Small Places and Big Histories - The Lowest Place on Earth
Contributed by: Penny J. Edwell
When most people think of Jordan, they picture Petra - the spectacular rock-cut tomb city that has entranced people for centuries...
For intrepid visitors to Jordan, however, there is another archaeological gem not too far up the road. On the south east shores of the Dead Sea, nestled in the Ghor es-Safi and a short turn off the Dead Sea highway, you’ll find a little museum with a big mission – and big stories to tell. The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth was officially opened in May 2012 and at 400m below sea level – it lies at the actual lowest place on the Earth’s surface. The distinctive design of the building, by Jordanian architect George Hakim, is based on the shape of an Ammonite shell and its construction was funded by the Jordanian Government with the support of the British Museum. The exhibition spaces, developed by the Hellenic Society for Near Eastern Studies, are dedicated to telling the story of the People of the Dead Sea and objects in the museum’s collection span 10,000 years of human history.
The Museum and its surroundings
This growing collection is comprised of locally found artefacts which range in time and type from Roman coins to Arab Revolt bullets, and from stone tools to the technologies of medieval industrial sugar production. In addition to the exhibition spaces, the museum also has a number of facilities to help display, house and study this collection, including an archives room, a conservation lab, offices for local staff and accommodation for visiting archaeologists and museum professionals.
Beyond the front doors of the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth, visitors can explore nearby archaeological sites where many of the objects on display were found. The Monastery of Lot (Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata) is located directly behind the museum, a short (but quite vertical) walk along a newly graded path. This Byzantine monastic complex was fully excavated between 1988 – 2003 and is connected with the Biblical story of Lot and his daughters, who fled to the city of Zoar after the destruction of Sodom. In 1995 the Monastery of Lot was proclaimed a Holy site by the late King Hussein. It is an interfaith site and currently has a tentative listing for UNESCO World Heritage. During excavations, a variety of beautiful and information-rich objects were found including mosaics, coins, and textiles, many of which are showcased in the museum.
A few minutes drive away from the museum is Khirbat ash-Shaykh ‘Īsā, where archaeologists are excavating the urban centre of the city of Zoar.
Ongoing work at Khirbat ash-Shaykh ‘Īsā is gradually revealing the remains of a Byzantine town with substantial buildings, dwellings and city walls. A broad range of artefacts including Mameluke pottery, Syrian Raqqa ware and church architecture continue to be found at Khirbat ash-Shaykh ‘Īsā; left throughout centuries of occupation, vestiges of many different lives, cultures and religions.
Just across the road from Khirbat ash-Shaykh ‘Īsā lies the ruins of a substantial sugar mill, Ṭawāḥīn as-Sukkar, that operated from about the 9th to the 15th centuries AD. This fascinating site has produced clear evidence of a sophisticated industry that cultivated and processed sugarcane for export around the medieval world. Recently installed walkways have made Ṭawāḥīn as-Sukkar more accessible and visitor-friendly and new information panels feature images of objects on display in the museum, including sugar pots and WWI-era bullet cartridges, remnants of the Arab Revolt camp that was based at Safi in 1918.
Both Khirbat ash-Shaykh ‘Īsā and Ṭawāḥīn as-Sukkar are the focus of continuing excavations led by Dr Konstantinos Politis of the Hellenic Society for Near Eastern Studies. Dr Politis’ investigations into ancient sugar production in the Jordan Valley are supported by the USAID SCHEP program.
For more adventurous visitors there is also Umm at Tawabin, the ruins of a large Roman military camp located a short but rocky hike above the modern village of Safi. The name means ‘mother of bread ovens’, and refers to the remnants of round (bread oven-shaped) structures on the site that have been interpreted as stables. According to the Notitia Dignitatum Orientis (c400 C.E.) a Roman cavalry unit was stationed here (ancient Zoar) from the 3rd to the 5th centuries C.E. A project currently underway by archaeologist Alex Ariotti, with funding from the Palestine Exploration Fund, will help shed further light on the occupational history of this significant but little-known site and will, no doubt, bring further artefacts into the museum.
