Title: Desert Paradise: The Petra Terraces Archaeology Project 

Project Overview: The ancient city of Petra in Jordan is rightly known for its spectacular funerary architecture and long-distance trade connections. But its inhabitants’ capacity to live in extreme environments was just as important for the city’s success. The Petra Terraces Archaeological Project, a collaboration between the University of Chicago and Brown University, assembles an international team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, and architects to investigate the history of the human-landscape interactions that facilitated agriculture around Petra over the past few millennia. By studying the construction, use, repair, and collapse of ancient agricultural and hydrological terracing systems in a single watershed north of the city, the Project aims to produce a detailed, diachronic analysis of how people in the past shaped the local environment by controlling—and at times also failing to control—flows of water and sediment along that watershed. It implements innovative and interdisciplinary methods and brings new comparative and anthropological questions to study long-term changes in rural landscapes that are essential to understanding the history of human occupation of southern Jordan and, in fact, the development of the city of Petra itself.

Bio: Sarah Newman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and in the College. Newman’s archaeological research asks fundamental questions about how humans have interacted with, impacted, and been influenced by their environments.

Newman’s current fieldwork projects apply multidisciplinary approaches to long-term uses and reuses of landscapes in Guatemala and in Jordan. The cross-cultural (and cross-environmental) comparisons between those distinct regions provide a testing ground to develop and refine methodologies for documenting, dating, and analyzing ancient agricultural and hydrological terracing, as well as an opportunity to explore how anthropogenic landscape modifications—some still in use by modern farmers—endure across environmental change, collapse, and abandonment.

Her current book project, Before Trash: A History of Waste in Mesoamerica, examines the changing nature of rubbish from Pre-Columbian times through the twentieth century. Before Trash explores how objects that have long been categorized as ancient garbage—broken pots, bone fragments, crafting debris—held different meanings in the past than they do today. The book reveals that the idea of “waste” is not a self-evident or universal concept, challenging archaeologists to reconsider one of the most basic assumptions of the discipline: the idea that most of what we study is trash people left behind.

Newman also specializes in the analysis of archaeological animal remains. She probes the ecological, historical, economic, and symbolic meanings of animals in Mesoamerica by examining dietary, hunting, and game management practices and their ecological impacts.