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January 2001

The day before my dig experience at Pella began, a couple of things are found with “diagnostic potential”: the side of what was probably a cult stand decorated with a pattern; and a small piece with a Greek inscription. This prepares me for the minuteness of discoveries and knocks on the head any Tutankhamen’s-tomb fantasies I might have had.

My first trench excitement happens as I’m scraping out the pit in XXXIIG. Something the size and shape of a broken paddle pop stick emerges from the dirt. It is in fact shaped bone, polished to a gleam and is worthy of its own plastic bag.

Some days there is a lull for volunteers as the local workmen move piles of dirt. This is a chance to see what is happening elsewhere on the dig. In the next trench they’ve just exposed two loom weights, in a small room which may have been a loom room. In another trench, the lid of an amphora, more complete than any others found on this site so far. One trench is particularly giving: a ceramic horse’s head; a female figurine with poked-hole nipples; a broken but reconstitutable vessel; a piece of faience; a couple of scarabs; an iron knife blade. Abu Khalifa found a tiny blue frit bead – the trench men have eyes like hawks attuned by long practice to notice impossible things as they wield their picks.. In my trench, in my pit, a bowl. These are all designated “plot objects”, up to 100 of them halfway through this dig session.

Sometimes trench work seems pointless, scraping away, thinking I have a pit, only to be disappointed. No treasures for me. The sharp-eyed pickman is the one who finds treasures: a couple of loom-weights, and an almost complete juglet. Eventually I figure out that I’ll be happier if I give myself a goal – this square, self-designated, and now that.

The tedium is broken by a summoning cry: a basalt grinder and a grindstone; half a basalt bowl; and half a basalt ring; a copper alloy pin; and one day a huge piece of column being moved 20 feet down a slight slope by half a dozen men with crowbars, everyone gathering to watch, applauding as it’s angled upright against a baulk.

One day, large shards, emerge from dirt in our trench – a pot, about 900 BC, the time of King Solomon. One of the volunteers unearths it and the dreaded Maggie takes over “Because I want speed, not because I don’t trust you, or because I want honour and glory.” Oh, no.

Another day, as the trench foreman begins wielding his pick he exposes signs of a partially unbroken 12th BC pithos (a large storage container). The design around its neck may have been the imprint of rope. After pottery sort, three of us return to the trench until sunset to retrieve as much as possible: a whole base, bits of rim and handle, and heap of shards as big as my hand. This excavation urgency is to make sure no marauders helped themselves to bits and pieces when the site is unwatched at night.

The sorting and classifying of finds is in the hands of the experts. Each day’s haul is basketed according to materials: flint, groundstone, ceramics, shell and metal. Then it’s assessed and sent off for cataloguing, cleaning, drawing and photographing. Potential museum pieces are identified: good stuff stays in Jordan, but duplicates might end up in the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University.

Sometimes after work I return to the site. I watch the dig draughtsman as he draws the top of a piece of wall to scale, and look around taking in the site of 8000 years of human history. It is peaceful on the hillside in the late afternoon sun, absorbing the feeling of this place of Roman theatres, Byzantine Churches, late Bronze Age and Iron Age temples and administrative buildings, and towering Tell Husn.

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Here’s another version of life on the Pella dig, with excellent photos.