September 07, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Paul Christians '03 and Jeff DeKock '01 are the founders of Open Hand Studios

Paul Christians first saw Umm el-Jimal— the Roman fort, the Roman gates, the many ancient houses—in pictures.

The 2003 Calvin grad saw images of the ancient town while working as a student assistant to history professor Bert de Vries. The founder of Calvin’s archaeology minor, de Vries has been the principal investigator of Umm el-Jimal for more than 40 years.

"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.”

Online museum

Now, through a Site Preservation Grant from the Archeological Institute of America, Christians and 2001 Calvin grad Jeff De Kock will be working to preserve Umm el-Jimal through pictures, video, educational materials, oral histories and other media. The two alums are the founders of Open Hand Studios, a nonprofit organization that works in cultural heritage preservation, and they are partnering with de Vries to create a virtual museum and curriculum about the ancient site.

"You can have people go there as tourists on the ground, but this allows people to visit the site when they’re not there,” de Vries said of the online museum, which will feature virtual tours and photographs of Umm el-Jimal—along with filmed oral histories of the people who live there now. “We document in so many ways so that people get a sense that this is the real site, even though it’s presented in virtual reality.”

The museum will also play host to de Vries’ four decades of research in excavating and preserving Umm el-Jimal. “I’m configuring my research in this Web site’s structure so that it can be understood by lay people and archived as a resource for scholars,” he said.

Archaeology in the curriculum

The ruins of Umm el-JimalEducation is a large component of de Vries’ many preservation efforts. He has persuaded the Jordan’s Ministry of Education to offer archaeology in the country’s schools, and Open Hand is helping him to develop the curriculum. Because of the distances involved and because of the hours they spend in the classroom, it is difficult for Jordanian students to visit ancient sites in their own country. The virtual museum will allow students to go to several ancient sites online: "All of the schools have pretty significant computer labs … Jordanian education is very much keyed to using the internet, much more than you would imagine,” de Vries said.

De Vries, Christians and DeKock have been working on the project for four years, including the two successive Januaries they spent documenting—with batteries of cameras and recorders—the ancient site and the modern town that surrounds it. Crucial to understanding ancient Umm el-Jimal, they say, are the people who live in the area today.

Cultivating relationships

"Personal relationships are really crucial to this project,” said de Vries. Over the decades, as he has excavated and documented Umm el-Jimal (de Vries is an archeological architect), he and his family have been forging strong bonds with the site’s current residents

"We think the communities themselves are best prepared to preserve their own cultures,” Christians explained the trio's approach. He said that Open Hand—which also has projects in Kenya and Bolivia—plans to work on the Umm el-Jimal project for several more years.

Two Jordanian woemn sickling wheatDe Vries, who has led countless interim classes to Umm el-Jimal, will continue the actual stone-and-mortar conservation of the site. He’s grateful that the virtual museum allows another kind of preservation: "Electronic documentation enables you. In a way, it creates a digital archive of what may be taken away in reality,” he said.

De Vries thought back to when he first saw Umm el-Jimal. “The antiquities were by themselves then,” he said.

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