Marvin Fequiere spent his winter break digging up a 5,000-year-old skull halfway around the world.
Fequiere – a senior studying human biology, anthropology and environmental studies – was one of eight undergraduates to travel to Oman, a country on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, for bioarchaeology training through the SOBO project – Social, Spatial and Bioarchaeological Histories of Ancient Oman.
Fequiere and the rest of the 14-person team worked in and around a small town named Dhank, located in the northern part of the country, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 11. Now in its fifth field season, the SOBO project allows professors, graduate and undergraduate students to study shifting mortuary traditions in the Oman Peninsula.
“This work has the potential to transform our knowledge of how semi-nomadic peoples living in the rural crossroads of major city-states negotiated their own identity through the construction of monuments,” project director and assistant professor Dr. Kimberly Williams wrote in an email.
Williams initiated the SOBO project in 2010 after receiving Temple’s Faculty Senate Seed Grant and a National Science Foundation grant. Two years later, Williams recruited fellow project director Dr. Lesley Gregoricka, a professor at the University of South Alabama.
Students who participate in the project undergo intense fieldwork training for roughly 12 hours a day with several breaks included for food or to escape the heat. Throughout the day, students excavate and survey tombs and other sites from third millennium BC.
“How and where people chose to dispose of their dead reflects relationships between the living and the deceased and between people within and outside the community,” Williams said. “The ancient people of the Oman Peninsula built monumental tombs for their dead and interred their loved ones there with material goods that tell us about who they traded with and what was important to them. We excavate these tombs to tell the story of these past people.”
Williams said that while there are no written records of the people who lived in Northern Oman at the time, the team could learn about the age, sex and health status of the ancient population by studying skeletal remains like the skull Fequiere discovered on Dec. 28.
This year, the SOBO team was comprised of seven students from Temple, three students from the University of South Alabama, Williams, Gregoricka, a Dhank resident and a member of Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture. Most team members stayed at the same residency.
Williams said that when they weren’t working, the team participated in social events in town and were able to meet local Omanis.
“We believe that teaching about cultural diversity is a vital part of a college education,” Williams said. “We are working and living in an Islamic country, and we believe it is extremely important to teach young people about the side of the Islamic world that is not highlighted by most media reports. We are happy to introduce our students to the history, beauty and hospitality of Oman and Omanis.”
No experience is needed to join the SOBO team, and Williams said her and Gregoricka look specifically to invite students who have not traveled outside the country before.
“Each day is an adventure,” Williams said. “It is truly exciting to see the excitement on the students faces when they first see the the landscape, eat traditional Omani food, meet locals, discover a bronze point, excavate a 5,000 year old skeleton, or even when they first see camels roaming the desert.”
Williams runs the project’s official Twitter page – @team_SOBO – and updated it frequently while the team was in Oman. Williams hopes that through Twitter, students, friends and family can share daily moments that “might get lost in translation back home or simply forgotten.”
“This is a magical place, and if you love field work, everything about it is exciting – the drive, the music you listen to, the sights and sounds, getting stuck in the sand, the sunset, etc.,” Williams said. “I hope the Twitter page helps people to see that and that that inspires them to travel or try archaeology themselves.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org