incredible, the falafel is delicious, and any time you're walking through town you just might get invited into a shop or home for a cup of tea.

And the archaeology? "This summer was successful beyond my wildest imaginings," said Fatkin, ticking off a list of the group's accomplishments, including the discovery of what appear to be remains of a house from the late Roman period. "I'm very interested in the late Roman," she noted, "so that's good for me!"

An integrative approach to archaeology

Dr. Fatkin, her Knox faculty colleague Dr. Katherine Adelsberger, and four Knox students were in Jordan as part of the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project (DEDP), an ongoing archaeological project begun in 2004 by Fatkin, Dr. Benjamin Porter from the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Bruce Routledge from the University of Liverpool. Adelsberger signed on to the project last year after she and Fatkin met as new faculty at Knox.

Knox College contingent

The Knox College contingent at Dhiban.

Photo by Colleen Morgan

Students from Berkeley, Liverpool, and other universities joined the Knox contingent for the summer's tasks of site surveys, excavations, and a field school to teach archaeological methods to the students.

Adelsberger and Fatkin received a grant from the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project to support their work last summer, with an eye toward laying the groundwork for involvement in DEDP by faculty and students from other ACM colleges in summer 2010 and future years.

Based on this past summer's work, the project will expand its reach next year. More excavation pits will help map the succession of human habitation at the site through the centuries, and Adelsberger will continue her paleoenvironmental survey to examine the effect of people's actions on the local environment over time. The DEDP leaders also are planning a field school for about 20 students next summer. Information and application materials for the field school are available on the Dhiban Project website, and the application deadline is December 15, 2009.

A major focus of the DEDP is promoting best practices in archaeological excavation by integrating field research, student training, and community outreach. Researchers and students live in the community of Dhiban and work with the residents to interpret the archaeological site, develop heritage management strategies, and address local concerns about tourism related to the site. One of the Knox students, Sara Patterson, curated a museum exhibit about the excavation at a local museum.

Dhiban at dawn

Dhiban at dawn.

Photo by Colleen Morgan

The project's approach informs the way students are trained in fieldwork at Dhiban, as well, according to Adelsberger. "The students are aware of what we're trying to do and why we've set up the excavation the way we have," said Adelsberger, "which I think is a little more integrative than other field schools. A lot of the field schools have large groups of students. They just bring them in and toss them into a hole and say 'Dig here and tell us if you find anything.'  Here, the students have a better idea of the overarching goals."

The field school certainly made use of every available moment, beginning with a work day that started shortly after dawn and even continuing into the evening with seminars two or three nights a week.

During the course of the seven weeks, students rotated through a variety of learning stations to have a chance to work with all of the specialists on the team – digging in the main excavation area, helping with environmental surveys, mapping the site, and processing and cataloging pottery and bones that were unearthed.

The evening sessions included presentations on the cultural history of Jordan – going all the way back to the early Bronze Age – and talks by the team specialists on ethnobotany, geology, environmental reconstruction, ceramic production, and the role of ceramics in archaeology.

"A couple of times, and next year we're going to do more of this, we had community members come in," Fatkin said, "because engaging with the community is an important part of our project. We spent time reflecting on our role in the community of Dhiban and got the students talking and thinking about that."

A rich cultural experience brings laughter, happiness, and growth

Due to the location and the project team's approach, there's a considerable cross-cultural component to the project.

A hot day in Dhiban

A hot day in Dhiban.

Photo by Colleen Morgan

"As part of our preparation, I taught the Knox students some Arabic before we went," said Fatkin. "It’s one thing sitting in a classroom, but when we got (to Dhiban) the students realized that they really need to use this every day. They all did really well and were able to get around on their own and communicate with people in Arabic by the end of the season. So that was definitely part of the cultural experience for them."

One of the Knox students, Courtney Tichler, summed up the richness of her experience in the Dhiban Project blog, writing: "My personal growth during those two months continues to surprise me. I learned that I can live in an environment that is completely foreign to me. I adapted to the heat, the rather strict code of dress and behavior, the language barrier, food variants, the insect issues, and the culture differences with a fluidity I would not have expected of myself. I had the privilege of making some fabulous friendships across different cultures that brought me such laughter and happiness."

Back on campus, and looking ahead

Back on the Knox campus this fall, the summer's dig has continued to bear fruit for the students as they work with Fatkin on pottery collected at Dhiban.

"One of the great things about Jordan, compared to other Mediterranean region countries, is that the government is still very flexible about taking materials out of the country for study," Fatkin noted. "Most countries now have very restrictive laws that keep all cultural materials in the country, but with Jordan, archaeologists take what we call bulk finds out – soil samples, ceramics, bones – so we can do specialist study on them at our home institutions."

Pottery from Dhiban

Pottery from Dhiban.

Photo by Colleen Morgan

Fatkin returned with four boxes of pottery from Dhiban, and during the fall, she and the students have cataloged all of it. Next term, she said, they'll start analyzing the pottery, an important step on the road toward publishing scholarly papers. There's also a possibility that the students will do posters about their work for a national archaeology conference. "We are thinking about other things that they can do that are professional opportunities where they can get their names out there (in the archaeology community)," said Fatkin.

Looking ahead, Adelsberger and Fatkin are trying to engage other faculty from ACM colleges in the project. "We have all of these research specializations that we think would be good matches with our project and that we think may be available among the ACM faculty," said Fatkin. The two are working to compile a "wish list" of specializations and possible research topics to circulate on the ACM campuses.

Not surprisingly, given that Fatkin is an historian and archaeologist, she tends to take a longer view when it comes to bringing more colleagues on board. "The great thing is that even if people can't get involved in summer 2010, this is an ongoing project," she said. "We'll be in the field for awhile to come, so (interested faculty) can become involved in the project somewhere down the road."

Summer 2009 Dhiban Project group

The entire Dhiban Project group for the summer 2009 field season.

Photo by Colleen Morgan

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All photos are by Colleen Morgan. We thank her for sharing the photos with us!

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