The objects in this museum’s collection, however, do not just tell a story about the past. Another nearby site, Khirbet Qazone, provides a visceral reminder for the important role of the museum in this region. A unique 1st-3rd century AD cemetery of more than individual 5,000 graves, Khirbet Qazone is part of what is the largest group of cemeteries in the ancient world, comprised of tens of thousands of graves. Important stone inscriptions and textiles, many of which now reside in the museum, were discovered at Khirbet Qazone. However, since its discovery in 1996, the cemetery has also been the focus of extensive tomb-robbing that has reduced it to a pock-marked and battle-scarred landscape of hastily excavated burials. When excavations commenced at Khirbet Qazone in the mid-1990s, Dr Politis worked in conjunction with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities to return many of those objects lost through looting networks, managing to salvage 386 Greek epitaphs, at least 50 Aramaic inscriptions and papyri containing invaluable information including Nabataean names and details of land ownership. Archaeological looting remains an issue in the area to this day, and more recently the Follow the Pots project has been studying the illegal trade in antiquities in and around Safi, exploring the life of artefacts from their use as grave goods to museum objects and black market products. The museum itself also features an informative display on looting titled ‘Rescuing the Past: important objects recovered from locally-looted sites’.
Archaeological Looting is an issue in the area. The Follow the Pots Project has been studying the illegal trade in antiquities in and around Safi.
It was during the recovery work at Khirbet Qazone that Dr Politis envisaged a museum that would provide a secure place for the storage of antiquities, and counter the culture of looting by providing a local base for the care and development of archaeological sites as viable cultural resources.
Little Museum, Big Mission
At its heart, the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth aims to be a participatory museum of local people exhibiting their own culture and four years since opening, the museum is fulfilling its role as a place to promote and celebrate heritage at the centre of the local community. The museum has generated a number of jobs for local residents, including a Museum Director, a trained conservator, several cleaners, guards and guides and maintenance roles. Perhaps most significantly, the establishment of the museum led to the appointment of a local Department of Antiquities Inspector – the first time Safi has had its own Inspector to oversee the management of local heritage sites.
One of the most successful initiatives to have come out of the museum and benefitted from its infrastructure is Safi Crafts, a program where local women come together to practice traditional crafts and make and sell items inspired by the region’s rich history. The group has recently learnt how to grow their own indigo for blue dye, as indigo is a historic crop in Safi and various ancient indigo pots can be seen in the museum. Initially, Safi Crafts managed the museum’s shop but with support from UNESCO, Safi Crafts continues to grow as a business, and their products are increasingly being sold in different locations throughout Jordan.
As archaeological projects continue to explore the rich heritage of south east of the Dead Sea, more and more artefacts will find their way to The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth. In the museum these objects will begin new lives as the focus of academic research, educational tools and the source of artistic inspiration. Looking to the future, the reach of the museum’s mission and its rich collection will hopefully extend beyond its galleries and into the digital realm with the creation of a professional object catalogue.
A collection catalogue will allow museum staff and researchers both on and offsite to keep track of the collection as it grows, capturing data as and when new artefacts are discovered. It will also allow the information from these objects to be shared and connected, finding context in the wider world. A workable collection database will help facilitate associations with similar artefacts found in other locations, entice visitors and continue to create learning opportunities.
There is no doubt about the power of objects to tell a story and to convey the weight of a thousand years in a glance, across languages and borders. The footprint of a mosaic maker, frozen in time during the construction of the Monastery of Lot, or scattered WWI cartridges from Ṭawāḥīn as-Sukkar are all enduring remnants of a 10,000-year-old story that we are just beginning to understand. Aside from the physical preservation of artefacts, museums capture information about those objects – where they were found, what they can tell us about the people that produced them and what they might be able to tell us about our own, modern cultures.
Perhaps most importantly however, by creating an archive of the museums’ collection, we’ll also be creating the basis for the work of Jordan’s future archaeologists, historians and museum curators.