Dhiban Excavation and Development Project


Life and work from a tell site in Jordan

Welcome back!


Welcome back to the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project Blog! We hope to have regular updates from students and supervisors this year, and lots of nice photos to show how the work is progressing here in Dhiban. 

I woke just before dawn today, to the sound of roosters crowing and a cat bawling in the stairwell.  I felt intensely relieved–I am already sleeping through the first call to prayer, which in Dhiban can sound from anywhere between 3:30-4:30 in the morning and is incredibly loud. It’s a major achievement in sleep and sanity, but it also attests to how tired I was.

I have been on site for three days now, the bulk of which has been cleaning the dig houses and organizing equipment in preparation of the start of field work. It has been good to be back; I didn’t realize how much I missed Katie, Bruce and Danielle, the three on-site supervisors this year and everyone is in high spirits. It’s different than last year as well, the team is still sex segregated, with the boys staying in their old house in the middle of town and the girls on the edge of town, just far enough to have to drive back and forth. The girls’ house is a big improvement on last year and has a small olive orchard, more room, and a nicer layout.  There are also seven sisters living downstairs, and our initial chat over tea was fun and relaxing. 

This year it looks like we will be testing the three terraces of Tall Dhiban to see the extent of the various occupations–we know it was intensively occupied during the Iron Age, Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, and Mamluk periods, but different remains occupy different parts of the site. By better testing we can target different occupation levels without putting large trenches through the tell, which is how people have dug them in the past.  We are also trying to see how surface collections that were performed last year relate to the remains below the ground.  While I’m a little disappointed that I am not opening up a nicely defined piece of architecture, it should be interesting to dig in different areas on the tall.

I look forward to the rest of the team arriving and for work to officially start.  I’m also putting on a photo show this year, the details of which will become clearer after today.


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Paleolandscape Assessment Award and Field School Information

From http://serc.carleton.edu/acm_face/dhiban/index.html:

A Collaborative Research project (Faculty Research) awarded to:

  • Dr. Katherine Adelsberger, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Knox College
  • Dr. Danielle Steen Fatkin, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Knox College

The FaCE grant awarded in spring 2009 provided funding for the first season in summer 2009 of an interdisciplinary project in Jordan to develop a paleolandscape assessment of Dhiban as part of the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project (DEDP), an established archaeological project in the area.

The interdisciplinary FaCE-related portion of this project involved a regional survey for paleoclimate proxies and water resources, detailed site-specific survey for previously undiscovered cisterns and occupational periods, and the training of undergraduate students.

The excavations are part of a broader project to develop “best practices” in archaeological scholarship through the integration of outreach, excavation and geoarchaeology, and the project would be the first step in the longer-term involvement of Knox College (and other ACM faculty and students) in the Dhiban Project.

As part of the work of the DEDP, we bring about 20 archaeology students from different institutions to participate in the project. We train them in archaeological field methods by rotating them through various learning stations, including excavation, materials processing, flotation, topographic survey and geologic survey. They are taught to dig, record, and analyze archaeological and geological materials. In addition, there are evening seminars on methods, theory, and history twice a week and two weekend field trips to major Jordanian archaeological sites during the season.

  • Field Season Dates: June 23 – August 8, 2010
  • Estimated Cost: $5,000 ($3,000 program fee + $2,000 airfare)
  • Application Deadline: December 15, 2009 (application must be received by this date)

For complete information and application materials, download the Student Application for 2010 DEDP Field Season (Acrobat (PDF) 106kB Nov24 09).

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Changing Perspectives

From Courtney:

It’s been nearly a month and a half since I left Dhiban for two weeks of adventures around the Levant and then home. As I think back on the entire experience, the things I discovered both in the world outside of America and within myself continue to surprise me. Tapping into the surface of an entirely different culture and experiencing history from a fresh approach changed the lens through which I perceive American society, as well as the hopes and plans I have for my own future.

