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Excavating the Past at Petra

The Ad-Deir Monument and Plateau at Petra, with the half-excavated Great Circle in the foreground

The Kennedy Center’s affiliated faculty are some of the leading experts at BYU and in their fields. Two of those affiliated faculty have been using their archaeological expertise to excavate and conserve Petra, Jordan, the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of a long-standing connection between Utah and Jordan that stretches back fifty years.

A Long History with Jordan

Dr. Cynthia Finlayson and Dr. David Johnson are both archaeology professors in BYU’s Department of Anthropology, and both are also affiliated faculty with the Kennedy Center’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Middle East Studies/Arabic programs. However, they first met and worked together in Petra several decades before they both came to teach at BYU.

It all started in 1973, when noted archaeologist Philip C. Hammond revived his American Expedition to Petra project. Hammond, who had been trained by the famous archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho, was a pioneering excavator of Petra, but had put that work on hold for some years. In 1969, he accepted a position at the University of Utah, so when he recommenced his excavations at Petra in 1973, he provided an opportunity for archaeology students in Utah and beyond to put their studies into practice at what would soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most famous archaeological (and tourism) sites in the world.

Two such students were Cynthia Finlayson, a graduate student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and David Johnson, a graduate student at University of Utah. In both 1977 and 1978, both joined Dr. Hammond’s field schools and found themselves working together at the Temple of the Winged Lions and the foundation test excavations for Qasr al-Bint Phar’aun in Petra.

As part of her subsequent Ph.D. Program at the University of Iowa, Dr. Finlayson moved her excavation focus to Syria and eventually received site concessions at Palmyra, the Great Roman Theater of Apamea, as well as a museum project at the Azem Palace in Damascus.

Dr. Johnson continued to work with Dr. Hammond in Petra and when he was hired at BYU in 1988, he involved the BYU Department of Anthropology with Dr. Hammond’s work as well. Thus, the former graduate student, now archaeology Ph.D., found himself a co-director of a major archaeological project in Petra with his former professor. Subsequently, in 1998, Dr. Johnson started a new project, obtaining a concession to excavate the Nabataean tombs and loculi burials in a nearby canyon in Petra called Wadi Mataha.

Dr. Finlayson continued her work in Syria after coming to work at BYU in 1998/1999, but eventually found her projects there disrupted by the Syrian Civil War that began in June of 2011. Her excavation team at Palmyra was one of the last foreign groups to escape Palmyra before ISIL/ISIS moved into the Palmyra Region. At that point, the Jordanian government invited her to return to Petra to help save the Ad-Deir Monument on the Ad-Deir Plateau from erosion destruction. Thus, in 2013, she applied for and was granted a concession to implement a long-term project to save the Ad-Deir Monument.

When the University of Utah’s Temple of the Winged Lions project ended in 2004, Dr. Johnson’s project in Wadi Mataha left BYU as one of only three American universities with archaeological site concessions in Petra (the other two being Penn State and North Carolina State). With Dr. Finlayson’s Ad-Deir Plateau Project beginning in Petra in 2013, BYU became the only university institution in the world with two separate archaeological concessions at Petra; all the other groups currently working there only have one.

(BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures will soon be holding a special exhibit to commemorate this 50-year connection between Utah and Jordan; keep an eye on their website for more details.)

A City Made of Stone

“Petra” comes from a name given to it by its later Roman conquerors—related to the Greek and Latin words for “stone”—but its original inhabitants and builders, the Nabataeans, absorbed the ancient Edomite Kingdom in the region and called their new capitol city Raqmu. The Nabataeans were an early Arab trading culture that flourished from about 500 BCE to 600 AD, although in 106 AD, they lost their independence to the Romans under the Emperor Trajan. The Nabataeans dominated the Levant as middleman traders, buying and selling goods to and from India and possibly China to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Greco-Roman world. The Nabataeans were also the most ingenious water engineers in a desert environment in the ancient Near East. The Nabataean kingdom was quite large at its highest point, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and from Damascus into Northern Arabia. Their influence stretched even further afield, as they had merchant colonies in Italy, Yemen and Egypt.

