Friday, 18 November 2011

Day 5 - Bird’s nest camp site – first day

Today we moved to a new large site consisting of 26 well established tent rings on a flat plain near the railway, about twenty minutes drive south of where we had been working yesterday. We plan to investigate this site for a couple of days, so this will be an introduction to it and more information and pictures will follow tomorrow.

Team working on the rings at Bird's Nest camp

The evidence of two long parallel lines of tents remained by virtue of the stones that had been used to hold down the canvas at their perimeters. The group was split into 7 teams and each team was allocated a ring to excavate. Over the course of the day the painstaking removal of layers of sand and stones began to reveal characteristic finds in some, giving an insight into their occupants.

Personal seal and ring

Some of the finds today were really interesting – an intact Ottoman army officer’s personal seal, an ornate but damaged ring and several French cement bag tags. We are hoping to be able to trace the person who owned the dated seal and maybe something about them. If we do we will report our findings here on the blog next week. It’s always amazing to be able to link a personal find to a real individual, so we are hoping for success.

The work at this site continues tomorrow, so there will be another report from the Bird’s Nest camp then, together with a lot more photographs of the tam in action and the location itself.

Now for a new feature for the blog. We will be asking some of the volunteers and other team members to paint a pen picture of their reasons for coming on the Project, and how they are finding it out here working in Jordan with us. We begin with Alistair MacLellan, who writes....

“I just came across GARP in Summer 2010 whilst I was job hunting. I had recently graduated with a postgraduate diploma in Arabic language, so as well as the usual London based jobs I was looking further afield to places like Jordan and Egypt to see if there was something more exotic to fill  my time. However I found a job sooner than expected and had to delay joining the project until the current season.

I was not sure what to expect when joining the project.  It is well established – this is it’s sixth season – and what experience I have dated back to my undergraduate degree in 2007. I came to the project blind, not knowing anyone. However the first three days have been spent settling in, including some sight seeing and a day of induction, which has meant I am able to put names to faces.

It is a tight knit project, with any of the guys and girls having been here for previous seasons. Having said that there are many of us – say 40% - new to the project. We are also quite a varied bunch from all over the world. The mix of age, experience and professional background makes some quite effective teams in the field.

I did think we would be doing a lot more field survey. However a lot of research has clearly gone into the fortnight we spend here which has meant we have been able to actually excavate at two sites in two days. I was worried that my lack of practical experience would show but the project leaders were not lying when they said that volunteers of all ages and levels of experiences are welcome here. The site supervisors are relaxed and happy to offer help and advice – but I have noticed that we are allowed to use our own initiative and approach our certain area of the site in whatever way we think best.

My favourite aspect of the day so far is how it has encouraged me to think about the landscape. Most travellers, like T.E. Lawrence, Charles Doughty or William Palgrave put a lot of effort into describing the landscape we currently work in, but to be here and to see it for myself gives a massive insight and sense of appreciation of the challenge faced both by the Arabs and the Ottoman troops defending the railway. When we were excavating the demolished station at Ghadir el Haj it was easy to imagine the small garrison having to rush out into their shallow trenches as the Arabs rushed out of the flat, featureless desert.

Alistair with the Mauser cartridge he found in the station at Ghadir el Haj

But the main point I would like to make is that, even as we as a project focus on quite a narrow period of time – 1916-1918 – we come across, at every turn, evidence of a landscape affected by human activity. The seventeenth century fort at Unayza. Built to defend the Haj route, in the 20th century it was fortified to defend the railway which it overlooks. The chief engineer’s house at Ma’an is now a museum celebrating Jordanian nationalism. The modern day Jordanian army used the rock cut trenches above Unayza for their military exercises. Villagers dig for rumoured gold and dump their household waste in the trenches above Ma’an. Bedouin use the tent circles at the Bird’s Nest site to shelter their livestock.

Basically the landscape and heritage of the Hijaz railway is not something passive sat out in the desert as I must admit I found it easy to regard it , reading Seven Pillars back in the UK.

It means different things – and is used in different ways – by many groups of people of whom the volunteers on the project are just one. It is really great to be here – just a few days in and the work done here has reminded me how engaging archaeology can be. Well recommended

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