I found myself challenged in unexpected ways, and having come through such experiences, I feel like a more solidified and confident individual. As the youngest on the dig, I think I was more aware of the age difference because I felt as if my lack of years somehow implied a lack of intelligence, or perhaps capability is more appropriate. This was especially the case because I was among people whose opinions and ideas I valued understanding, as they were students of a field I was just beginning to unearth (Haha, I have a poor sense of humor). My experience was quite the contrary. The team was willing to share and teach, allowing the newbies to make mistakes and ask all sorts of questions. It was a fascinating and engaging learning environment. I keep thinking back to my first archaeology class at Knox, reading the section about the various soil types and yawning. It was of little use to me when I memorized the information from a text book, but when I was down on my hands and knees, with my face six inches from the ground, carefully scraping at the soil to reveal a tabun, what had seemed like vapid jargon made tangible sense.

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.

I am very excited to return to Jordan next summer with an idea of what awaits me. I am already craving some delicious falafel and fatayer. I miss the beauty of the desert and the never ending adventures that go along with placing a bunch of Westerners into a small Jordanian town. I look forward to continuing my study of archaeology and beginning a new dig season in Dhiban!

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Thoughts after the Excavation

From Abby:

As I am sitting back at home in Topeka, KS, I realize what an impact Jordan had on my life. I miss the constant conversation that is always taking place between people on the streets and their usually welcoming personalities.  There is such a great community environment in Dhiban that you can’t get in many American towns.  The way men greeted and interacted with each other was something I will never forget.  They were not uncomfortable showing affection to their friends and while they could not show the same affection to female friends, it was still very refreshing.  They have a great respect for their elders, family members, and friends.  Relationships are extremely valuable to people in this part of the world.  While outsiders may be considered less valuable and sometimes treated with less respect, as an outsider, I was still able to see the compassion that went into their interactions.  But even to foreigners (or ajinab), most people are overwhelmingly friendly.  They invite strangers to tea freqeuntly, and one of my most fond memories is sitting with a Bedouin woman at Petra, drinking tea and talking about her children.

I am also deeply grateful for the skills I acquired this summer.  The field school provided me with hands-on experience as an archaeologist, which is not possible in a classroom setting.  I was given the opportunity to be a trench supervisor for a week of the season and I learned the process that each supervisor goes through, including the measuring and drawing of the trench, finding elevations, and completing paperwork for each stratum.  With the knowledge I gained, I have no doubt in my mind that if I chose to be an archaeologist, I would be well prepared.

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2009 Season Summary

From Danielle Fatkin:

Tall Dhiban is located on the northern edge of the modern town of Dhiban, approximately 35 kilometers south of Madaba on the King’s Highway, on the northern edge of the Wadi Mujib. The Dhiban Excavation and Development Project conducted its third season of fieldwork in the summer of 2009.

Based on previous seasons’ work, four primary areas of research were identified for this summer:
1) Continue excavation and conservation of the Ayyubid-Mamluk complex on the acropolis to reach construction phases
2) Continue excavation and conservation in William Morton’s Field L to identify undisturbed Iron Age contexts
3) Initiate a paleolandscape study focused on hydrological resources and long-term human impact on the environment of Dhiban
4) Map the extent of habitation at different periods through surface collection / on-site survey and test pits.

On-Site survey. The surface collection conducted on the middle terrace of the site included the southern, western, and northern extent of the terrace. While the Roman / Byzantine period is well represented throughout the terrace, with greater visibility in the northern and southern sectors, the extent of the Ayyubid / Mamluk settlement appears limited to the central portion of the site, running in an elongated east-west shape. We began to test the correlation between the surface collection and the most recent period of habitation through the excavation of test pits.

Test pits. Excavating ten test pits was originally planned, yet excavations took place in four units this season, only two which were completely investigated. In those two units — one chosen as a control unit without previously collected surface material and one chosen for its predominantly Roman / Byzantine material — a strong correlation was found between the surface collection and the most recent period of habitation. This relationship will be tested further in future seasons by completing the excavation of the rest of the test pits.

Field L Upper. Our goal in this area this season was to reach the construction phase of the Ayyubid-Mamluk structure and to bring the architectural complex into the same phase. Excavations inside the buildings revealed several floors. Some areas were excavated more deeply, revealing earlier phases of habitation. As of now, the complex’s construction phase has not been securely identified. Based on ceramic analysis of this year’s finds and radiocarbon samples taken in 2004 and 2005, the uncovered surface likely dates to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century CE. At the end of the season, the walls were conserved with a reversible mortar.