The Nabataeans were longtime neighbors to Judea, especially during the Persian Period and into the Hasmonean and Herodian Eras just before and during the time of the New Testament (Petra is only 102 miles, as the crow flies, from Jerusalem), and they tie into Biblical history in unexpected ways. The Nabataeans were highly involved in the Hasmonean squabbles and internecine wars over the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Additionally, Herod the Great was the son of a Nabataean woman of probable noble birth with his father noted as an Idumaean (the Hellenistic term for Edomite). Herod is thus known to have spent time in Petra both as a child and as an adult. Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, ordered the execution of John the Baptist, an event caused by Herod Antipas’ adulterous affair with his brother’s wife that caused political turmoil in the region. Thus, John the Baptist was probably not only worried about the moral implications of the adulterous affair, but also what this would do to the political alliance between the Nabataeans and Herodian Judea. This was due to the fact that Herod Antipas was originally married to a Nabataean princess, the daughter of the Nabataean king Aretas IV. When Herod Antipas’ Nabataean wife escaped to her father in Petra, Aretas IV launched attacks against Judea. Herod Antipas thus had to call in Roman military assistance. His adulterous affair thus tipped the balance of quasi-independence for Judea with relation to growing Roman control in the region.

The Nabataeans also interacted closely with other cultures, including those of Late Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemies including Cleopatra VII as well as peoples in the Arabian Peninsula. The influences of these cultures can be seen in Petra, from the Hellenistic style architecture of its carved buildings, to the presence of Egyptian gods in some of its tombs and temples, to Arabian-style betyls, or aniconic carvings, representing Nabataean deities. As Christianity spread in the first century AD, Petra probably hosted some of the first apostles—if not Christ Himself, who is noted in the New Testament as teaching in the East beyond the Jordan. The city eventually became known as Petra Hadriana (after the Roman Emperor Hadrian) and became the site of numerous Byzantine Christian churches.

Petra suffered a devastating earthquake A.D. 363 which helped to cause its ultimate decline. The city was partially abandoned in the early Islamic Era, after which time Bedouin tribes took over the region. It was "rediscovered" for the Western World in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and has grown in popularity since then as a world-class site both for archaeology and for tourism; 1.1 million tourists visited in 2019 alone. In 2023, that number may be doubled.

Burial Rituals in Wadi Mataha

Those tourists inspired Dr. Johnson to begin his project in Wadi Mataha. “The Temple of the Winged Lions is right in the middle of the city, with thousands of tourists coming by every day,” he jokes. “I got tired of it.” So in 1998, while the Temple of the Winged Lions project was still underway, he applied for and received a concession to excavate at Wadi Mataha, an area to the northeast of the main city center (“wadi” is an Arabic term for a valley). “I wanted to see what the periphery of the city was like—the outskirts.”

Another advantage of the new area was the presence of a prehistoric site nearby, dating back to when the Natufian inhabitants of the area were making the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, around 10,000 BCE. (The Nabataeans may be the most famous inhabitants of the region around Petra, but they certainly weren’t the only people to settle in the area.) That site was overseen by Dr. Joel Janetski, also of BYU, and the two projects—one prehistoric, one classical—existed side by side until the Natufian project ended.

The Wadi Mataha concession has fewer of the large, dramatic buildings that draw tourists to the center Petra, but it’s full of tombs and worship sites (or “high places”) that allow Dr. Johnson to study burial rituals of the Nabataeans. “The center of the city has temples and upper-class residences; as you get away from the center, there are more tombs,” he says, adding that there are around 1,200 tombs cut into the rock around Petra. A typical tomb in Petra was cut into the face of the sandstone cliff; bodies were placed in carved holes, then covered with cut stone slabs. In many cases, a facade was carved around the entrance to the tomb, many in the same Hellenistic style of Petra’s more famous structures. Some of the tombs have platforms in front of them, with cisterns and water control features that would have been used for religious rituals, but others do not.

“We started doing very small tombs,” says Dr. Johnson, “then went through the progression of lower-class tombs, to middle-class tombs, to upper-class tombs, to get an understanding of burial customs in terms of socio-economic class.” They often find artifacts in their excavations, with the tombs of wealthier people containing gold jewelry, beads, bells, and more. “We’re still trying to understand Nabataean burial rituals,” he says. “When they had a funeral, people may have brought items to the burials and thrown them into the tomb, just like we put flowers at cemeteries—leaving a memento to remember your dead.” (One of the more unusual discoveries in a tomb was a medallion with a description from the Quran—it dates to the 8th century, well after the city was abandoned, indicating it may have been lost by a curious visitor exploring the cliffside tombs.)

