Archaeology major Andrew Thomson ’05 and 13 fellow volunteers are enveloped in a cloud of fine dust streaming through the windows of the bus that transports them down a steep highway from the Bedouin military school to the Humayma dig site 45 minutes away. It’s not even 7 a.m. and it’s already hot. By afternoon, temperatures will reach 120 degrees in the shade, but there’s little shade to be had in the deserts of southern Jordan.
The Humayma dig site is located in a vast, barren escarpment, a giant valley carved from rock and sand millions of years ago. It was here the ancient Romans chose to build a fort to protect the easternmost edge of their empire. And it is here—halfway around the world from a verdant university campus in Salem, Ore.—that Thomson chose to test himself with backbreaking field research.
“I may not always want to be the guy digging in the trench, but I know I want to work on archaeology digs.”
The bus jolts to a stop in front of an abandoned schoolhouse that now stores tools for the site. The volunteers and eight staff members, most from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, tumble off the bus and stretch their aching backs and legs before grabbing the tools they’ll need for the day and piling them onto wheelbarrows. All around are the neat, square holes and piles of dirt that make up the worksite. Thomson scans the horizon and spots a cloud of dust moving rapidly toward them. Within minutes a small truck arrives with a dozen Bedouin workers, and everyone shakes hands and exchanges pleasantries before getting down to work. Many of the Bedouins, veterans of other archaeology digs, speak some English. They often help Thomson and his teammates with their Arabic.
Thomson and three other volunteers walk to a series of large open squares bordered by a low wall. “This is the fort commander’s residence,” he explains, hefting a shovel full of dirt into a wheelbarrow. “The site of this fort used to be an old Nabataean settlement. The Romans came in and built the fort to house their troops and control the area. Our job is to clean out the rooms and try to figure out what went on here.”
The sun rises steadily, and the temperature with it. Thomson and his team fill and unload a succession of wheelbarrows with rocks and fine dirt. The work is backbreaking. “When people think of archaeology, they think about dental tools and carefully picking around bones,” he says. “In classical desert archaeology, it’s nothing like that. There’s a lot of digging with picks and shovels until you get to lower levels, where you work with trowels. It’s basically landscaping in the desert.”
Thomson’s fascination with archaeology began with tromping around dinosaur digs as a kid in Montana. Since Willamette has no archaeology department, he crafted his own major. This dig—his first field experience—is part of his senior thesis requirement. While Thomson could have joined a local dig, his interest in the Greco-Romans inspired him to travel to Jordan; a $3,000 Carson Undergraduate Research Grant made the journey possible.
The wind rises, filling the sky with clouds of fine dust and obscuring the surrounding mountains. Thomson pulls his cap down over his eyes and again covers his mouth with the bandana. He crouches, scraping his trowel along one of the room’s outer walls. The last pass of the trowel reveals something hard and shiny. Thomson’s heart races as he brushes away the fine dirt. It’s a Roman coin, the fifth he’s found at the site. There’s a flurry of activity as team members vie to examine Thomson’s treasure.
In addition to the coins, Thomson and his teammates have found shards of pottery and charred chicken and sheep bones from ancient Roman meals. Some have found individual stones from mosaics, unbroken pottery vessels and even Roman oil lamps. Thomson wanted to investigate how the Romans got water to this arid place. His question was answered when volunteers discovered sections of ancient pipe—the Romans were famous for their aqueducts—that brought water from springs in the mountains.