Field L Deep. Our goals in this area were (1) to clean and re-expose the Iron Age levels excavated by Morton in the 1950s and (2) to cut back Morton’s eroded sections and identify in situ Iron Age remains. The team undertook a large scale clearance, cleaning, and remapping of the walls from Morton’s excavations in Area L. These walls are all founded on bedrock and form a central rectangular room that is clearly part of a larger building. This was particularly evident on the west side of Area L (Deep) where our excavations traced portions of two additional Iron Age walls associated with this same building and defining several more rooms. Re-exposing the Iron Age walls excavated by Morton has proven the general accuracy of Morton’s architectural plans, which is now integrated into the GIS map created for Dhiban during the 2009 season. This re-exposure has also provided an opportunity to consolidate a substantial Iron Age building for the purposes of site interpretation. Over the next several seasons we will continue to expose, consolidate, and interpret (via signs and pathways) this important Iron IIB building.

Paleolandscape Study. The 2009 season was the beginning of the paleolandscape assessment, focusing on the site itself as well as the wadis immediately adjacent to the site. Sinkholes on the northwest side of the tall were identified as possibly man-made. Terrace walls were identified along the edges of Wadi Sakran and large geologic sections were cut through them in order to elucidate the depositional history of colluvium behind the walls. Our initial results confirm the highly erosional environment of Dhiban. Moreover, the sediment deposited within the terraces suggests that terrace construction was motivated by different factors in different locations around the site. A careful study of the terraces may reveal new information about the timing and nature of human activities at Dhiban.

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Thanks, Dhiban!


As the sun sets on Tell Dhiban, the colors become deeper, pink-tinged, and the limestone blocks look stunning against the blue sky. The wadi turns golden and a small wind picks up, cooling off the air. It’s really the best time to work up on the tell, and I saw several sunsets from the edge of my trench in the last week of the excavation. Everyone was working furiously on their trench reports and Harris Matrices. I was staying a couple of days later than most people, so I was up on the tell, drawing and photographing mostly alone.  It was nice, a break from the busy work days with so many people in the trench all the time.

In the last few days, I had tea with Zaid and Abu Jamal up on the tell. The teapot is a symbol of hospitality in Jordan, and the sugary sage tea they served was lovely.  I sat with them, chatted a bit in our patois of English and Arabic and realized that I would miss Jordan in the year to come.

Thanks to Dhiban for the hospitality and we will see you next year!

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More Impressions of Jordan

From Sara:

