Bedouin Whiskey & Pantomimes: My Summer in Jordan Channeling Indiana Jones

Home » Work by Members » Travelogues » Bedouin Whiskey & Pantomimes: My Summer in Jordan Channeling Indiana Jones

By lkoelle on January 4, 2012. No Comments

By Eliza Gettel

This summer, due to the support of Eta Sigma Phi’s first-ever Scholarship for
Fieldwork in Classical Archaeology, I was able to pursue the fantasy of being
“Indy.” To do this, I traveled to Jordan for three weeks and participated in
the Bir Madhkur Project. Dr. Andrew M. Smith II of George Washington University directs the dig, located in Jordan’s Wadi Araba desert, one hour north of Aqaba along the Israeli border. The project aims to better understand the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous populations and the trade network of the area.

I was one of twenty
people, including volunteers
and staff, on site for the
first half of the seven-week
season. We flew into Amman and drove four hours
south along the Dead Sea to
Reesha, a small desert town
just south of our site. There,
we moved into the top floor
of an unused government
compound belonging to the
Jordan Valley Authority. We
were very lucky with our
accommodations considering our location in the middle of the Wadi Araba. We
had a full kitchen equipped with stoves
for boiling water, porcelain Turkish squat
toilets, and most importantly AC to mitigate the 130-degree Fahrenheit afternoon
Due to the high afternoon temperatures, which were exacerbated by the heat
wave the Middle East experienced at the
beginning of this summer, our days started
early. From Sunday to Thursday, we woke
up at 4:30 AM, and we were in the trucks
by 5:00 AM to head to the site. The trip
to the site was always an adventure since it
involved off-roading on extremely bumpy
desert roads. After picking up our Bedouin workers from the nearby village, we
headed out to the main site to begin work.
Each day we worked for a few hours before
taking a break for a second breakfast. We
then continued work until about 1:00 PM,
when we packed up and headed back to
the compound for lunch and chores, such
as pottery washing and registry.
Bir Madhkur’s main site includes a Late
Roman/Early Byzantine quadribirgium, a
fort with four corner towers; a domestic complex;
and supposed bathhouse.
During the three weeks that
I volunteered, we focused
on the fort and domestic
complex. The trench to
which I was originally assigned included, or so we
hoped, one of the corners of
the fort. For the first week,
I learned basic excavation
techniques such as how to
use the different tools, how
to keep a field notebook,
and how to take elevations.
However, after the first
week, I was then transferred
to a new site where I began
excavating my own trench.
At this new site farther out
in the desert, three of us
were tasked with excavating
a Nabataean caravanserai,
or caravan station, which
lay on the ancient Spice
Route between Petra, the
ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom, and Gaza.
The caravanersai, although
nearly contemporary with
the main site, was abandoned before the fort, so
our overall objective was to
try to determine why it was

However, I soon became
more preoccupied by the
fact that our trenches were located on top
of a snake nest. Like Indiana Jones, I am
very afraid of snakes. It did not help when
our Bedouin workers performed a comforting pantomime that our director roughly
translated as, “if the snake bites you, you
die, and then you go to Allah.” Luckily,
although I saw the snakes’ slither tracks, I
did not see any of the snakes themselves
during my three weeks. After we destroyed
the snake holes and I could focus on the
task at hand, I found a mostly intact glass
vessel, an ancient coin, and plaster walls,
among other small finds. Although these
finds may seem lackluster on paper, I was
very excited to unearth them. They made
the often seemingly sisyphean task of digging through Jordanian sand thrilling and
On the weekends, after a full week
of digging from Sunday to Thursday, we
packed up and departed the compound to
seek refuge in nearby cities with relaxing hotels equipped with full beds, real
showers, and regular toilets. The first
weekend we ventured to Aqaba, Jordan’s
resort town on the Gulf of the Red Sea,
with which fans of Lawrence of Arabia are
familiar. Aqaba is much more western than
Reesha and rife with cheap shopping and
delicious street food like hummus, falafel,
and shawerma. The second weekend we
explored Petra and its awe-inspiring buildings carved out of the cliff faces. Even
though I have traveled in Italy and Greece
and seen other ruins dating to the first
centuries BC and AD, Petra’s heyday, I
have yet to be struck by those Roman and
Greek ruins as I was by their Nabataean
counterparts, especially the Treasury and
the Monastery. While I gawked at the
Treasury, I again felt like Indiana Jones,
since, as Indy fans may know, it served as
the imaginary location of the Holy Grail
during his third adventure. The third
weekend found us back in Aqaba, again
frequenting our favorite karaoke bar.
While we were in Aqaba, my friend and
I made an afternoon trip north to Wadi
Rum, Jordan’s famous desert oasis. Our
guide drove us around the desert to enjoy
the beautiful scenery, and, afterwards, we
took a sunset camel ride and went sandboarding, or snowboarding on sand. From
there, I packed up and headed north to
the Amman airport.
Although archaeology is not quite as glamorous as the movies make it out to
be, I thoroughly enjoyed my time digging
in Jordan. I had never participated in an
archaeological dig before, so this experience was my first taste of actual fieldwork.
I found that, surprisingly, I liked digging
in dirt in over 120-degree heat, despite
my Irish heritage. I will miss my fellow
archaeologists, “Bedouin whiskey” as we
affectionately called the sugary local tea,
and the excitement of unearthing a mere
sherd of pottery. I hope to return to Jordan
someday either to dig or simply explore
further the beautiful country with its stunning desert landscapes and captivating