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Andrew Thomson '06Andrew Thomson '06

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Andrew Thomson: Buried Treasure

The bus trundles along the dirt track sending clouds of dust up into the morning sky. Andrew Thomson '06, one of 13 volunteers on this archeology dig, covers his mouth with a bandana to keep from sucking in the fine dust that streams in through the window. It's only 6:45 a.m., yet it's already hot. By afternoon, temperatures will soar to 120 degrees in the shade. But there's little shade in the deserts of south Jordan.

The bus rattles and creaks as it winds down the steep highway from the Bedouin military school 45 minutes away to the Humayma dig site located in a vast, barren escarpment, a giant valley carved millions of years ago out of rock and sand. It was here that the ancient Romans chose to build a fort to protect the easternmost edge of their empire. It is also here -- halfway around the world from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon -- that archeology major Thomson chose to test himself with backbreaking research field work.

The bus jolts to a stop in front of an abandoned schoolhouse that's now used to store tools for the site. The volunteers and eight staff members, most from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, tumble off the bus. Thomson stretches, easing the kinks from the bus ride.

The volunteers grab the tools they'll need for the day and pile them onto wheelbarrows. All around them are neat, square holes and piles of dirt. The area looks as though some gigantic gopher has been at work. A short trek across the site takes them to their respective worksites. Thomson scans the horizon and spots a cloud of dust moving rapidly toward them. It's a small truck packed with a dozen Bedouin workers. Within minutes, the volunteers and Bedouins are shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, a vital part of the morning ritual before getting down to work.

When he first arrived in Jordan five weeks ago and learned he'd be working with Bedouins, a nomadic people indigenous to these Middle Eastern deserts, Thomson felt apprehensive. He'd heard the Bedouins were lazy, difficult to work with, choosey about the kind of work they would do. He has found none of that to be true. The half dozen or so Bedouins in the group, working on the praetorium or commander's residence that Thomson has been assigned to, have proven themselves to be hardworking and easy going. Many of them, veterans of other archeology digs, speak some English. They often help Thomson and his teammates with Arabic. Thomson has become close with the two Bedouins he supervises.

He and three other volunteers walk to a series of large open squares bordered by a low wall. "This is the fort commander's residence," he explains, hefting a shovel full of dirt into a wheelbarrow. "The site of this fort used to be an old Nabataean settlement. The Romans came in and built the fort to house their troops and control the area. Our job is to clean out the rooms and try to figure out what went on here."

The sun rises steadily along with the temperature. Thomson and his team fill and unload wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of rocks and fine dirt. The work is backbreaking. "When people think of archeology, they think about dental tools and carefully picking around bones. In classical desert archeology, it's nothing like that. There's a lot of digging with picks and shovels until you get to lower levels where you work with trowels. It's basically landscaping in the desert."

Thomson's fascination with archeology came from tramping around dinosaur digs as a kid in his home state of Montana. When he came to Willamette University there was no archeology department, so he crafted his own archeology major. This dig -- his first field experience -- is part of his senior thesis required to complete his degree. While he could have joined a local dig in Oregon, his interest in Greco-Romans made him want to come to Jordan. To fund his trip, he won a prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grant. The $3,000 Carson stipend is designed to encourage Willamette students to conduct original research or to study outside the classroom. This Jordanian desert is certainly outside the classroom.

At 8:30, the team pauses for a tea break. The Bedouins scurry about offering tea and soft flatbread. At 10 o'clock, they will make everyone a second breakfast of beans and eggs. Out here where the sun is relentless and the work physical, it's important to drink lots and eat plenty of salt and protein. The Bedouins ensure that happens for everyone.

After the breakfast break, the wind rises, filling the sky with clouds of fine dust and obscuring the surrounding mountains. Thomson pulls his cap down over his eyes and covers his mouth with a bandana. He crouches on all fours, scraping his trowel along one of the room's outer walls. Suddenly the tool scrapes against something hard and shiny. Thomson's heart races as he brushes away the fine dirt. It's a Roman coin, a rare and wonderful find. It's the fifth coin he's found at the site. There's a flurry of activity as other members of his team vie to examine Thomson's treasure.

In addition to the coins, Thomson and his teammates have found shards of pottery and plenty of charred chicken and sheep bones from ancient Roman meals. Some team members have found individual stones from mosaics, intact pottery vessels and even Roman oil lamps.

One of the questions Thomson wanted to investigate was how the Romans got water to this arid place. The answer came when one of the volunteers discovered sections of ancient pipe, aqueducts Romans were famous for, that brought water from springs in the mountains. "The Romans built a large water reservoir in the Northwest corner of the fort," says Thomson, his eyes shining with excitement. "They used pipes and pressure to get the water around the site. They even had a fountain right in the middle of the fort."

By 1:00 p.m., the sun is high overhead and the temperature has climbed to well over 100 degrees. The heat and the hard physical work have taken their toll and Thomson and his teammates are spent. Sweaty and dirty, they gather their tools and scramble back onto the bus. After lunch at their temporary school-home, they willl spend the afternoon sifting through their treasures, cleaning and cataloging the pottery, bones and coins that tell the story of this Roman site.

As the bus pulls into the schoolyard, Thomson rubs his forearm. It's a bit sore, but it's also hard and firm. He's built muscle landscaping in the desert. He's also made some new friends. In a few weeks, he'll board a plane and return to Oregon and his final semester at Willamette University. "This project has been so interesting. I've discovered that there are so many facets to archeology. When I go to graduate school, I have a ton of options for what to study. I may not want to always be the guy digging in the trench, but I know I want to work on archeology digs."

There's no question that Thomson has discovered true buried treasure -- his own passion.