Working with Water at the Ad-Deir Monument

In another part of the Petra Archaeological Park, Dr. Finlayson has been working since 2013 to preserve the Ad-Deir Monument located on the Ad-Deir Plateau. Popularly referred to as “the Monastery,” Ad-Deir hosts the largest carved facade in Petra. Dr. Finlayson notes, “The building is so tall that when we work at the top, we can get vertigo.” The original purpose of the building is not yet fully known, although it may have been an elaborate symposium and memorial to the Nabataean king Obodas I, who was deified by his people. Dr. Finlayson also points out that the Ad-Deir Plateau has only two easily-guarded entrances and may have been used for defensive purposes, as well as a royal palace on the Burg-Berge Monument just to the West and opposite the Ad-Deir Monument. This Nabataean building may have helped inspire a young Herod the Great’s interest in building high defensive desert palaces like Masada near the Dead Sea or the Herodium outside of Bethlehem.

Despite being the largest facade at Petra, little had been done to study the Ad-Deir Monument until Dr. Finlayson and BYU started the Ad-Deir Monument and Plateau Project (AMPP). The first step was to map the plateau and mark spots of archaeological importance using a drone, photogrammetry, and a painstaking visual walking inspection of the entire plateau.

One of AMPP’s major discoveries was a large circular feature that turned out to be a massive water catch basin—at 60 meters in diameter, it’s the largest circular man-made catch basin in a desert environment currently known in the world—now known as the Great Circle. Its ancient function was to also protect the Ad-Deir Monument complex from erosional flooding and damage coming from the western downhill portion of the plateau. Part of the AMPP team is currently halfway complete with excavating and restoring the Great Circle, while other team members are working elsewhere on the plateau.

Lately, Dr. Finlayson has been excavating the water cisterns located up against the eastern cliffside of Jebel Fatumah, which catches and protects the Ad-Deir Monument from seasonal flash flooding on the eastern side of the plateau. There are seven massive cisterns here that are undercut into the mountain’s base; Eastern Cistern B, which was completed in 2018, holds 500 cubic meters of water, or roughly 130,000 gallons. On their current project, Eastern Cistern C1, the team recently made an exciting discovery. “Last year, when excavations were going on, Holly Raymond Hughes (one of the Assistant Directors for the AMPP project) found a strange, Crisco-like substance on the stairs [that lead down into the cistern],” she explains. “We couldn’t figure out what was going on.” This year, the team found the explanation: 44 Nabataean fine ware plates buried in the dirt at the back of the cistern, some of them very delicate and beautifully painted—the Nabataeans are well known for their high-quality pottery. “When these plates started coming up,” Dr. Finlayson explains, “every one of them had the remnants of what was probably goat or sheep fat in the center of the plate, with a little wick and a burn area.” That fat was the source of the substance on the stairs. So why were these plates in this cistern in such a strange condition? She explains, “Since the cisterns were vaulted and dark and the stairs are hard to navigate, and since there are terrible poisonous snakes and scorpions up on the plateau, people didn’t want to go down into the cistern without knowing what was down there. So they would light these and float them on the water as a candle.” She laughs, “I thought, ‘The Nabataeans would love hot tubs if they were still around, with floating candles at night.’” Some of these plates eventually became buried as the abandoned cisterns filled in with dirt and sand after the Romans absorbed Nabataea. “It’s one of the largest collections of Nabataean pottery that’s been excavated scientifically,” says Dr. Finlayson. “They are dated from about 20 BCE to about 106 AD, when the Romans took over and abolished the Nabataean kingship. And, we can tell from this excavation that is when the cleaning and maintenance of the cisterns stopped. This was really exciting to find; it’s a completely new use that we’ve never known before for Nabataean fine ware plates, and the painted wares also help us date the everyday coarse ware assemblages.”

