History (and Microdebris) Uncovered at Dhiban

Excavating a Middle Islamic barrel-vaulted room

By: Nicholas Ames, 2012 Platt Fellow

Waking up at 4:00am is difficult no matter where you are in the world. But somehow, waking up in Jordan for the first time made it just a little bit easier.

Breakfast at 4:30am and troweling by 6:00am, it is a schedule regimented by environmental and social concerns of labouring outdoors in a culturally foreign country – which is exactly what field archaeology is. Despite this early schedule, my overall experience excavating with the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project (DEDP) left me craving for much more – more time spent in the field as well as need for a much greater understanding of the regional and methodological history of archaeology and excavation in the Near East.

Coming to Jordan to participate in the excavation stemmed from two motivations: to gain training in proper excavation techniques and to collect data for my own senior thesis. My own project encompasses a look into the potential value of microdebris (artifacts less than 1cm in size) in site area interpretation of quotidian practices when compared to “standard” methods of heavy fraction analysis. As with most materials, microdebris often becomes embedded in domestic surfaces as a result of daily use, representing unintentional deposition in their primary context. It is the propensity of this residue to escape other depositional processes, such as domestic cleaning, which gives it its value, indicating a “higher-resolution” of patterning in human behavior that is less clear with larger items. Using materials collected from this and past seasons at Dhiban, I will be looking at the methodology and interpretive potential of this undervalued resource in comparison to the more standard methods of analyzed floated materials to understand the total contribution each technique makes in archaeological interpretation.

Throughout the season the Dhiban excavation was set up to maximize the student’s diversity of learning, the periods excavated ranging from Iron Age, Roman, Byzantine, Nabataean, to Middle Islamic with a focus on domestic contexts in each. From each of these fields I was introduced to slightly different methodology based on the situation at hand, providing an appreciation for the inventive and often haphazard creativity this practice requires. Regardless of which field I worked, to watch artifacts emerge from the ground, presumably undisturbed for thousands of years, germinated a token of wonder, a sense of history being uncovered, that provides the basis for archaeology’s scientific premises and whose thrill understandably motivates archaeologists to return to the field again and again.

Overall, success occurred in terms of developing solid techniques for excavating these materials as well as in my own project, where I was able to collect sufficient data to continue looking into the methodological nature of archaeological interpretation, and hopefully provides a justified option to the use of intensive analytical practices on the seeming insignificant aspects of domestic space.

It is through the generosity of the Platt Fellowship that this expansion of knowledge of regional culture - as my first opportunity to travel outside of my home country - and archaeological methodology – attaining a diverse range of field techniques and collecting materials for my own continued research - was made possible. I thank ASOR and the donors of these fellowships for making this and many other experiences possible, and I look forward to this being only the beginning.

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