…not just aerial photography! Oh no, no no. My second trip to Lebanon, which took place for two weeks in mid-December, was filled with adventures in everything from underestimating the weather to taking calls from Lebanese Air Traffic Control on my cell phone.
It all began with a stopover in Qatar, during which time I felt quite at home upon encountering a yellow version of the Brown University Lamp/Bear in the terminal hall. When I arrived in Beirut my lovely assistant Sam was waiting for me, ready to embark on her first trip to Lebanon. Not everyone is so lucky to have one of their best friends agree to double as a research assistant. I can’t believe she put up with me for ten days!
Sam and I spent most of the first two days of our trip—which were possibly the rainiest days I have experienced anywhere, ever—troubleshooting the Joukowsky Institute‘s Trimble handheld GPS unit. Dear lord, Trimble. Why does one need to manually move files between folders in addition to syncing the thing “automatically”?! At least we found a lovely cafe in which to fiddle with the darn thing. They had eggplant Parmesan, so…
On our second day in Beirut, we went to the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) for a meeting with the Director, who is always more than accommodating (thanks in large part, I think, to the recon visit I made to establish contacts there over the summer—it worked!). While there we met many of the other DGA staff, and spent several hours chatting with everyone about our plans. We were also informed that I would need to apply for military permission for my work, because I was planning to use a drone for aerial photography. It wasn’t actually the drone itself that necessitated the military permission: it was the fact that both of my research sites, Nahr el-Kalb and Adloun, happen to be located in sensitive areas. It amazes me that Nahr el-Kalb is still, 3300 years after Ramesses II, such an important site from a strategic standpoint. Adloun, on the other hand, is just a bit too close to the southern part of the country, where things are not as straightforward as they are up north.
On day three our third team member, Bruno, joined us from Italy. Bruno is the Tech Wizard from The Amheida Project, where I have worked on and off since I was a student there in 2008, and he was the first person to express interest in helping me with my fieldwork. That was two years ago, when I was still writing my preliminary examination paper (“prelim”) to test the topic out. So Bruno believed in me from the start, and the least I could do was accept his generous offer to lend me his fantastic skill set.
Our fourth and final team member, Berj, is an archaeology student at the American University in Beirut. He has already worked on several excavations in Lebanon, and his professors spoke very highly of him before we met in person. He turned out to be a Jack of All Trades, truly, and was a major help with logistics as well as the hands-on elements of the project.
Although the weather started looking up around day four, we had another unexpected problem: permit delays. I had originally planned to rent a drone from a wedding photography studio, but because I needed to apply for military permission, I first had to obtain the serial number of the drone and send it to the Department of Defense (do I sound like an International Woman of Mystery yet?). Well the owner of the photography studio was not so forthcoming, so I decided to explore other options. I was in a rush because Sam and Bruno would only be with me for a few more days; on top of that I would have to wait some time for the military permission to come through once I could actually get them the serial number, and the weather forecast was so terrible that I would also have to find a clear, dry day on which to fly the thing with its permission and its pilots. So we called around (thanks, new network of Lebanese cultural-heritage friends!) and found a store where I could buy a drone instead.
On arrival at the store we discovered that the unit I was set to buy wasn’t working properly: the connection between the controller and the iPad screen (where you can see what the camera sees) was faulty. The owner of the shop wouldn’t sell it to me in this condition, because it wasn’t safe, and he was right. That’s when Bruno stepped in and asked if he had a client who might be willing to fly his or her own unit for us. And along came Alec.
Alec K. of HighCamFly, who has shot aerial footage for Formula 1 (!), became Team Member Number Five. But more on that later.
So what do you do when the weather is iffy and you’re waiting for the go-ahead for your aerial photography? You do as the tourists do! Over the course of a few days we made unexpected visits to Tyre, Byblos, Jeita Grotto (one of the most geologically fabulous places in the world), Harissa (famous for the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, with a stunning view of the Mediterranean), Sidon, and the National Museum in Beirut.
I know what you’re thinking: You went to Tyre and Sidon?! Aren’t those in the “bad” areas of the map??? This is the reaction I have received from several people already. Our visit to the south was actually part of a trip to scope out Adloun, where I am hoping to return in the spring. We were very careful to consult the DGA and Lebanese friends about visiting sites in the south before we went, and we did so with an experienced driver. We always discussed our comfort level before making plans—but the truth is that we never once felt uncomfortable.
At Adloun, we hunted for the elusive stela of Ramesses II (see Issue 1 for more details about this monument), but to no avail. We did get some precarious rock climbing in, though:
In the end we decided that we wouldn’t find it without more careful planning and more time, so that’s when we headed to Tyre. But our visit did help me understand why Ramesses might have chosen this area, where no significant event in his campaigns is known to have occurred, as the site for a stela: there are several caves there (where Paleolithic remains were discovered), making this a topographically and geologically unusual spot in a coastal landscape that is otherwise relatively flat. “Strange” natural places are known to have been sought out by the monument makers of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, so why not by the Egyptians as well? This is one of the overarching themes I am working with in my dissertation.
We also worked on some non-aerial data collection at Nahr el-Kalb while we were waiting for our permission and good weather. This included some photogrammetry for 3D modeling and nighttime Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). With RTI, changes in light and shadow are exploited to get a composite image of a surface with depth data (in this case, a very worn inscription). You can see me explaining a bit more about RTI in this video for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), where I discuss the process as applied to an Old Kingdom private relief. Bruno fashioned a pole for our light source out of a broomstick borrowed from our AirBnB!
On the very last day of Sam and Bruno’s visit, we finally received our permission to use the drone. The military personnel were extremely helpful and also very interested in our work, and I cannot thank them enough for their assistance. After some calls to Air Traffic Control and the local military outpost, we were off to Nahr el-Kalb for six early morning flights that produced stunning images of the promontory where the stelae were inscribed.
Alec shot hundreds of pictures that I’ll use to make topographical models of the site. He also took several videos that I hope to post here soon.
In the end everything worked out thanks to Bruno’s tech wizardry and quick thinking, Sam’s topography skills, Berj’s knowledge of the area, and the collaboration of our Lebanese colleagues.
Continue to follow me on social media for regular reports from the field, and visit my new Photo Gallery for more photos of my travels. Stay tuned for the next issue about my first fieldwork trip to Egypt, where I just spent six weeks bouncing between sites with the help of many generous excavation teams, mentors who doubled as travel companions, and Egyptian friends!
Until next time,