Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips

Excavations: Hajar bin Humeid

Human beings have a strange habit of sticking to the same spot when they build a city.… This habit makes it convenient for archaeologists, who can dig down through one ancient mound and study the remains of civilization after civilization.

When Wendell Phillips and William Albright, his chief archaeologist, first studied the large oval-shaped mound in the Wadi Beihan, they focused on a naturally eroded vertical gash on the western side. That site in the wadi—an Arabic term for valley or riverbed—became the center of their excavations in 1950 and 1951. They hoped that within the scarp they would uncover pottery and layers of human occupation that would help them in reconstructing the consecutive town sites down to the original bedrock.

Such an undertaking, however, was not without its challenges. Once a layer of occupation was removed, the material remains could not be restored or replaced. Phillips explained: “All shovel work must be under the supervision of a man who knows where to dig, how deep, what to look for, and above all, when to stop.”

By the end of the second season of excavating the sixty-foot-tall multilevel site, archaeologist Gus Van Beek established a dating sequence based on eighteen strata. Through their work, the archaeologists determined Hajar bin Humeid had been located on the caravan routes to the Mediterranean. Relatively modest in scale, the city served the Qataban kingdom by collecting customs from all caravans traveling through the Wadi Beihan area.