This story is adapted from the original article that appeared in the ACOR Newsletter, Winter 2013, Volume 25.2. To read the entire newsletter, or any of ACOR’s previous newsletters, please visit the ACOR website.
Naif Zaban, ACOR’s long-time conservation technician whose talents now support the ACOR Conservation Cooperative, first became involved with archaeology as a young man because he lived near the Amman Citadel. In 1988 he came to the attention of Mohammed Najjar, one of the co-directors of the joint expedition of the Department of Antiquities (DOA) and the École Biblique et Archéologique Française (EBAF) on the citadel, along with Fawzi Zayadine and Jean-Baptiste Humbert. Beginning in 1990, Najjar worked with the ACOR Temple of Hercules project funded by USAID, and Naif was part of the core technical team that Najjar assembled.
Naif was also an integral part of ACOR’s Petra Church excavations which began in 1992. Robert Schick, a Petra Church co-director, and Naif were responsible for fixing up Nazzal’s camp in the basin area of Petra for the dig house before the excavations started. During the excavations, Naif remembers observing Tom Roby and Livia Alberti on site during the mosaic stabilization and conservation, and in the afternoon, Noël Siver conserving objects in Nazzal’s camp where Khairieh Amr was working on the pottery. Much of his learning was through careful observation. Zbig Fiema, another co-director of the Petra Church excavations, noted that Naif was a great help to him and was always very resourceful. Naif was a witness to the discovery of the Petra papyri in early December 1993. He recalls the moment when Hammoudi Nuweija said, “Stop! There is writing on them!”
Another project that Naif was involved in was at Humayma under the direction of John Oleson. He worked with conservator Judy Logan and archaeologist Rebecca Foote and was able to demonstrate his extraordinary skill when he restored several delicate Abbasid-period (8th century) ivory furniture panels, which will be on display in the Islamic section of the Jordan Museum. I was told that one person working on these minute ivory fragments did not think anything could be done but Naif persisted in his quiet methodical way and produced miracles—indeed virtually complete carved panels.
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Naif continued to work in the field in Petra with Patricia Bikai on the North Ridge project and due to the extensive amount of ceramic material uncovered, he started working continuously in 1998 in the ACOR lab to restore that pottery. Patricia Bikai commented that during her subsequent excavations in Bayda until 2007, Naif was her right-hand person and foreman. He also undertook various projects in that location including consolidating the grand walkway in the Amti Canyon.
In 2007, the ACOR Conservation Cooperative (ACC) was created, based on Naif’s talents, in order to help other projects in Jordan with their conservation needs. It seems appropriate that the first major endeavor for the ACC was to restore ceramic material from the 1988 Amman Citadel excavations. As part of the ACC, Naif was also secunded to the Jordan Museum for several major projects, during which time he worked closely with Fatma Marii, then head of conservation. At the Jordan Museum, Naif helped on many things, such as Byzantine mosaic floors and furnishings (i.e., pulpits, chancel screens, walls) and even completely new projects, such as early 20th century Hijaz railway cars and a railway track.
Most of his ACC efforts, however, take place in the ACOR Conservation Lab, created with a grant from ASHA (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad) in the early 1990s and for which upgrades to the equipment are funded by ACOR’s USAID “Petra” Endowment. Since the start of the ACC, Naif has conserved material from more than three dozen projects and for several museums. Thanks to permissions granted by the Department of Antiquities, he has restored ceramic vessels of a wide range of periods and locations, i.e. Iron Age (Amman, Khirbet Ataruz, Khirbet Mudayna, Pella); classical periods including Nabataean and Roman (Humayma, Petra, Tall Abu Sarbut); and Islamic and medieval (Bayda, Pella, Khirbet Sheikh Issa, Tawaheen al Sukkar). Naif has also cleaned coins from a multitude of sites and this work will ultimately assist final excavation publications.
In recent years, he worked again at the Petra Church, helping with renewed conservation efforts at the site. Another past project recently revisited was the Byzantine Church at Darat Al Funun, the center which showcases art, archaeology, and architecture in Amman. During a brief period in summer 2012, Pierre Bikai and Naif returned, at the request of Suha Shoman, to place a capital on top of one of the church’s columns. Naif again undertook the stabilization of the remaining sections of the mosaic floor that he had consolidated during the excavations directed there by Pierre Bikai in 1993. From Darat Al Funun at the tip of Jabal Luweibda he could look across to the Amman Citadel where his unconventional and intriguing career started.
Written by Barbara A. Porter