A Roman Fort Amidst the Dunes: The ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project

By Erin Darby and Robert Darby

Figure 1: Map of southern Jordan with ‘Ayn Gharandal

Located in southern Jordan, the archaeological site of ‘Ayn Gharandal lies covered by the desolate sands of the Wadi Araba (Fig. 1). Even though the site is located near an ancient spring, Lawrence (of Arabia) described the Araba Valley as follows: “Every few hours’ journey a greener patch marks a stagnant hole of water, which is always nasty to drink, in part from its own sedgy taste, and in part from the mixed flavors added to it by… camels (Woolley and Lawrence 1915: 13).” Noting that the Wadi Araba contained minimal archaeological remains, Lawrence ended his survey of the valley at ‘Ayn Gharandal and headed toward Petra.

Figure 2: Picture of ‘Ayn Gharandal fort prior to excavation

With recommendations like these, one might wonder why anyone would spend time and resources in such an unpromising desert wasteland. As expected, the answers vary depending on who you ask. Although Lawrence did not recognize much archaeological value in the Wadi Araba, later scholars have identified many important sites dotting the ancient trade route, ranging from the Paleolithic through the modern periods. The route was especially important in the Late Roman period, as recent excavations have shown. In fact, for archaeologists interested in the Late Roman through Byzantine Periods, ‘Ayn Gharandal is a goldmine of opportunity.

Figure 3: South fort wall in Square C:1/7

Figure 4: North Room of the bathhouse in Square D:6/13

You see, when you are standing on the rolling sand dunes at ‘Ayn Gharandal, you are actually standing ca. 3.0 meters above the ancient ground level (Fig. 2). That same inhospitable environment that produced the mounding sand is also responsible for preserving Roman fort walls 2.0-3.0 meters in height (Fig. 3), aqueduct piers, and a Roman bathhouse complete with tubuli still in the walls, an intact underground heating system (Fig. 4), and a latrine (Fig. 5), not to mention dipinti (painted inscriptions) in

Figure 5: Latrine to the west of the bathhouse in Square D:6/12

the fort and pictorial and epigraphic graffiti in the bathhouse (Fig. 6). Only in its fourth season, the ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project has already produced a wealth of materials (Figs. 7 & 8)that shed light on the Late Roman Army’s presence in the region, the soldiers garrisoned at the fort, and the relationship between ‘Ayn Gharandal and other trade stations.

Figure 6: Camel and Greek graffiti from the south room of the bathhouse in Square D:6/13

Figure 7: Pottery assemblage from the fort in Square A:6/4

Figure 8: Coin of Constantine the Great uncovered in the fort

Figure 9: Looter’s trench from the bathhouse

But, another reason that excavating at ‘Ayn Gharandal is worthwhile is that modern construction and looting have begun to threaten the site. In 2009, we were informed that part of the bathhouse had been damaged by looters (Fig. 9). Construction activity has also damaged the bathhouse and the fort. Furthermore, the projected canal connecting the Dead Sea and Red Sea could destroy the site entirely. Ultimately, excavation is the only way to preserve ‘Ayn Gharandal’s remains for future generations.

Figure 10: ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project 2010 team photo at the Wadi Dana Nature Reserve

If you ask the students why they choose to spend their summer in the shifting sands of the Wadi Araba, the answers might surprise you. Despite the physical conditions, students from over ten institutions across the United States and Canada have studied archaeology at ‘Ayn Gharandal, where they have generated not only important archaeological contributions but also friendships and experiences that have impacted their lives (Fig. 10).

  • Figure 11: Russel Gentry outside the bathhouse

    Russel Gentry (North Carolina State University and ASOR Heritage fellowship recipient)(Fig. 11) “My experience at ‘Ayn Gharandal greatly improved my knowledge of the overall process of collecting archaeological data from the trowel to the lab and afforded me the opportunity to investigate some of my own specific areas of interest in the region.”

  • Figure 12: Kari North and Gillian Lisenby in the latrine

    Kari North (University of British Columbia) (Fig. 12) “The ‘Ayn Gharandal Project allowed me to explore my interests in archaeology and history while exposing me to a completely different culture, new friends, and a new life philosophy. The experience was unforgettable and has significantly shaped my future goals in the field.”

  • Figure 13: Kristen Allen and Kelsey Leahy in a bedouin tent at the Dana Reserve

    Kristen Allen (Elon University) (Fig. 13) “The time I spent at ‘Ayn Gharandal was incredible! The instructors were very helpful, the team was enthusiastic, and the site was absolutely breathtaking- it was the best experience of my undergraduate career!”

  • Figure 14: Charles Walters at the site with baby camels

    Charles Walters (Duke University) (Fig. 14)  “While a student at ‘Ayn Gharandal I was introduced to one of the valuable processes of how history is collected, ate and studied in a land whose culture was different from my own, and even learned some Arabic. I walked the ancient streets of Jerash, Philadelphia, and the Nabataean kingdom of Petra along with people whom I now call friends and even was part of a team that uncovered some ancient Roman bathhouse graffiti. I wouldn’t trade my experience at ‘Ayn Gharandal for a handful of Roman coins!”

As a result of such devoted students, the ‘Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project is heading into its fourth season, to take place in June and July of 2013. In addition to field trips and cultural experiences, students will have the opportunity to excavate in multiple areas at the site (Fig. 15), including several rooms of the bathhouse and fort, as well as the fort’s gate, which was identified at the end of the 2011 season. For more information on how to get involved please contact Robert Darby (University of Tennessee, Department of Art History, rdarby2@utk.edu) or Erin Darby (University of Tennessee, Department of Religious Studies, edarby1@utk.edu).

Figure 15: Topographical Site Plan from 2010


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