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trip to pella

The Aussie Archeologist Who Has Been Digging in Jordan for Nearly 40 Years

PELLA 2.jpg

Samuel DUNN

Stephen Bourke’s journey to Pella is an unusual one.

The self-proclaimed wide-eyed kid from the bush decided to study archaeology because it was alphabetically first on the list of university courses to choose from.

In his first year, he heard about Sydney University’s volunteer program to Jordan and thought “this is just so exotic” and had to go. It wasn’t until his second year that he managed to sneak in.

That was 37 years ago and he has been with the team ever since.

“I was just one of 50 bright young things smiling sweetly at the professors in the hope that someone would give me a chance to go.”

Now leading the team of largely volunteer archeologists, Bourke has a unique relationship with the region. Not only a professional relationship but he also has a long, family history there.

Both of his grandparents were light horsemen in the first World War, meaning stories of the Middle East have been in his family for generations.

Stephen is adding another chapter to this family link.

“The Jordanian people are like country Australians. They are decent, friendly, hard-working people. They are incredibly welcoming, kind and tolerant of our idiosyncrasies.”


Pella is in the fertile crescent of the Jordan Valley, looking over into Israel. The central location made it a valuable trade hub. The site also has a constant water source, making it an attractive area for settlers.

For these reasons, the excavation has unearthed evidence of settlement as far back as 8000 BCE. Neolithic housing from around 6000 BCE is found at the site and is surrounded by evidence of the occupants that followed. Including Roman, Byzantine and Muslim settlements.

Parts of the dig reach down to 20 metres, each layer of the excavation reveals more details of those who lived there.

“When you are in one particular place and it’s occupied for 50 years you can learn a great deal from that 50-year slice.

"In a place like Pella, where one period of archeology is overtopped by another and then another and another, I can ask about what changes occur when one civilization is replaced with another.” 

Stephen and his team look at the different layers and are able to see who was there, how they lived and what their relationship was with the previous and subsequent occupants.

“It would not surprise me if Australians were still digging in Pella for another 100 years. Even then, considering the size of the site, we may only be able to excavate five per cent of it.

“I am not going to live forever, but I certainly hope the next generation of bright young things will carry on the work.”

Stephen and his team return to Pella in 2018.