Susan Alcock: What to Do With a Wonder of the World? The Puzzle of Petra

The spring installment of the Jennifer Eastman Lecture Series took place on March 22, 2010, with Dr. Susan Alcock giving a presentation entitled "What to Do With a Wonder of the World? The Puzzle of Petra." Dr. Alcock is the Director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University and has done extensive fieldwork in Greece and in Armenia, but she has also joined the collaborative effort of revitalizing Brown's archaeological work at Petra, in Jordan.

As a city and archaeological site, Dr. Alcock explained, Petra has provided an inspirational backdrop for creative efforts from the poems of 19th-century poets to the most recent "Transformers" movie. John William Burgon, one such poet, famously referred to it as "a rose-red city half as old as time." Petra lies in southern Jordan and was the capital city of the Nabateans, a major Semitic civilization. It was a major trading site and was largely built up during the period from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, although it was conquered by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106 CE.

The Joukowsky Institute has maintained a connection to Petra, specifically to the excavation of the city's "Great Temple," since 1992. In addition to the usual archaeological efforts, the institute has also been involved in some rebuilding of the monument, ravaged as it was by time and tourism. As one of the official "New Seven Wonders of the World," Petra is the most popular tourist site in Jordan. This status, however, comes with certain challenges, mainly of a maintenance-based nature, and lends further urgency to the archaeological projects at hand.

Under the umbrella of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project, or BUPAP, several key projects are currently ongoing. Researchers are exploring the area known as Wadi as Slaysil, which is north of the city center. Finds dating from the Neolithic and Paleolithic periods up through the medieval era suggest a high degree of occupation throughout the site's history, and surface reconnaissance methods reveal both urban and agricultural landscapes. Another part of the project goes under the heading of Petra Upper Market Archaeology, or PUMA, although this may be a misnomer, since the area in question may not have actually been used as a market. It consists of a garden pool complex, a possible upper market square, and the aforementioned "Great Temple." The temple is being mapped and archaeologists are using ground-penetrating radar to see how best to proceed with a full excavation.

The site of Petra yet remains part of the Jordanian cultural heritage, and BUPAP intends to continue working with local Jordanians and the Jordanian government to make sure that local communities can profit from the flow of tourism without doing harm to the site. Brown's archaeologists hope to continue their valuable work while giving back to the modern community.

—Sarah Costrell ‘10