Admittedly, it was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I initially accepted a position as a volunteer archaeologist in Jordan. Stories of grotesque camel spiders and venomous snakes were a source of apprehension, but the thought of working with the local Bedouin people on ancient sites in Jordan’s picturesque Dana Biosphere Reserve quenched any initial misgivings.
Soon after arriving in Amman we were all whisked off on a long journey south to Jordan’s remote Dana Biosphere Reserve. As Jordan’s largest nature reserve, it is home to a variety of endangered species and a series of mountain ridges, not to mention the ancient Ata’ta tribe. Moonlight and stars were the only source of light as they shone on the enormous canyons and small villages we passed through, with the van bringing us closer to the Wadi Feynan Ecolodge, which was to be our home for the next month.
Enclosed by surrounding mountains, every window of the hotel provided spectacular views of the landscape. Breakfasts’ were spent on the porch of the hotel, watching goat herds wander aimlessly and camels bask in the cool mornings. However the tranquility of the mornings was soon interrupted when Juma, our driver and co-worker, drove us across narrow roads and steep climbs to the site each day in his battered truck. The view of the surrounding wadis, littered with untouched Roman and Byzantium ruins, and the small Dana village provided an entrance like no other to the site of Wadi Faynan, where I worked.
The site itself is a Pre-Pottery Neolithic site, where a small prehistoric community were believed to have once lived. Over time, however, the site also became a burial ground for Romans and Byzantines, until it was forgotten afterwards. What is most remarkable is its date in relation to the history of human civilization. Believed to have formed approximately 10,600 BP, it coincides with the beginning of human settlement and agriculture, which consequently forms the creation of cultures among mankind. Therefore, this site is vital for the understanding how the world we live in today developed.
My particular section of the site was a dusty yellow roundhouse with hardened chalky walls. Over the month I spent there, a wide variety of artifacts were unearthed, such as bone tools and beads, and our roundhouse eventually deepened to nearly four feet! When I wasn’t excavating, I was sifting through sacks of sand with the local Bedouin, searching for more finds. Although there was an initial language barrier, over the following weeks we overcame it and began conversing in a Bedouin Arabic/English dialect. During break times and lunch, the site’s resident guard, Abu Fawaz, a particularly boisterous elderly man with large glassy eyes, would serve chai and regale us all with antics from his youth. Otherwise he hobbled around the site on his cane, offering help assisting with excavations or discussing our sections, always acting as a source of entertainment.
During our evenings and Fridays off we spent our time exploring the nearby scenery, as well as taking day trips to Jordan’s premier destinations. A short hike from our site brought us all to an elaborate Neolithic site that was sprawled on the side of the mountain. Here Dr. Mohammed Najar gave us all a lengthy tour of the site, from tiny yellow-brick rooms that could barely house a child, to expansive communal areas complete with artifacts littered around the site.
On our first day off we embarked on a day hike up Wadi Ghwayr with our friend and guide, Ali. Following the gravel riverbeds, we slowly hiked our way up into canyons carved out of the mountain thousands of years before. Trees clung overhead as we followed the looming canyons, tinted yellow by the intense midday sun, onwards. The barren landscape of Wadi Ghwayr soon transformed into an oasis the further we hiked, surrounded by waterfalls and miniature rapids, dotted with vibrantly-colored flowers and exotic animals basking in the sunlight. As we got nearer to the summit we climbed over waterfalls and great slabs of stone— remnants of the great collision of tectonic plates thousands of years ago that created the mountains. Making our way back to the ecolodge, Ali led us on a detour and showed us paintings left by ancient tribes on the rocks, painted thousands of years ago. Here, amongst the excavation site, the striking landscape and the untouched ruins devoid of tourist crowds, I began having Indiana Jones-esque delusions.