However, there’s more to this project than just excavation and study; the Ad-Deir Monument is in danger, and the AMPP team is trying to conserve it. Storms come up from the Red Sea and hit the area, dousing the Ad-Deir facade with rain that can flood the area or create streams that pour down the cliffs. This poses a major threat to the irreplaceable and easily eroded sandstone carvings at Petra. The Nabataeans planned for this at Ad-Deir, carving a system of water channels, cisterns and basins (including the Great Circle) to divert any water that came into the area away from the facade. When the city was abandoned, however, that water control system silted up and ceased working, leaving the Ad-Deir Monument at the mercy of the elements; in the centuries since then, the facade has suffered a great deal of erosion. Part of the AMPP team’s project is to restore these ancient systems and to see if the ingenuity of the Nabataeans can once again protect these buildings from the elements. “We created catch dams to stop the water that was coming in and ruining things,” says Dr. Finlayson. “We cleaned the second story, which was really scary to do, and we have done all the clearing of the water diversion channels at the top and behind the Monument that the Nabataeans carved to keep water from coming over the facade.” This summer, two terrible storms gave her a chance to observe the monument and see that their work is beginning to make a difference in keeping the monument safe.

To see more about this aspect of the AMPP, check out this video.

Undergraduates Abroad

Dr. Johnson and Finlayson work on their projects yearly—sometimes multiple times per year—with the help of collaborators, many of whom are former or current graduate students. But their projects differ from many archaeology programs around the country in that they also bring undergraduates along on these digs. Many come as part of a field school, which is required for the Archaeology BA; this involves doing a prep class before the dig and an analysis class afterwards. The official Anthropology Department field school rotates to Petra every third or fourth year, but Drs. Johnson and Finlayson are at Petra working every year.

The Sociocultural Anthropology BA also requires students to do field schools, and this focus on hands-on experience gives these graduates an edge: “Outside reviewers have said to us, ‘The archaeology and anthropology students at BYU are probably some of the best-trained students coming out of undergrad programs,’ because there are so few university programs these days that are offering field schools anymore,” says Dr. Finlayson. “To have that practical experience on your resume gets you into better graduate programs, or even employment positions right out of your BA. It’s a real benefit to the students to do that.”

But students don’t have to wait for the field school to roll around; both professors are at their digs every year, whether or not the field school is sending students to Petra, and can take interested students on those off-year excursions.

Kennedy Connection

So far, so good for students in the Department of Anthropology, but how does this apply to students at the Kennedy Center? For one thing, Dr. Finlayson and Johnson are both affiliated faculty, and their work informs their teaching. For instance, says Dr. Johnson, he has come to closely know the Bedul Bedouin tribe, who used to live in Petra itself but were forced out by the government in 1988 and now inhabit a village nearby. “We live with them when we’re in Petra, in the same houses. I’ve known the man who owns the house I stay at since 1977; he’s like family. It’s a nice cultural experience. Then, in the Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East class that I teach for MESA, we take one week of lectures to talk about that group.”

He also currently has eight skeletons on loan from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, a direct result of his work at Petra. “I teach biological anthropology and human osteology, and we use the skeletons we brought back from Jordan to teach the class.”

If MESA or ANES students want to get even more closely involved, they can participate in the field schools and in the off-year digs. Though archaeology students get priority for the field schools, given that it’s a graduation requirement for them, both Dr. Finlayson and Dr. Johnson have taken Kennedy Center students to Jordan with them. “A good thing to do is come take one of our archaeology or culture classes,” Dr. Finlayson recommends. “It gives you a good preliminary study of what we do, and then we can get to know you in class and gauge whether you can handle the digs.” She adds, “I’m in the field twice a year, every year, so we’re always looking for good people.”

She feels that participating in an archaeological dig can be a big benefit for these students, particularly for those studying ANES. “I’ve noticed that ANES students are really text-focused, and they often haven’t thought about how pre-prejudiced those texts may be. Often, focusing on the archaeology, the artifacts, and the architecture can correct perceptions of, say, an ancient historian who is writing from a certain prejudicial perspective—or even our own prejudice about how societies existed back then. It’s helpful just being in the region and understanding Semitic cultures, how they function, and the topography that they have to function in. So it gives these students a broader set of tools to deal with their future careers.”

Follow these links to learn more about the Middle East Studies/Arabic, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, and Archaeology programs.