Hello all,
Once again I am inspired to write by the weekend going ons.  First of all, while I recognize that imperialism is generally very bad and that many people suffered from it, as they say every cloud has a silver lining and I find my self grateful to the British for two things.  First of all English is the language to speak.  Even in an out of the way place like Dhiban many people have a smattering of English which combined with my very small bit of Arabic (perhaps 20 words and phrases) we manage to establish a rapport.  It is exhausting, but well worth the effort to try to communicate.  The second thing I’m grateful for is that you can find Galaxy bars in almost any former British colony.  (The US is an obvious exception to this rule and suffers for it I believe;  our average chocolate bar is clearly inferior.)  And now that I’m thinking about it, I find myself grateful to the British for another thing, when the former colonies gained independence the right side of the road was chosen to be the correct side to drive upon.  (Actually I’m not sure if this is attributable to rejection of British rule but for the purposes of this blog I’ll say that it is.)  Driving in Jordan would be much more harrowing if I had to remember to drive on the left in addition to watching for goats, tractors, other vehicles, pedestrians, random cinderblocks, construction, etc.  Speaking of construction, I neglected to mention  this in my earlier commentary on Jordanian driving, but construction does not block the roads here.  One simply shares the road, in whatever state of completion it is in with the construction equipment.  It has been suggested by one of the team members that Jordanian Driving would be a great video game.
On a more serious note I want to comment on the environment.  This weekend in addition to visiting some of the Desert Castles we visited the Azraq Oasis, which once upon a time (ie up until the 1960s) was a huge wetland supporting many now endangered species.  Unfortunately, much of the water has been pumped out to supply the cities of Jordan and now only about 10% of the wetlands remain.  The 10% which remains is supported by government donations of 1.5 million liters (I’m not sure on the units there).  To see the lush green grass, the fish and the birds in the middle of an incredibly arid area was so wonderful, not to mention also the role such areas play in water purification and oxygen production, but how long will the government be able to support even 10% with a growing population, refuges and new projects like luxury hotels which steal water like sponges to also deal with.  Most of the springs were dead indicating that the aquifer beneath them is dry.  It takes eons to fill an aquifer and so like many of the resources we rely on, aquifers can be considered non-renewable, at least not in this lifetime.  This leads me to reflect on how my lifestyle conflicts with the health of the planet.  Eating meat and imported fruits  requires much more water and energy resources than  locally produced foods and a vegetarian diet.  And yet I still love my bananas and steak even though I know the damage their production causes the world.  I’m not planning on going cold turkey on these things, but in the future I will be more mindful of the true cost of my food.  But then I wonder about the cost of not purchasing that banana.  Hypothetically, if all of America stopped eating bananas because banana plantains were replacing the rainforest and so much energy was expended in transporting them what would the effect on the countries who grow bananas be?  Would their economies be seriously damaged, would ordinary people suffer?  Clearly there is much to investigate  here and I obviously don’t have very many answers, but I put this before you in the hopes that with many minds on the subject progress may be made.
And now for something completely different.  Several weeks ago I mentioned that the girls of the dig were invited to a wedding celebration and promised to write about it.  I’m sorry for the delay but here it is now, if a bit delayed.  So as far as I understand, Jordanian weddings are made up of several different parts.  I don’t know what the other parts are so I will not try to explain them all, just the bit I saw.   Anyway, the bride was a sister-in-law of our dig liaison, Firas.  (I’m not sure if that is his official title, but it does describe what his role is.)  We attended the female only part of the celebration where all the women of both sides of the family gather in the house of the bride’s family.  Because they are indoors in their own home the bride and her other female relatives can wear what ever they like.  The brides typically wear something akin to a very elaborate prom dress with lace, crystals, beads sequins etc.  And have their hair done in a very elaborate style.  She then sites on a high throne like love seat while all the other relatives gather in the largest room of the house and visit and dance.  Mostly it is the unmarried girls who did the dancing but some of the younger married women danced as well.  The room was very crowded and hot but everyone seemed to enjoy the experience.  At one point some women came in and sang accompanied by one woman playing a hand drum.  The song and u-u-la-tion (sorry about the phonetic spelling of that one)  were quite strange to western ears and I have no idea how to replicate the sounds but it was quite exciting and fun to see everyone get into the singing and clapping.  Ah the time once again brings my writing to a close.  I apologize for the truncated description but the pottery calls.  Until next time.

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Weekend Trip to Wadi Dana & Petra

From Annie, a Knox undergrad:

So this past weekend we had our big three-day adventure. On Thursday, we spent the night at a nature reserve in Wadi Dana, where I hiked the trail to the old caves. They were precariously close to the cliff’s edge, but still fun to explore. The sunset over the hills was absolutely breathtaking and I’ve never seen so many stars in the sky (we could even see the milky way from the campsite). On Friday, we drove on to Petra, which I knew only from what I’d seen of it in Indiana Jones. OK, that’s not really true—Jeff spoke about it quite a bit during his lecture last week on the Nabateans. In fact, it was really neat to go there and be able to connect the architecture we were seeing to the culture responsible for it. Wait…the sounds a lot like what we’re trying to do here in Dhiban. Wow, it’s almost like archaeology is a useful, enriching, and exciting field. Who knew?

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Geology at Tel Dhiban

From Katie, our most excellent geoarchaeologist:

As the excavation moves into its last three weeks, most of the team members are feeling more confident, now very familiar with the daily schedule and day-to-day life up on the Tel. And then there are a few of us down in the Wadi Dhiban, dodging wadi dogs and goats in an effort to get a look at the sediments at the bottom of the hill. A wadi is a seasonal river valley, generally dry during the summer and subject to flash floods during the rainy season – most are fairly deeply incised and the larger ones in Jordan approach Grand Canyon proportions. Although a wadi is not a particularly good place to find intact archaeological features, it’s a great place to look for evidence of erosion, and the Wadi Dhiban also preserves a number of architectural features that we’d like to understand more fully. The rock walls may have been agricultural terraces or they may have been built in an effort to stabilize the hillside; finding out what lies behind and beneath the rocks is the first step toward understanding their construction and purpose. A few dedicated and long-suffering workmen have been wielding picks and shovels for several days, and we’ll soon be drawing, describing and sampling the sediment they reveal.

