Don's Diary

October 25, 1996


The entire team has arrived now. Very odd for a Scot who has lived most of his adult life among the English to be surrounded in this distant Bedouin village in Jordan by so many unrestrained Scottish accents. Interestingly, the Scots seem to be the team members who most easily adjust to our rather bizarre lifestyle on this archaeological survey. Fortunately we have had a tank of water installed already, but it will require some adjustments in concepts of personal space for nine of us to use one toilet with a blanket where the door should be and located - contrary to best practice in health planning - immediately off the kitchen.


An appalling night's sleep. The southwestern part of the village, we later learn, is renowned for mosquitoes. With night-time temperatures an airless 20oC-plus the choice is stark: leave the windows open and be forced to sleep with heads under sheets to evade the wretched insects or leave them closed and stifle (and get some bites anyway). It is no hardship getting up in the dark when the alarm went off at 5am.

Hear our first Egyptian joke. The Jordanians employ a large number of guest workers and treat the Egyptians with what seems the same slightly condescending but fond humour as the English do their neighbours. The village is "booming" - two barbers, a bread shop and even a cafe selling felafel. The road around the south side has been transformed into a dual carriageway to nowhere complete with roundabout and monument, and the council has had the old Roman reservoir cleared out to try to trap water in winter.


By 6am we are on the road driving straight into the rising sun for the first stage in our search for sites. The starting point is close to the frontier with Syria and our noisy arrival over a rocky track at a little house with an armoured personnel carrier at the door eventually brings out a couple of sleepy and tousle-headed soldiers. They seemed unsurprised and leave us to begin recording the graffiti scratched on the nearby rocks by their ancestors 2,000 years ago. Those same ancestors would have been perplexed by the modern frontier nearby: not so much the towers, which were a feature of Roman military control, too, but the great earth bank and the minefield. The latter is what keeps us away from a rather nice site.


The Bedouin family whose upper floor and roof we are renting have overcome their initial reserve after many cheery greetings filtered through a Glasgow brogue. Invitations to sit on their doorstep and sip numerous little glasses of piping hot tea stiff with sugar has led to a blossoming of their curiosity. "Why is Lorna wearing so many rings through her ears and nose?" "Should not Lorraine be at home with the several children she must surely have at her age?" "Is that really English Bob is speaking?" Phil is happy to give them answers which, while not entirely truthful, delight the family. The Bedouin view us with friendly amazement. They employ Egyptians to do the dirty manual labour. We fly in at great expense, get filthy doing the work ourselves and live in semi-squalor surrounded by evidently expensive equipment.


The survey over for the day and pottery washing complete, we are alerted to something big on the way by the striking orange colour of the distant horizon. The Bedouin of Umm el-Quttein know what it is and are battening down. We watch in amazement as a solid wall of sandy dust works north filling the sky from ground to cloud and gradually blotting out the houses around as we are closed in for an hour. We can hardly believe how much manages to get through our closed windows.


After a flat tyre delays our start we divert our attention to closer sites. Bob and Frank are dropped off at the ruined Roman temple on the highest point of the extinct volcano near the village. An hour of clearing rocks to let them plan the site better is halted when they discover the source of the increasingly ripe aroma, a (relatively) recent Bedouin burial under the rocks. A happier sight when we return to the house is the owner's two-year-old grand-daughter sitting cross-legged beside a large aluminium pan delightedly squeezing tomato paste between her little brown fingers.


The holiday, so a lie-in till 6am and then we are all off, bowling along asphalt roads or desert tracks crammed into the cab or roasting in the back of the pick-up. A busman's holiday, of course. A tour of Qasr el-Hallabat ("Desert Castles") was pure nostalgia for me as I recollected its far greater isolation in 1978 when Julie and I pitched our tents for three weeks in the bottom of the dry Roman reservoir just as the Princeton expedition had done in 1905. There is now a heli-pad beside what was once a meaningful sign giving improbable distances to London and Sydney across featureless hills.

David Kennedy teaches ancient history and classical archaeology at the University of Western Australia.

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