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9th January, 2001

We drive up the Jordan Valley, green, fertile paradise for vegetable growers. When we arrive at Pella we’re taken on an overview tour of the dig site which leaves me reeling: tombs, fortress trenches, the towering Tell Husn, and in the valley of the dead stream, Roman ruins, columns, a church, and a theatre. We pass the pottery dump, carefully marked on the map as such for the benefit of future archaeologists; the walls of a mosque; and an Islamic cemetery, where local children are still buried, giving them a direct route to paradise.

Our guide tells us they found two things today with “diagnostic potential”: a small shard with a Greek inscription, and the decorated side of what was probably a cult stand. We learn a crucial distinction: red dirt is ground dirt; brown dirt marks human additions. I become quite expert distinguishing dirt colour once I start troweling.

However, we don’t work on this first day. We cross the valley to Tell Husn, Mound of the Fortress, breaking a lock with a crowbar to do so. A stiff climb, boobytrapped by loose rocks, takes us past chamber tombs carved in the hillside between 64 BC and 400 AD. We walk down worn stairs through a rock door that opens smoothly on a rock hinge. Inside are several niches, some still containing sarcophagi.

On the top of the Tell there are large level stone platform foundations that take us back to 3000 BC, earlier than Egypt’s Great Pyramid. In another area there is a large complex dating from 300-600 AD. The ground floor walls of stone are still there, but the upper storeys of mud brick and timber have gone. There are also traces of huge cisterns, a fortress, a grain depository, stables and a beautifully reconscructed Byzantine wall. We share the top of the Tell with a shepherd and his flock, and a Bedouin camp fenced with thorn bush. Although we didn’t see them, there are rich Bronze Age tombs on the slopes of Tell Husn, one of which had the skeleton of a servant at the door, legs bound by a huge bronze shackle: the other earlier one yielded over 2 000 objects ranging from gold earrings and copper bracelets to pottery and alabaster vessels.

At midday, the sense of ancient peace is disturbed by the roar of Israeli planes making a very loud statement overhead.

When we descend Tell Husn we look around the Roman Ruins in Wadi Jirm. The odeon is paved with red and white stones. With the arrival of Islam, missing paving was replaced by pieces of altar screen, sometimes made into a careful pattern, sometimes just a torn corner. A mosaic floor has been backfilled to preserve it.

Earthquakes feature in the history of this site. Once, two people were carrying lamps. The material of their clothes fused with their skin leaving traces of silk, undoing theories that these were the dwellings of poor people. Skeletons were also found with gold coins stitched into their clothing. There were signs of houses subdivided, as if times had got tougher, families larger.

When we return to the dig house we watch in the yard while the morning’s haul of pottery is sorted – handles, rims, bases, designs. Inside the pottery is divided into type by the dig director. The day’s finds are basketed according to material – flint, groundstone, ceramics, shell, and metal – ready to be assessed and catalogued and then redirected for cleaning, drawing, or photography.

Today I walked on 1000 years of human habitation and a million years of human activity. Information came in a deluge, and my chaotic notes reflect this. I’m not sure I’ve got any of it right.

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