Archaeology, Lawrence, and Guerrilla Warfare

Neil Faulkner and Nick Saunders, Co-directors of the Great Arab Revolt Project, tell how a recent field trip to southern Jordan sheds light on the theories and exploits of T.E. Lawrence.

Wadi Rutm in southern Jordan is a level expanse of windblown sand about a kilometre wide running between high spurs of orange-brown rock. No one lives there today, though scatters of debris attest temporary Bedouin encampments. Except for the occasional vehicle, there is no sound save the wind. Some clumps of wiry vegetation cling to channels gouged by winter flood-water; nothing else grows.

We were the first archae­ologists to come here: a team of twenty-eight British specialists and volunteers on the first field season of a pioneering new project in 2006. Our mission was to add another dimension to the emerging sub-discipline of First World War archaeology – to shift it from the trench-war mud of Flanders and Picardy to the deserts of the Middle East. We had come in search of Lawrence of Arabia’s war.

We knew we would find this legendary conflict at Wadi Rutm. From the high­way you can see the gravel-and-sand embankment of the Hijaz Railway that had once carried pilgrims – and soldiers – from Damascus to Medina. Beside it were three ruinous buildings, of distinc­tive Late Ottoman style, marking this as the site of Wadi Rutm Station. Ninety years ago, during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, there had been nothing very special about the place. It was simply one of almost eighty stations dotting the line between Damascus and Medina. Yet, as we searched, we dis­covered a landscape deeply etched by war and littered with its evocative debris.

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