Two marble statues of the goddess Aphrodite have been unearthed in Petra, Jordan. Described as “absolutely exquisite”, the representations of the mythological goddess are mostly intact and are said to be so special that they would be great additions to exhibitions at some of the most famous museums in the world.
Phys.org reports that the research team from North Carolina State University and East Carolina University was surprised when they found the sculptures while excavating domestic structures in Petra’s North Ridge area in May and June of 2016. As their goal was to shed light on “everyday” objects of regular folks, and not the elite, the two statues were not what they expected. “Even though they weren’t exactly what we were looking for, these finds still tell us a lot about the population,” dig co-director Tom Parker has said .
NC State Professor of History Tom Parker and students examine a statue of Aphrodite, discovered during 2016 excavations in Petra, Jordan. ( Tom Parker )
The statues have been dated to 106 AD and were created in a Roman style. A Popular Archaeology article on the discovery writes that they “provide additional insight to the cultural impact of Rome’s annexation of Nabataea in 106 AD.”
April Holloway has written a concise summary of some of the highlights in Nabataean history. In a 2014 article about the discovery of an ancient Arabic inscription she wrote:
“The enigmatic Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe, but about 2,500 years ago, they began building great settlements and cities which prospered from the first century BC to the first century AD, including the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan. As well as their agricultural activities, they developed political systems, arts, engineering, stonemasonry, astronomy, and demonstrated astonishing hydraulic expertise, including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts. They expanded their trading routes, creating more than 2,000 sites in total in the areas that today are Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.”
And it was in the key Nabataean site of Petra, Jordan where the researchers found the beautiful goddess statues next to an ancient staircase. Although the team initially believed they were just unearthing a typical home, they soon discovered that the residency was once something of an urban villa. Parker told Phys.org that the home even had “its own sophisticated bath house.”
NC State Professor of History Tom Parker examines a statue of Aphrodite, discovered during 2016 excavations in Petra, Jordan. ( Tom Parker )
One of the things the discovery showed the team was the ability of the Nabateans to adjust their society to suit the new Roman leaders. As Parker explained: “The Nabateans were true geniuses in many ways, in part because they were ready and willing to assimilate to and adopt elements of other cultures around them. They adopted a lot of Egyptian culture when they were neighbors. When Romans took over, they were open to Roman influence.”
Other artifacts uncovered during the recent excavations, which also included another residence and three rock-cut shaft tombs, were: pottery, animal bones, ceramic oil lamps, an iron sword and human remains that were buried with decorative items such as jewelry. Speaking on these finds, bioarchaeologist and co-director of the dig Megan Perry said : “The human remains and mortuary artifacts from Petra provide perspectives not only on Nabataean concepts of death, but also their biological histories while alive.”
The recent work was the third season of digs for the North Carolina-based researchers in the Petra North Ridge Project. However, the city has long been a source of archaeological interest. It was re-discovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt , and previous excavations in the area have shown that it was first occupied more than 9000 years ago.
The site’s name, ‘Petra’ Greek for ‘Rock’ came from the fact that much of the city was carved inside red-rose sandstone rock. A 2013 Ancient Origins article on the city explains more about the site, including the information that it “is comprised of hundreds of tombs, houses, a theatre that could fit more than 3000 people, temples, obelisks, and altars where animals were sacrificed to calm the angry gods or ask them for favours.”