Mount Royal students uncover the past

On July 4, 2012 Mount Royal University Associate Professor Julie Cormack, PhD, will accompany nine Mount Royal students on an archeological excavation in the Royal Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as part of the Madaba Plains Project (MPP).

Established in 1968, the Project studies cultures that over time, inhabited the highland plateau of Jordan located between the cities of Madaba and Amman.

When Cormack came to Mount Royal in 2001, she brought this exciting opportunity with her.

Ceramic reading after a day on-site
Team members gather for the pottery reading after a day at the site. Photo courtesy of Jillian Logee.

"The directors of MPP were interested in having me on board because of my expertise in stone tools and human remains," explains Cormack. "When I first went to Jordan in 2002, we talked about Mount Royal becoming part of the MPP consortium and by 2004, we were ready to bring the students with us."

In 2004, the first group of students had the opportunity to experience a real dig, uncovering lithics (stone tools) and ceramics to help reconstruct the past.

"Students and others [who participate] come back with a really good sense of what the purpose of archeology is, which is to reconstruct past ways of life," explains Cormack. "Reconstructing that, they are really going to get an experiential opportunity to bring to life what that city was all about."

On site with history

This year when the project team arrives on site, they will once again hit the ground running.

"When we first arrive to the site it looks like a giant pimple on the landscape," says Cormack. "Students will get involved right away with a lot of cleaning and digging and eventually they will begin to scrape the ground with special tools to uncover any materials buried underneath."

Students will also get the opportunity to work with the fragments found during the day and learn from specialists to identify ceramics that were uncovered.

"We bring back between 50 and 80 buckets of pottery a day," says Cormack. "The pottery gets laid out onto wooden tables where our ceramics specialists and the team work to identify the pots."

Living like a local

This year's group of new and returning participants will not only experience a real archeological dig, but cultural diversity as well.

Former Mount Royal student Sashiere Stewart at the project site in 2010. Stewart will be returning this year as a supervisor. Photo courtesy of Jillian Logee.

"The MPP is also a huge personal growth experience. I never explain MPP as strictly archeology," says Cormack. "We have had people in the past go to tea with local people, a few others attended a Bedouin wedding and we even take part in Arabic language lessons."

On the weekends, the group participates in various activities such as visiting ancient Roman sites, the Dead Sea and the highlight for many, visiting the ancient city of Petra.

Mount Royal anthropology students and first time MPP participants Britney Szakacs and Megan Bereza are thrilled at the opportunity to get their hands dirty outside of the classroom and absorb some Middle Eastern culture.

"The people who work on this project are highly respected in the field so we get to learn from the best," says Szakacs. "I am so excited to do an actual dig."

"It's also great to get working experience outside of the classroom," says Bereza. "In class we learn about all of this, but now we will actually get to experience it instead of just reading about it in a textbook."

Cormack also finds that many people who enjoy the experience their first time continue to return each year the dig takes place.

Foundation for the future

Two returning participants are Jillian Logee and Nikki Oakden.

Logee and Oakden first met Cormack on a dig in 2006 and are now Cormack's research assistants in the lab here at Mount Royal.

Both returning to the site for their third time after experiencing the project as students in 2006, Logee will return as the project photographer and Oakden as an expert.

"It's great for students because you are working on a real dig, on a real site and where the results really matter," explains Logee. "You get to take that experience and bring it back into your education."

"I think it's just amazing to see pictures of places like Petra or artifacts in a textbook and then get to see them in person," says Oakden. "Being able to hold these things in your hand and experience it first-hand is a completely different experience."

Just recently, Cormack, Oakden and Logee completed analyzing, identifying and cataloging artifacts that were uncovered in 2010.

The lab aspect is a very important component to the field work completed.

Through the support of Faculty of Arts Dean Manuel Mertin, PhD, and the Office of Research Services, Cormack is able to complete the analysis and cataloging right here at Mount Royal.

Nikki Oakden giving stone tool demonstrations in 2010. Photo courtesy of Jillian Logee.

"The lab is a major component of the project," says Cormack. "An old archeological statement says, 'one month in the field equals six months in the lab.'"

Beyond the invaluable skills students learn through their experience, Cormack's main goal is to get students out of their comfort zone.

"I want my students to gain independence," says Cormack. "Of course I am there for them, but the goal is in a small way part of a maturation process. Some students will realize archeology isn't for them and that's fine, but each person will grow from the experience."

- Angela S. June 7, 2012