August 05, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

History professor Bert de Vries has been investigating the ancient town of Umm el-Jimal for more than 40 years.

Now it’s an old stone house, but back in the day, it was the largest and most elaborate of the 150 stone houses built in the Byzantine era of Umm el-Jimal. Only partially intact, the house still has the arched double windows peculiar to the architecture of the time, with its Greco-Roman-Nabataean influences. The old stone house is known officially as House XVIII, and, come January, it will be history professor Bert de Vries’ primary reason for going to Umm el-Jimal.

“It’s part of the architectural heritage of the land,” de Vries said.

In January, funded by a $96,082 Ambassador Fund for Cultural Preservation grant from the U.S. State Department, de Vries will begin working on the preservation and presentation of House XVIII. The founder of Calvin’s archaeology minor, he has been investigating Umm el-Jimal—an early Roman-era village and later a Byzantine and early-Islamic town—for more than 40 years.

“House XVIII is a representative example of the other 150 houses and how the people lived back then,” he said. “What is really interesting is that they probably lived a lot like local village people used to live until they became modernized. A house like House XVIII, as solid or elaborate as it is, was probably a farmstead. They kept animals and were working the fields around Umm El Jimal—up to five kilometers around.”

Re-usable site

Since its original occupation from the sixth to ninth centuries AD, House XVIII has been constantly reused. Throughout the 20th century, it was inhabited by the Druze and then the Arab Mas’eid tribe, the parents of Umm el-Jimal’s current citizenry. (The house’s double-window motif can be seen in several structures of modern Amman.) De Vries wants to establish the place as a viable archeological site by making it both safe and attractive to the general public.

The project will happen in three stages. In January, de Vries and the students who sign on for his interim class, “Field Work in Archaeology,” will tackle the first: the planning phase. Working from a rented headquarters in modern Umm el-Jimal (which wraps around both sides of the ancient town), the class will complete a documentation of the building and a detailed work plan for its physical preservation.

“Serious planning, according to proper methodology is the most important part …,” de Vries said. “Anybody can lift rocks after that.” He will be on hand, intermittently for the rock lifting. From February to May 2012 staff from the Jordan Department of Antiquities (which is supporting the project with matching funds) and others will be stabilizing walls and clearing space for walking around in House XVIII.

“We have a responsibility to leave a site with integrity, meaning it’s safe and attractive to the general public … ,” de Vries said. “It’s very interesting because we end up working side by side with architectural people and construction people.”

No do-overs

The intent of phase II is preservation and presentation—not re-construction, de Vries emphasized. “If you have an ancient wall, and you begin building on top of it, pretty soon, you can’t tell what’s old anymore,” he said. “A re-constructed building is no longer an antiquity. It’s a modern building.”

In the project’s final stage, de Vries and team will publish their work on House XVIII: the documentation of the building and the preservation process, a visitor’s guide and three-dimensional virtual imaging of the site.

The virtual representation of House XVIII comes courtesy of Open Hand Studios, a nonprofit organization founded by Calvin alums Paul Christians ’03 and Jeff DeKock ’01. (The organization serves as the administrator of the grant.) Christians and DeKock are helping de Vries to create a virtual museum of Umm-el Jimal, including oral histories of the residents, via a previous grant from the Archeological Institute of America.

The duo are also spearheading the restoration of the ancient water system that once sustained the 5,000 residents of the town and will supplement the water needs of the 7,000 who live there now. They first learned about the town in de Vries’ classes: “It was years before I visited Umm el-Jimal as a student and met the people there,” Christians said. “It felt like it was not only a beginning but a culmination of things. I think it was kind of a relief to finally be there. It was as amazing as I thought it would be.”

For the community

After four decades of investigating Umm el-Jimal, de Vries too remains captivated by the place. He’s already planning and raising funds for another development project at the site: a community heritage center that functions as a museum, lecture hall, hostel and a craft market. Open Hand Studios is collaborating on that too. “We also think local people will come here and have their weddings,” de Vries said. “This will link people to the antiquities and give them a sense of community, and the local people are very excited about that.”

For de Vries, going to Jordan feels like going home: “After so many years, being there is actually like being here,” he said. “There’s a large community of people in the government, in research institutes, in the universities, in the municipality of Umm el-Jimal, who are close associates, who are friends. We have people who call me ‘Uncle’ and call (de Vries’ wife) Sally ‘Aunt.’ We’re really close friends with these families. We have families the same age as we are, and we’ve raised our children more or less together. We’ve gone to each others’ children’s weddings.”

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Bert de Vries

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