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February 22, 2007


Budding Archaeologists Dig into the Past
at Bryn Mawr’s New Desert Outpost in Arabia

Peter Magee

Some of the most surprising and intriguing discoveries in archaeology in the last decade have emerged from the sand of the Arabian Peninsula. At Muweilah, a site in the United Arab Emirates once thought too arid to have sustained any prehistoric human habitation beyond a campsite for nomads, Associate Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology Peter Magee has uncovered the remains of a permanent settlement occupied by a complex society nearly 3,000 years ago. Now, as the director of a new archaeology field school, Magee is leading a new kind of nomad to the Emirate of Sharjah.

The contemporary short-term residents are students who embark on an intensive four-week course in the methods of field archaeology during Bryn Mawr's winter break. Open to Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore students, the field school offers a structured curriculum in practical skills, taught by experts in the various techniques employed in excavation and analysis of archaeological evidence.

At its inaugural session this winter, 10 students — six Bryn Mawr undergraduates, two Haverford undergraduates and two Bryn Mawr graduate students — participated in the field school. Its faculty included Magee; Associate Professor of Geology Donald Barber, who is an expert in geophysical remote sensing and coastal geomorphology; and technical specialists from Germany and Australia. The Dean's Office's internship fund provided financial assistance to students who needed help covering the costs of the program.

Bryn Mawr students have accompanied archaeology faculty to excavation sites since the College's early days, but the new program represents the College's first organized training program in field skills offered for academic credit, says Professor and Chair of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology Jim Wright.

students dig on site

"Students who assist in excavations invariably acquire skills," Magee explains, "but haphazardly, on the basis of what is called for at a given moment. A field school offers a programmatic approach, so that students can learn one, two or perhaps three skills in depth. Some written work was involved. On Friday, our one day off, we did field excursions into the mountains and sometimes into the cities to see museums. We also had lectures on Friday mornings so that the students knew why we were doing what we were doing and how much progress had been made."

Allison Siegenthaler '07 had participated in three excavations before attending the field school this winter. "We weren't just told 'dig here. Now dig there,' Siegenthaler says. "We were more than free labor; the project was much more focused on pedagogy than a regular excavation is. We talked about the reasons for using the techniques we were learning; we had lectures and took museum trips."

The students were involved in survey and excavation of three late prehistoric sites: Muweilah, Tell Abraq and Hamriya. Magee directs the Muweilah project and co-directs the excavations at Tell Abraq and Hamriya with Professor Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the University of Tübingen. All three projects are run in collaboration with the Sharjah Directorate of Antiquities.

The three excavations provide experience of different types of sites, Magee says.

"Muweilah is an open-area settlement excavation — where we open up large areas to expose the relationship between architecture and artifacts.

"Hamriya is more of a nomadic site, where remnants of occupation remain on the surface.

"Tell Abraq is a deep mound site where there were thousands of years of occupation layered on top of each other."

Bryn Mawr sweatshirt in sand

The students learned how to excavate; how to use total stations, an electronic optical instrument used in surveying; how to use ground-penetrating radar; and how to record stratigraphy and describe archaeological deposits. They lived in an inland village in the emirate and took a few weekend trips to the cosmopolitan port city of Dubai, where, says Magee, "there is plenty of entertainment."

The students responded enthusiastically to a demanding schedule, according to Magee. "It was long and arduous work for them (sometimes 12 hours a day in the field with sand storms and alternating cold and hot weather) but they all excelled. I've taken close to 80 students on field projects in the UAE and Pakistan in the last 12 years and I've never had a more hard-working and interested group!"

Victoria Jones '08 recommends the field school wholeheartedly. "It was a lot of work, but it was the kind of work that isn't really work because you're so excited to be doing it …it was totally worth it."

Siegenthaler's excitement was evident as she described the work she did at Hamriya:

"At the nomadic site, which was occupied from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, there were piles of shells where people had harvested shellfish. We surveyed the whole area. We counted the mounds and picked up samples to see what they were eating and in what frequency different foods occurred. We found hearths, which can provide samples for carbon dating." When the carbon dating is complete, the students will regroup with Magee at the College and discuss the results.

Eventually, Siegenthaler's group opened up a small trench on the slope of Tell Abraq, unearthing pottery sherds, fragments of ostrich eggs and other evidence of intercultural contact. "We found a lot on the last day — you always find a lot on the last day." The most exciting find for Siegenthaler was the rear half of a clay animal figurine. "It looks a lot like the camel figurines Peter is finding at Muweilah," she says.

Magee plans to make the field school an annual venture. It is open to archaeology majors and those doing the geoarchaeology concentration. For more information, contact Magee at x5385 or by e-mail:


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