Jor­dan’s air­borne mon­u­ments men dis­cover, pro­tect sites

Malta Independent - - FEATURE - Sam McNeil

The he­li­copter door opens and Robert Bew­ley leans out hun­dreds of feet above the His­ban Ro­man ru­ins out­side Am­man, Jor­dan. Feet on the struts, the Ox­ford Univer­sity ar­chae­ol­o­gist be­gins snap­ping pho­tos as the chop­per cir­cles the an­cient stones.

Sheep flock far be­low amid mar­ble col­umns from 1,700 years ago. After a few min­utes, Bew­ley squawks di­rec­tions into a ra­dio head­set, and the he­li­copter banks to­wards an­other site sit­ting on a cliff above a ma­jor high­way.

“To dis­cover sites if we were just out on the ground would be re­ally dif­fi­cult,” Bew­ley said. “In an hour’s fly­ing we can record between 10-20 sites and once they’re recorded through dig­i­tal photography, that’s a record that will last for­ever.”

Bew­ley and col­league David Kennedy aim to dis­cover and pre­serve ar­chae­ol­ogy through a grow­ing ar­chive of sites across the Mid­dle East and North Africa with 91,000 im­ages.

While Ro­man, Ot­toman, Byzan­tine, Na­batean, Ne­olithic and Bri­tish im­pe­rial sites have been un­cov­ered, the pair has also re­vealed in the past 19 years both mys­te­ri­ous man-made rock struc­tures and “cat­a­strophic” ur­ban sprawl de­stroy­ing and threat­en­ing sites across the king­dom.

Refugees flee­ing wars in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, Iraq and Syria have dec­i­mated Jor­dan’s land and wa­ter re­sources over the past few decades, Kennedy said.

“I could see the ar­chae­ol­ogy was dis­ap­pear­ing, and one of the things that’s been quite shock­ing since then is to see that the process is ac­cel­er­at­ing,” he said. “It’s now at an al­most cat­a­strophic level.”

Their pho­to­graphs show the north­ern city of Jerash slowly en­velop­ing Ro­man ru­ins there. Other pho­tos show site after site bull­dozed, roads cut through Na­batean tem­ples and Ro­man forts, and a Ne­olithic ceme­tery ran­sacked by loot­ers. An Umayyad palace vis­i­ble one year ago is now gone, razed to make way for an olive or­chard.

De­struc­tion of an­tiq­ui­ties is clear from the air, but so are 2,000 enor­mous man-made rock struc­tures once known as “the works of the old men” in Jor­dan’s bleak basalt desert.

Their 4,000-9,000-year old weath­ered stones blend into the rocky land­scape, and lay cam­ou­flaged for mil­len­nia. Be­fore the in­ven­tion of flight, fa­mous colo­nial trav­el­ers like Gertrude Bell walked right past them, Kennedy said.

“For all prac­ti­cal pur­poses they saw noth­ing,” he said.

Bri­tish pi­lots de­liv­er­ing mail between Cairo and Bagh­dad in the 1920s first no­ticed the struc­tures starkly con­trast­ing with the pale desert floor. Not know­ing what they were, the pi­lots nick­named them “kites” after crude chil­dren’s draw­ings. World War II halted the photography, un­til Kennedy and Bew­ley soared over with Nikon cam­eras.

“Just by go­ing up a few hun­dred feet, we could see that there were lit­er­ally thou­sands of kites there,” Kennedy said.

Roughly 4,500 “kites” of re­gional va­ri­ety have since been found across the Fer­tile Cres­cent in Ar­me­nia, Turkey, Syria, Jor­dan, Egypt, the West Bank, Saudi Ara­bia and Ye­men, ac­cord­ing to the Lyon-based Global Kites Project.

“My god it was just amaz­ing what you can­not see on the ground,” said Gary Rollef­son, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Whit­man Col­lege who has worked in Jor­dan since 1978. “We could tell there were some humps over there, but the dis­tri­bu­tion or den­sity of these things was just over­whelm­ing.”

Their pe­cu­liar ge­om­e­try __ pen­nants, cir­cles and fans __ drew ar­chae­ol­o­gists like Rollef­son to dig in Jor­dan’s bar­ren eastern desert.

Rollef­son has found oak, duck­weed, cat­tails and tamarisk pollen in red mud at a Ne­olithic site called Wisad Pools. Other ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found an­i­mal bones. The dis­cov­er­ies have led ar­chae­ol­o­gists to reach a con­sen­sus, he said.

“There’s no ques­tion, that place was a lot greener than it is to­day,” Rollef­son said. “There used to be a heck of a lot more wa­ter than there is to­day.”

The ev­i­dence sug­gests the kites were mas­sive hunt­ing traps used to cor­ral wild game in a much greener en­vi­ron­ment. Peo­ple would drive herds between stone walls that would slowly nar­row the run­ning an­i­mals into dead­end pits six-feet deep.

“They be­come like a Safe­way meat mar­ket,” Rollef­son said. “Just leave them down there un­til you want to eat them.”

At first Kennedy wasn’t al­lowed to fly when he be­gan the Aerial Pho­to­graphic Ar­chive for Ar­chae­ol­ogy in the Mid­dle East in 1978. He spent 25 years col­lect­ing aerial pho­tos and old maps be­fore Google Earth made satel­lite im­ages wide­spread.

The Aerial Ar­chae­ol­ogy in Jor­dan project took to the skies in 1997 when the head of the air force, Prince Faisal, brother to reign­ing King Ab­dul­lah II, au­tho­rized flights on Jor­da­nian mil­i­tary he­li­copters. A decade later, Kennedy and Bew­ley in­creased the range and num­ber of flights after re­ceiv­ing grants from the Packard Hu­man­i­ties In­sti­tute adding up to $2.5 mil­lion.

Bew­ley said the aerial per­spec­tive, even in an age of Google Earth, can in­form and lead to new dis­cov­er­ies.

An­dreas Zirbini, a re­search as­so­ciate at Ox­ford Univer­sity, has flown with the pair to pho­to­graph lime­stone out­crop­pings in north­west­ern Jor­dan out­side the city of Ir­bid. These ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures are tell­tale signs of an­cient agri­cul­ture.

Hi-res­o­lu­tion pho­tos and GPS co­or­di­nates en­able Zirbini to iden­tify quar­ries, wine presses, reser­voirs, and tombs.

“Even from the he­li­copter it might not look like some­thing, but I know there’s a 90-per­cent chance there will be some­thing hu­man-made,” he said.

Kennedy and Bew­ley moved their data­base to Ox­ford where it is now part of the larger re­gion­wide En­dan­gered Ar­chae­ol­ogy in the Mid­dle East and North Africa project. With new fund­ing from the Au­gus­tus Foun­da­tion, the pair aims to ex­pand the scope of his­toric and con­tem­po­rary im­ages __ and keep fly­ing.

“We fre­quently find our­selves smil­ing with de­light be­cause you can’t speak very of­ten be­cause of the sound of the he­li­copter. But as your fly­ing over them you find your­self grin­ning fool­ishly be­cause there’s some­thing rather re­mark­able open­ing up be­neath you go­ing on and on and on into the dis­tance,” Kennedy said.

Over 6.6 mil­lion peo­ple have viewed the ar­chive on­line ( ) __ which has more than 1,000 pages of pho­tos __ and 161 re­search projects have used the im­ages, Bew­ley said.

“We don’t want them to be just sit­ting in an ar­chive so it’s an on­line data­base of pho­to­graphs that peo­ple can look at and be able to do their re­search on,” he said. “The pur­pose of tak­ing the pho­to­graphs is that peo­ple will use them in the fu­ture.”

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