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Behind the Scenes - “NOVA — Building Wonders — Petra: Lost City of Stone”

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Dr. “Tom” Thomas Paradise, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville professor and one of the stars of upcoming “Building Wonders — Petra: Lost City of Stone” first became involved with the “NOVA” team when they contacted him “out of the blue” after his name was suggested as a specialist-expert- scholar on Petra. At first, Tom thought it was a prank. As you’ll see, it wasn’t — it was the beginning of something incredible! Read through to go behind the scenes of their journey, and be sure to watch the episode on Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.

Hi, Arkansas! I’m Tom Paradise  and I teach a diverse group of classes at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville … from “Historic Preservation and Materials,” to “Advanced Cartography,” to “Middle East and North Africa Geography,” to “Hazards, Disasters and Risk.” However, coming from a background in geology, geography, art, climatology and architecture made teaching about rock weathering and architectural deterioration (especially classical period buildings) and working in Petra, Jordan, a perfect match.

So, when I was asked to become a part of the “NOVA – Building Wonders – Petra: Lost City of Stone” team, I worked on graphics, scripts and fact-checking, but I was shocked as to how much on-air commentary I received in the final cut of the episode both directly and indirectly through the producers and directors. It highlighted so much of my (20+ years of) research … and it was a fantastic surprise.

When the “NOVA” producers asked me what would be the coolest and most innovative thing to do on this project if money were no issue, I mentioned that re-creating a tomb facade (or attempting to) would answer some millennia-old questions, maybe pose some new ones and simply allow us to witness something for the first time in 2,000 years. So, when we started on it, it was fantastic, fun and simply astonishing.

IMAGE CREDIT: Tom Paradise 

Here’s a depiction of the progression of our project for “Building Wonders — Petra: Lost City of Stone.” On the left is the original Petra facade (our archetype); in the center are our 3D and 2D drawings we did on campus at the University of Arkansas; and on the right is the finished, modern facade in California, the main focus of our efforts in “NOVA — Petra: Lost City of Stone.” 

On a number of occasions, we stopped mid-carving to take it in since we realized that we WERE witnessing something no one had seen in 20 centuries. It was crazy. 

The facade took about three months to complete, so I would fly out on most weekends to get caught up on the progress, correct bits here and there, and advise the stone carvers on what to do until I could return in five days. It was an amazing opportunity, and it was a great privilege to have been asked to participate.

BUT … a lot of work occurred before our originally scheduled work in Petra in February of 2014 and the beginning of carving in March. We had to match the sandstone in Petra to a site where the carving could begin. As we talked with Jordanians, we found that matching sites in Jordan were either forbidden, inaccessible, or too expensive to obtain authorization, etc. So, next, we looked at the United States’ Southwest, and found out that federal, state and tribal lands were all off-limits … and, with that, the locations for similar sandstone (called arenite) were dwindling. 

I had to do petrographic analysis (all of which we did at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Department of Geosciences) for the right type of sandstone as we looked for a site. Then, we found a similar sandstone in Southern California and, by chance, it outcropped (cropped-out?) on the ranch/estate of a TV producer who was thrilled to help and give us his land to explore. 

Well, there is where we found the perfect outcrop of matching sandstone … in a fairly accessible location (20 minutes from the main road) … with an amazing view of the Channel Islands:


It was a dream to work on this project – related to 25 years of research — with a team of fun, funny, smart professionals in the most beautiful setting imaginable, all the while accomplishing something so unique. We were continually worried that one chisel mis-hit would wreck the project (or, at least, mar the facade, etc.), but it all turned out magnificent. In a major newspaper’s recent piece on the “NOVA” series, they even confused the created facade with an original Nabatean facade in Petra (which was thousands of miles away and 2,000 years older). It was a funny moment.


Another fun aspect for me was seeing my research on the possibility of a great flood in Petra (a great paleo-flood) highlighted in the special. It was exciting to see my maps, hydrologic science and arguments in a segment examining Petra’s final days. Especially when our original maps made the cut for the “NOVA” recreation.

All in all, this project was a joy and a professional luxury, which few scholars will ever experience. I am so fortunate to have had this opportunity.

See a preview of what all of this hard work contributed to below, and be sure to tune in for the episode on Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.!


"Petra: Lost City of Stone" - prologue to "NOVA - Building Wonders" episode premiering Feb. 18 on AETN/PBS from Providence Pictures on Vimeo.


Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015

“NOVA — Building Wonders — Petra: Lost City of Stone,” 8 p.m.


“NOVA — Building Wonders”

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Petra Project

Dr. “Tom” Thomas Paradise