A group of North Carolina State University and East Carolina University faculty and students discovered a half life-sized statue of Aphrodite as part of an archaeological dig at the ancient site of Petra in Jordan.

The marble statue of Aphrodite, the Greco-Roman goddess of love, recovered at Petra in Jordan. A small Cupid on the lower right gazes up at Aphrodite. A handheld glass vial in visible on her left leg, probably from another figure now lost. The statue, about half life-size, probably dates to the second century A.D.

Tom Parker, a professor of history at NC State, described the find as “absolutely exquisite.”

“I’ve been doing field work in the Middle East for 45 years and never had a find of this significance,” Parker said. “These are worthy of display at the Louvre Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Petra was the center of the Nabataean Kingdom until it fell into ruin sometime between 300 and 700 A.D.

It remained virtually unknown to the Western world until a Swiss explorer discovered it in 1812, at which point the civilization’s relics were still beautifully preserved thanks to the protective nature of the rock formations.

ECU professor of anthropology Megan Perry, who is co-directing the Petra North Ridge project with Parker, said their task is to piece together the puzzle of an enigmatic people.

Perry and Parker’s project has focused on excavating first- to fourth-century A.D. houses in the ancient city, along with first-century B.C. to first-century A.D. tombs used by its residents to bury their dead.

Exploration in a new area of the city’s northern edge revealed a surprising discovery — the remains of a first- to second-century A.D. complex that contained a caldarium, or heated room typical of Roman-style baths.

“The function of the complex is not clear,” said Perry, “but it could have served a domestic function similar to other buildings nearby, albeit a more elaborate version.”

Perry said the find led the team to change its hypothesis on the history of the neighboring structures.

“If the caldarium indeed is part of a larger villa, that would imply that elite individuals lived in this sector of the city — and essentially in the same neighborhood as more moderate dwellings,” she said. “If it is a public bath, it would mean that Roman-style bathing was more widespread amongst the Nabataeans than we previously thought."  

While the team was digging what they thought was an ordinary home, they came across something more like an urban villa, Parker said, equipped with its own sophisticated bath house. The team found the fragmented statues next to the home’s staircase.

“Even though they weren’t exactly what we were looking for, these finds still tell us a lot about the population,” Parker said.

The dig team found a wealth of other artifacts that shed more light on Nabatean daily life. Digging one other domestic structure and three rock-cut shaft tombs, the researchers discovered installations for cooking and storage, occupational remains such as pottery and animal bones, an iron sword, ceramic oil lamps and human bones intermixed with personal adornments and jewelry.

“The human remains and mortuary artifacts from Petra provide perspectives not only on Nabataean concepts of death, but also their biological histories while alive,” Perry said.

The Petra North Ridge Project is primarily funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities with additional support from the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. Additional support came from ECU’s Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and the departments of anthropology and geography, planning and environment; the al-Himma foundation of Amman, Jordan; the American Center of Oriental Research; and the American Schools of Oriental Research. The grants supporting the project run through the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

This season’s dig team of 65 workers, including 20 Jordanian personnel, featured an NC State contingent of 14 students, alumni and faculty. Six undergraduate students participated through NC State’s Jordan Archaeological Field School study abroad program. In addition, seven graduate students and NC State alums also participated in the dig, supervising work in the trenches and at the domestic structures. Two faculty members and eight current and former ECU students, along with students and staff from other institutions, also took park for the six weeks in May and June to follow up on excavations performed in 2012 and 2014.

--Compiled from NC State, ECU reports

East Carolina University

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