Jordan Museum meeting opens door for saving La Sierra dig site
A long-standing La Sierra University excavation in Jordan under threat of development stands a chance of survival following a pivotal discussion last week at Amman’s Jordan Museum.
Approximately 100 government and archaeology leaders, property owners and other stakeholders attended a meeting Jan. 28 convened by La Sierra University archaeologist and site director Doug Clark, and museum director Sharifa Nofa bint Nasser. Presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, who also serves as vice chair of the museum’s board of trustees, the group discussed various options for preserving the artifact-rich, 25-acre site near Amman known as Tall al-‘Umayri.
Toward the meeting’s end, the site’s two primary landowners, historian Raouf Abujaber and businessman Jebril Abu Aisha announced they would donate parts of their respective properties in portions each worth $700,000, or JD500,000. The entire 25-acre site is worth approximately $14 million.
“It was an extremely generous push in the right direction and hopefully will nudge other entities to respond in kind,” said Clark in a meeting update.
His PowerPoint presentation given during the meeting recommended bringing the property under ownership of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities through a combination of government financial support, a land swap for other government land, landowner donations and foreign investments. “As it turned out, the results were overwhelmingly supportive of some kind of action to protect both cultural heritage and property owner rights,” Clark said.
A steering committee has been established to determine next steps in the process. The group will serve under the auspices of HRH Princess Sumaya and will be chaired by Jordan’s Department of Antiquities Director General Monther Jamhawi.
Last Tuesday’s meeting was co-sponsored by La Sierra University’s Center for Near Eastern Archaeology which Clark directs, The Jordan Museum, the Friends of Archaeology in Jordan of which Nasser serves as president, Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, and the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman.
The crux of the land rights issue rests with conflicting Jordanian property regulations and Department of Antiquities laws. The latter grants the government oversight for all decisions concerning archaeological remains, but private land ownership is also governed by regulations apart from antiquities laws.
Clark and his colleagues from La Sierra and other institutions for decades have painstakingly dug across a hilltop at Tall al-‘Umayri, a plateau-like swath of land near the sprawling city of Amman. They have unearthed artifacts and dwellings of cultures spanning 5,000 years including an Early Bronze Age, 3,000 BC dolmen burial installation with 19 artifacts and the remains of 20 individuals, and an emerging village of houses from `Umayri’s signature period of occupation, the Early Iron Age of 1200 BC. The village includes a four-room building, one of five adjacent structures now excavated and visible, spreading over the site’s acropolis like an ancient blueprint.
The semi-desert acreage abutting the excavated hill at Tall al-‘Umayri has also produced signs of archaeological promise. A number of small farmsteads dating from around 600 BC have been discovered along with agricultural products, including wine, that were distributed through administrative facilities at ‘Umayri. “Important also are nearby travel routes used for trade and military excursions,” Clark said.
If an agreement is not reached, “excavation this summer will be limited to the south slope of the site without access to the extremely well preserved settlements on the top of the tell,” said Clark.
The immediacy of the issue derives from a dispute that emerged in the spring of 2012 between an owner of the property and the government over a perceived property devaluation blamed on archaeological activity. The argument resulted in a significant court settlement paid by Jordan’s Department of Antiquities. Since that time, the site’s future has hung in the balance as landowners consider next courses of action and archaeologists strive to preserve history.
“The excavation team became aware of the suit about three weeks prior to the 2012 season, forcing the project to reconsider its options – quickly,” writes Clark in a January blog post for the American Schools of Oriental Research. “A permit was granted to the team only on the condition that the 2012 season would be the final season at this very productive and promising site.”
It was during this last window of excavation opportunity that Nasser hatched the meeting idea and Clark agreed, working with Nasser on a theme, program and list of invitees.
Nasser said the discussion in the Jordan Museum, newly opened last year, was the first of its kind for Jordanian excavation sites. “Why save it? Because it is part of the puzzle for the cultural heritage of Jordan and for the international cultural heritage,” she said.
A loss of the history-rich land will also mean the end of plans, years in the making, for development of an interactive archaeological park and interpretive trails providing educational opportunities for residents and tourists. In her opening comments, HRH Princess Sumaya, who has long-standing ties to ‘Umayri and its archaeologists, called for the procurement of the site “by agreement” for ownership by the Department of Antiquities and development as the Raouf Abujaber Archaeological Park, in honor of one of the property owners. “We owe it not only to ourselves to preserve this great historical resource, but also to the world. For this is a treasure that we act as custodians of for the benefit of all mankind,” the princess said.
“I believe that we can develop between us a range of solutions to ensure that all concerned parties are unified and satisfied that the correct procedures are being developed to protect all our interests,” she said. “We share our territory with the physical remnants of human ingenuity, of creativity and of a dogged determination to survive. But these abundant material remains of lost and faded communities are also impressive reminders to us that we occupy our part of the earth, not as outright owners, but as custodians.”
Tall al-‘Umayri is part of a three-dig project called the Madaba Plains Project, the largest, longest-running American archaeological project in the Middle East. With permission from one of the key landowners, ‘Umayri excavations began in 1984 through the initiative of Clark’s colleague, La Sierra archaeologist Larry Geraty. Work has taken place virtually every other year since. The multi-institution digs have involved archaeology professors and students from La Sierra, Andrews University in Michigan, Canadian University College, Mount Royal University and other universities and colleges.
Whether these windows into the region’s ancient past remain open to researchers and ultimately the world now depends in part on further progress stemming from the Jan. 28 meeting.
“We would be foolish to ignore what archaeology can teach us – by learning the stories that come with the stones,” the princess said in her remarks. She described the archaeology of the Madaba Plains as an “invaluable resource” for discovering “lost local knowledge systems, community wisdom, and cultural values” that “may help us to live in harmony with our environment and indeed, with each other.”
“We must unite to ensure that we all become a small part of this site’s long history, and not recorders of its demise,” she said.