Underwater Archeologist Called to the Desert

Guelph professor moved from King Herod’s harbour to a Roman outpost

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In the Jordan desert, Prof. Andy Sherwood and his archeological team located a former Roman outpost.

Prof. Andy Sherwood never went to camp as a kid, but he’s more than made up for that as an adult.

Sherwood’s summer “camps” have involved plenty of digging through dirt and diving under water, but instead of learning canoeing skills and Popsicle-stick crafts, he’s uncovering history in far-distant locations. His hands may be the first to touch again a fragment of pottery, hidden under the sand for hundreds, even thousands, of years. His painstaking piecing together of buried structures may reshape our understanding of the lives of Roman troops.

At the University of Guelph, Sherwood teaches Greek and Latin languages, Greek and Roman history, and Greek and Roman art and architecture. His research, though, doesn’t take place in laboratories or on a computer; he’s an archeologist who travels abroad each year to work on excavation sites where history is revealed.

Sherwood spends his summers working in archeological digs around the world ─ most recently in Jordan, where he spent seven seasons exploring the remains of a Roman outpost ─ and is currently negotiating to organize a new dig in Italy.

For Sherwood and his students and volunteers ─ he often has 25 to 40 participants ─ a typical day on the site goes like this: “We get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and have an early breakfast. That’s because it can be 50 C in the shade during the middle of the day in Jordan, so you want to do as much as you can before it gets too hot. We leave for the site by 5:30 a.m., as the sun is coming up, and then work until 10. There’s a half-hour break for ‘second breakfast’ then back to work until 12:30, when lunch is served. At 1:30 p.m., everyone cleans up and they take a break until 4.”

At a dig site in Jordan, the mid-day temperature reaches 50 C.

The day isn’t over. “You usually find a lot of pottery, and each piece has to be washed by hand, dried, bagged, and labelled,” Sherwood says. “There may also be pottery pieces or frescoes to be put together and coins to be cleaned. And students also need to write up a daily report about their work.” There’s also time to visit other local sites and to explore the countryside.

During his time in Jordan, he’s made some remarkable discoveries. “I was invited to come to Jordan because my previous site had been in Israel at an underwater site,” he says. He came to the site in Israel looking for an artificial harbour built by King Herod ─ yes, the King Herod mentioned in the Bible. “We knew roughly where it was supposed to be, from the literature of the time, but not exactly,” Sherwood explains. “And we found it. It was absolutely immense. One curved breakwater was about 400 metres long, the other was about 150 metres straight out. It’s all underwater now since many of the blocks used in its construction were taken away over the years for use elsewhere.”

Herod, he adds, was a great builder who also built an artificial mountain topped by a palace. The harbour he created became one of the major trading points for Israel at the time. Discovering it, though, wasn’t as easy as you might think given how large the structure was. “We had to do all our excavating and measuring under water. With a site on land, an architect can easily do a general survey of the site and map out the structures, but underwater you can sometimes only see a few feet in front of you, and usually 20 to 30 feet is very good visibility for us.”

Sherwood and the technicians on the site developed new approaches to underwater surveying and mapping that helped them explore the scope of the harbour’s structure.

It was because of his expertise in dealing with underwater architecture that Sherwood was then invited to Jordan. “Since Jordan is mostly desert, that might seem odd,” he notes, “but a very long aqueduct had been found, and the researchers were interested in understanding how it worked and where it went.” Sherwood spent two seasons just surveying the aqueduct and locating the water collection fields and cisterns that had been constructed by the Nabataen people who lived there around 120 BC.

Prof. Andy Sherwood at the site of a cistern probably constructed around 120 BC.

As he explored further, he found that shortly after AD 106 when the Roman army had moved in and conquered the area, a fortified Roman camp was constructed. “No one has found an earlier Roman camp in this area at this point in time,” Sherwood says. “Roman camps in the west are very well known, but those in the east are not. Our camp is particularly interesting because it has architectural features that tell us architects came out from Rome to plan and to do at least some of the work.”

The camp commander’s living quarters turned out to be of special interest. “We found mosaic designs we hadn’t expected, some with tiles about as big as my thumbnail,” says Sherwood. “There were geometric designs, figural designs, pictures of gods and goddesses. The commander was certainly living the high life. We also found a private bath, with an artificial floor raised on bricks so the bath could be heated.” A bath, he points out, would have been quite a luxury in the middle of the desert. A latrine, with a system to flush wastes away with running water, was also discovered in the middle of the camp ─ another example of Roman technology.

The specialists who examined the bones and biological finds in the camp’s trash heap also reported some surprising news. Along with the bones of dogs, camels, antelopes and other local animals, they found fish bones and mussel and clam shells. “It takes over an hour to drive to the coast by car on the modern highways,” Sherwood points out. “In antiquity, it would have been at least a two-day trip by a fast donkey. So how did they get these fish and shellfish to the campsite? We think they must have had some kind of water bags to transport them and keep them fresh.”

He adds: “For those soldiers, life in the camp might not have been Rome, but it was certainly not terrible.”

After seven seasons in Jordan, Sherwood feels ready for a change. He is now negotiating with two possible sites in Italy. One is in Sicily, in a small town called Lentini where very little excavation has been done. The other is a site in Calabria where several projects are already underway. “I’m most interested in the Sicily site because so little has been done there. I like to be in it right from the beginning and watch it grow.”

For Sherwood and the students and volunteers who work with him, the work can be tedious and physically exhausting. The small discoveries, he says, make it not just worthwhile but also addictive: “The first time you find a coin that hasn’t been touched in two thousand years, or find a piece of pottery that tells us something about the people who used to live here, you are hooked.”