Piecing Together the Wall Paintings from Humayma

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Craig A. Harvey is the recipient of a Kenneth W. Russell Fellowship (Summer 2019). He is a PhD candidate in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan. Through this fellowship, Craig participated in a study season in Jordan alongside team members of the Humayma Excavation Project.

C. A. Harvey photographing the painted plaster fragments (photo by M. Barbara Reeves)

When visiting the archaeological sites of southern Jordan, it is sometimes easy to forget just how colorful the ancient world would have been. Petra, once described as a “rose-red city”, is now known to have been filled with vibrant color. Even the facades of its famous rock cut tombs were plastered and brightly painted. The same is true for the surrounding settlements, such as Humayma, where the interior walls of residences and other structures were richly decorated by wall paintings by those who could afford it.

Thanks to the support of ACOR through a Kenneth W. Russell Fellowship, I had the opportunity this summer to help study a large corpus of painted plaster fragments previously excavated at Humayma, with the hope of learning more about the tradition of wall paintings both at the site and in the wider region.

Aerial photograph of the site of Humayma  facing northeast. Taken in 1998 (photo from the Jane Taylor collection at ACOR, JT_J_6a_279)

The site of Humayma is located approximately 80 km north of Aqaba and 80 km south of Petra and lies just west of the Desert Highway. Archaeological fieldwork at Humayma has investigated the site’s Roman fort, complex water system, numerous churches, and an Umayyad Period qasr (elite residence) that was once home to the Abbasid family. For a background to the site, see the ACOR Newsletter for Summer 2015.

In 1996 excavation began on a new structure (Area E125), the visible remains of which were characterized by a concentration of painted plaster fragments on the surface. Archaeological investigation of the structure brought to light a room (Room A in the plan below) that was once richly decorated with wall paintings. This room was part of a larger residential complex dating to the Nabataean Period, next to which was a community shrine also containing wall paintings (just to the south of Room A)

Plan of Area E125 at Humayma. The complex includes a community shrine, a large courtyard house, and other structures (courtesy of the Humayma Excavation Project)

The excavation of this structure uncovered a large corpus of wall painting fragments displaying a wide variety of colors and motifs. In addition to geometric patterns, the fragments contained depictions of vegetation, architectural motifs, and even figures, such as a labeled portrait of Clio, the Muse of History. A similar depiction of Clio was found in the Terrace Houses at Ephesus, Turkey.

Labeled portrait of Clio from residence (Oleson et al. 1999, fig. 9)
For comparison – depictions of Euterpe (left) and Clio (right) from the Room of the Muses, Ephesus, Turkey (photo by Carole Raddato /Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the fragments of painted plaster from this structure were previously studied as part of a MA thesis (Karas 2000) and several have been published (Oleson et al. 1999: 422, fig. 9; Reeves 2019: 7, fig. 9). There has not been, however, a comprehensive study of the wall paintings from this structure or a full publication of all the excavated fragments.

Wall painting motif from shrine (Reeves 2019 fig. 9)

Thanks to ACOR’s support this study is now well underway. Funding from the Kenneth W. Russell Fellowship enabled me to travel to ACOR and study the painted plaster alongside Dr. M. Barbara Reeves, director of the Humayma Excavation Project. Assisted by two other Humayma team members, Barbara Fisher and Brian Seymour, we carefully documented and described all saved pieces of painted plaster and attempted to reconstruct the now fragmented motifs.

The Humayma team at ACOR. From left: Brian Seymour, Barbara Fisher, Craig Harvey, Barbara Reeves (photo by Barbara A. Porter)

One of the major difficulties we faced was the shortage of published comparanda against which we could compare the identified motifs and designs. In southern Jordan, only a handful of structures with Nabataean and Roman wall paintings have been published. Many of these structures come from Petra and the surrounding area, including the elite residence at ez-Zantur IV, the Petra Great Temple, the painted houses in Wadi Siyagh, villas in Wadi Musa, and the famous painted room in Siq al-Barid (Little Petra).

On the other hand, this relative lack of comparanda means that our study will result in much needed new information about the repertoire of Nabataean and Roman painted motifs in the region. It is curious, for example, that the wall paintings from Humayma contain a relatively high number of figural depictions, which do not seem to have been common elsewhere in Nabataean wall painting. Though the initial phase of the structure dates to the Nabataean period, its position close to the subsequently built Roman fort suggests that in a later phase the wall decoration may have been influenced by Roman tastes. These wall paintings may therefore display a mixture of local and Roman characteristics and thus help our understanding of the exchange of artistic traditions between the two groups.

Our next step going forward is to complete the analysis of the fragments and prepare for its publication. The results of our study will be published by Dr. Reeves and myself as a chapter in the fourth volume of the Humayma Final Report Series.

References

Karas, B.V., 2000, Domestic Architecture and Fresco Decoration at Humayma: Social Pretence in Provincia Arabia. M.A. Thesis, University of Victoria.

Oleson, J.P., ‘Amr, K., Foote, R., Logan, J., Reeves, M. B., Schick, R.,
1999, “Preliminary Report of the Al-Humayma Excavation Project, 1995, 1996, 1998.” ADAJ 43: 411-50.

Reeves, M.B., 2019, “A Nabataean and Roman shrine with civic and military gods at Humayma, Jordan”. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 29.2: 1-22.

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