PROVO — In the Jordanian desert, carved into the sandstone cliffs is the spectacular ancient city of Petra.
"It's one of the largest archaeological parks in the world, and it is just fascinating because we know so little about this culture yet," said Cynthia Finlayson, a professor in Brigham Young University's anthropology/archaeology department.
Finlayson has returned twice a year for decades. Now, she leads a team of BYU archaeologists.
"It's just an unprecedented opportunity that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Finlayson said while sitting in front of the famous Ad-Deir Monument.
They are trying to save these 2,000-year-old buildings. "Part of the project is to excavate and restore these structures, put them back into service," Finlayson said. "In the process, we're learning a lot about Nabatean water engineering, which is really valuable for this region today."
It's a shared expression among the students.
"You look up at the mountain every day, and you're like, 'Look where I am. This is awesome. Who gets to do this?'" BYU graduate student Josie Newbold said. Newbold has worked at Petra for periods of time over three years now. They climb 800 stairs in all. The archaeologists make that trek every day to the Ad-Deir Monument.
"We hike up the stairs every morning," Newbold said. "And a lot of our equipment, when we do have tall equipment, is carried up on donkeys.
"Part of our project is to restore the cisterns that will catch all the water that would otherwise go down and erode the Ad-Deir Monument," Finlayson said.
The professor describes their two-fold project: The first is conservation, since wind and rain are eroding the structures.
They also work in excavation, having found ancient coins, jewelry and pottery. Although they work as an international team of scientists, ultimately they have become friends.
"I cannot emphasize strongly enough how much this project depends on our Jordanian colleagues and what they provide for us and do for us and teach us," Finlayson said.
Newbold echoes her professor’s sentiments.
"We really learn to appreciate their culture and their way of life," Newbold said. "It's an experience I don't think a lot of people get to have. It's quite amazing."
The project links people of different nations who share a desire to learn from each other and the past.
BYU has produced a documentary about the archaeology project called "Journey to Petra: Preserving the Ad-Deir Monument."