Other geologic efforts have also been going forward at Dhiban this year as well, as we try to incorporate a more specific environmental aspect to the research agenda. A few students have been lucky enough to end up as “geology assistants” as we’ve explored some of the local wadi systems in search of sedimentary records, mapped the local bedrock beneath the Tel, and done some preliminary mapping. And even if they didn’t appreciate the repetitive limestone and chert layers in our area, they got a taste of more exciting geology while exploring the fabulous sandstone at Petra this past weekend!

The geologic investigations here are brand new, but we’re already excited about the initial data and we’re hoping to pursue more extensive regional investigations next season. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some geology at Dhiban, head up to the main excavation and then turn left. Head west over the hill, and try not to fall as you navigate the scree slope. Don’t worry if you don’t see us right away – there’s a fairly large cliff that you’ll have to get around, and then another steep slope. You’ll find us eventually – and if you get lost, the barking of the wadi dogs as they protest our presence will probably help you find your way. See you in the wadi!

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The Mamluk Emporium

As previously mentioned, I have been spending these last few weeks excavating a Mamluk-era barrel vault here at Tell Dhiban. This has meant several weeks of lifting guffaws full of dirt and rocks up out of the building to remove the collapse while documenting brief re-occupations of the building. Finally, on Wednesday, I came down to a nice dirt layer that the collapse respected, meaning that it fell mostly on top of the floor, with a few heavier ashlars more embedded in the softer ground. At first I was afraid that I might have missed the floor—we were expecting flagstones—and had moved on an earlier construction phase by accident. But as we were coming down to the surface we had fewer finds, and the dirt was pretty “clean.” For a tell just lousy with occupation it would have been difficult to get a construction fill that didn’t have loads of artifacts embedded in the matrix. I also didn’t see much of what could have been flagstones—it was all rubble from the collapsed ceiling and floors. We’ll see how accurate my interpretation is when we get more of the building cleared out!

The dirt floor also respected the bin in the south wall, which ended up diving down much farther than I expected. As I was excavating the last of the collapse back, I noticed that it also respected a line of ashlars effectively bisecting the building right at the cistern. We have a similar construction pattern in the west half of the building and whether this is some kind of water management system from the cistern or delineated activity areas, I’m not sure. I am currently leaning against the idea that it was a water system linked with the cistern because it appears that the cistern access was blocked off at this phase by a rebuilt wall. Again, this remains to be seen as we clear more of the collapse out.

From what I’ve seen, the phasing of this building (which I’ve jokingly called the “Mamluk Emporium—everything MUST GO!”) is a bit complicated—it was originally built with two doors, one into another room to the north and another out to a courtyard to the west. Then the north wall was cut away and a cistern was installed between the two rooms. Then, for whatever reason, the cistern was blocked off, but a niche was left where the door once was.

It’s these kinds of puzzles that make excavation so exciting for me—figuring out the architecture, revising my phasing narratives, finding things that completely turn your interpretations around. Not to mention other odd things like there being such an overabundance of Roman, Byzantine, and Iron Age pottery, with a relative paucity of Mamluk artifacts. The Mamluk were re-using stones from other buildings—a fact that makes reconstruction difficult (let’s use a Byzantine column base for a niche corner!) and excavation a bit of a headache. We’re also very near the acropolis of the tell, so wash can only explain so much intrusion from earlier artifacts.

There are a lot of things that happen after the excavation ends—Alan will be running his float samples, there will be other artifact analyses, and a mountain of paperwork—but making sure that the archaeology is properly excavated in the first place is what gives the rest of our work meaning. While this seems obvious, I don’t think that enough of an emphasis is given to the craft of excavation and there is certainly not enough training for archaeology students who want to go on in the field.

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Photos from Dhiban