Looting the Past

26 04 2011

After enjoying a lovely sunrise Easter service on Mt. Nebo, we traveled down to the Jordan Valley Road and north to the Wadi Zerqa.  We followed the wadi east winding through fields of corn, tomatoes, and other produce until we got to the site of Tulul adh-Dhahab. 

The site consists of two mounds located on either side of the Zerqa, it is thought to be biblical Penuel (or perhaps Mahanaim, note the dual).  The name of the site means Hills of Gold in Arabic, it is a very unfortunate name and brings us to the subject of this post: looting.

The western most of the two hills has been excavated for two seasons by the University of Dortmund

They have found mainly Hellenistic and Byzantine remains, although Iron Age orthostats were found in reuse.  That hill is mainly fenced off, perhaps due to the excavations or perhaps due to the water treatment plant located at its base.  I wanted to have a look at the foundation of a large tower located next to the eastern most hill along the Zerqa.  After looking around a bit we decided to climb to the summit. 

Angela had Safita strapped in her pack and I carried Jack.  It was quite a hike but well worth it when we reached the top.  The summit expanded out before us, it was a massive plateau not visible from the bottom. 

The other thing not visible were two teenagers illegally excavating at the site.

They had a metal detector, pick axe, and shovel.  I spotted them and told Angela to stay with the kids while I went and talked with them.  My Arabic is still barely existent so I did my best to find out what they were looking for and if they had found anything.  To my surprise they readily showed me four coins that they had already found that day and mentioned some pottery and stone artifacts that they had found previously.  They also let me take pictures of them, which indicated that they were not very experienced.  I originally approached them with the thought of getting them to stop, but quickly realized how futile that would be.  However, as soon as I got back to ACOR I informed Chris Tuttle (the assistant director) of the looting.  He will contact the DOJ to inform them of the issue and we will load some of the pictures I took into the Mega Jordan database.  One of the goals of the Mega-J website is to track looting and propose a schedule for monitoring the site being looted.

This trip to Tulul adh-Dhahab was the first time I have witnessed looting first hand, but I have seen its affects time and time again.  The Friday before Easter we made a trip south to see Bab adh-Dhra (an EBII-III site just south of the Dead Sea) and Makawir (Machaeurus, the Herod built stronghold where John the Baptist was beheaded) because Angela hadn’t been to those sites before.  A trip to Bab adh-Dhra also involves walking through the massive cemetery looking for sherds.  The cemetery consists of shaft tombs, which are essentially holes dug straight down, with a burial located at the bottom, and capped with a stone.  The landscape is honeycombed with illegally dug holes where looters were looking for telltale capstones. 

In the previous post I mentioned the town of Ghor es-Safi.  Besides being the location of Lot’s Cave and the Medieval sugar producing town of Sukar, there is also a large cemetery consisting of EB, Nabatean, and Byzantine remains.  Once again it has been massively looted, and unlike Bab adh-Dhra has not been scientifically excavated (although some salvage work has been carried out). 

Many of these looted antiquities are sold on the black market or are smuggled into Israel and sold in “legitimate” antiquities stores.  However I have also seen antiquities for sale outside sites such as Shobak and in stores in Madaba and Amman.

It is a somewhat complicated issue because people in places like the Ghor (where EB cemeteries mentioned above are located) are some of the poorest in Jordan.  They are at the bottom rung of a ladder of illegal activity culminating with the ones who buy the looted objects.  A combination of education and aid must be offered to these type of people in order for looting to stop.  I am mainly just offering a first hand account of what happens every day in Jordan, perhaps later on I can form some more cogent thoughts on looting in general.  However, I am glad that I was able (hopefully) to play a small part in stopping looting and am hopeful that Mega-J will help curb this illegal activity.