Rust Family Foundation: Archaeology Grants Program

Preparation of the Final Publication of Excavations at the Roman Auxiliary Fort at al-Humayma (Jordan)    [RFF-2015-02]

Principle Investigator: John Peter Oleson, Dept. of Greek and Roman Studies, University of Victoria, Canada

Importance of the Project 

The fort at Humayma, ancient Hauarra, is particularly important as the best preserved -- and one of the very few -- early principate period forts in the Near East, that is, forts constructed and manned during the first 150 years of the Roman empire. (fig.1). The 24 projecting towers are atypical for Roman forts of this early date and raise interesting questions concerning the influence of local urban fortifications on Roman military designs in the early years of the Roman occupation (fig.2)

Fig.1: Map of site location in Jordan

The fort was founded soon after Trajanís conquest of the Nabataean kingdom in AD 106 to house a detachment of around 500 troops, possibly a detachment of auxiliary troops including camel-mounted cavalry. In the course of the excavation it was found that the fort and internal structures were laid out in carefully chosen units of Roman feet (pes monetalis, 0.296 m): the rectangular fortification walls, for example, 700 x 500 pm (206.32 m x 148.32 m) and the interior dimensions of the reservoir in its northwest corner 100 x 50 x 10 pm (29.40 m x 14.20 m x 3.05 m).  Professor Olesonís research will present the most complete documentation yet of the modular planning of an entire fort complex by Roman military engineers. His excavations also documented the location and plans of the main interior structures: the principia (headquarters building), praetorium (commanderís residence), horreum (granary), barracks, craft areas, latrine, and water distribution system. It is atypical for an auxiliary fort to have such a complete range of structures, which raises questions about the organization of forces on this frontier.

Fig.2: Plan of Fort.

The evidence for the design and functioning of the fort at Humayma is remarkably complete and well preserved. The pottery used by the occupants provides important new evidence for the production, chronology, and trade in ceramics in what is now southern Jordan. The publication of the Humayma fort will provide crucial evidence as well for the evolution of Roman military design during the period when the Roman empire was spreading beyond the Mediterranean coastline and was consolidating control of a region that later became known as the Arabian Limes (frontier). The book will also provide new insights into the complex history of the region during that period. 

Fig.3: Aerial view of site with fort (Photo: Jane Taylor) 

Previous Research

From 1986 to 2005, Oleson directed survey and excavation at the site of Humayma, ancient Hawara, in the Hisma Desert in Southern Jordan, halfway between Petra and Aqaba (fig.3). The site flourished from the first century BC to the eighth century AD as a Nabataean, then Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic site. Each culture left its mark: a sophisticated Nabataean water supply system, Nabataean houses and temples, a Roman auxiliary fort, bath, and associated civilian settlement, five Byzantine churches and many houses, and the palace of the Abbasid family and associated mosques. Olesonís team surveyed and sampled or excavated all these structures, all but one of which were previously unexcavated (fig.4).  Beginning in 2005, fieldwork on the Nabataean and Roman aspects of the site at the site has continued under  Dr. M. Barbara Reeves, a professor at Queenís University, while Oleson focused on the final publications.

Fig.4: Plan of site and structures.

Project funded in 2016 [RFF-2015-2]

2016 Goals

The goals of the project included study of finds from Olesonís excavation of the Roman fort at Humayma, stored at the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman; a visit to Humayma to take some final measurements and to re-bury ceramic sherds and some other finds of no intrinsic value now that they have been studied; use of the specialized archaeological library at ACOR for research on the Roman fort; and use of a draughtsman to complete numerous drawings of structures at the site.

 2016 Methodology

Photography and drawings of artifacts from the fort were completed and the artifacts no longer needed for study were taken to the site for reburial, and various measurements and photographs were taken there. Chris Mundigler, a free-lance archaeological illustrator who has worked on this project for many years, prepared numerous final architectural plans for publication in The Humayma Excavation Project, Vol. 3: The Fort. The results were excellent and, along with the archaeological data in the text, will constitute an important contribution to our understanding of Roman military architecture in the eastern Empire


Measurements at the fort have confirmed earlier analysis of the methods the Romans used to survey the fort at Humayma. All the measurements in meters can be reduced to rational modules of Roman feet (= 0.296 m), from the overall outline of the fort (700 x 500 Roman feet), to the dimensions of the headquarters building (principia; 100 x 150 Roman feet), the commanderís residence (praetorium; 90 x 90 Roman feet), to the width of the main streets (30 Roman feet) and of the towers in the wall (20 Roman feet), and many more details (Fig.5). The fact that Roman engineers used predictable modules in designing their buildings was already known, but the fort at Humayma is the first military structure for which the overall scheme has been documented down to very small details, and the first fort in the region for which this analysis has been carried out and will be published in full.

Fig.5: Plan of Praetorium with indication of planning modules.

The study of the finds from the fort have documented the periods of occupation through the types of ceramics and the coins found during the excavation, providing new evidence for the history of Roman occupation of the Near East during the Empire. Particularly interesting is an otherwise unrecorded abandonment of the fort from about AD 295-320. It is likely that the soldiers were transferred elsewhere along the Arabian frontier as part of the emperor Diocletianís reorganization of the forts and defenses. Analysis of the artifacts has also documented the types of weapons and armor used by the occupying units. This artifactual evidence, along with the metrology of the fort design have also enabled the documentation of close connections between the fort at Humayma and a Roman fort at Hegra, 425 km to the south in present-day Saudi-Arabia, excavated in 2015-2017. It seems likely that the military unit at Hegra was sent out from Humayma to defend that distant southeastern corner of the Roman empire.


Final Publications on the site:

Two volumes of a projected five volume final report on the excavations have been completed so far: Humayma Excavation Project, 1: Resources, History, and the Water-Supply System. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2010. Pp. xxii + 526; Humayma Excavation Project, 2: Nabataean Campground and Necropolis, Byzantine Churches, and Early Islamic Domestic Structures. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2013. Pp. xxviii + 594. Completion of the third volume was funded by a Rust Family Foundation grant: Humayma Excavation Project, 3: The Roman Auxiliary Fort. The fourth volume, which will be co-authored by Oleson with Barbara Reeves, will publish the Roman military bath and the civilian settlement; the fifth, by Rebecca Foote will focus on the Abbasid palace and mosque.


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