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“Petra: Lost City of Stone” — Q&A with Dr. Tom Paradise

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University of Arkansas professor Dr. Tom Paradise and the “NOVA” team answered millennia-old questions about how a magnificent city was carved in one of the driest places on earth in “Petra: Lost City of Stone.” Now, he answers a few of ours!

How did you become involved with “NOVA”?

The "NOVA" producers called me out “of the blue” after my name was suggested as a specialist/expert/scholar on Petra from many sources and people.   

When they first called me, I thought it was my closest friend from San Francisco, ‘”punking me.” I was shocked and delighted that they considered me the best person for facts, script work, some site logistics (Petra) and, then, on-air commentary. “Gobsmacked,” is my wife's perfect term for this (she is from Western Scotland).

Having worked at Petra for 25 years (23 years when they contacted me), and having written more than 40 articles, reports, and chapters on the city, my name is out there in academic, agency and professional arenas.

My contribution to the other two “NOVA — Building Wonders” specials (“Colosseum: Roman Death Trap,” “Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Mystery”) was very minor, casual and chatty,  NOTHING like my work on Petra ... just some fact-checking and chat since I've worked in both cities, and know Rome like a second home having lived there for years, and then again with the University of Arkansas's Rome Center in 2002, 2009, 2010. 

What did you enjoy most about working on the “Petra: Lost City of Stone” project?

It was an incredible and truly unique opportunity to have been asked to oversee this rare task. To be the first people to see this done in 2,000 years is a rare privilege not experienced by many scholars/experts/professors. Wow.

Were there any surprises involved in shooting the episode?

Yes, we uncovered a couple solutions to the mystery behind Petra's architectural carving, which has haunted scholars for years.  

Discovering that wood scaffolding was not used to the degree and design that had been so rigorously argued by academics for years, was a treat.
Prior research and opinions on the nature and magnitude of the scaffolding used to carve these facades often cite that — in an arid landscape like Southern Jordan — it was strange that SO MUCH wood was used in their carving.  This always seemed like a tenuous argument to many.  It a place where wood was rare, then why would a society create/perfect a technique that required so much.  So, this project and its findings did not prove how the Nabateans really did carve this often elaborate architecture but indicates that other techniques may be more suited to their expertise, resources, training and culture-society.  

I think many of the  Petra pundits may be surprised that we found (during the carving process) that wood was not required in any great quantity but, instead, a couple of planks are used repeatedly and in a more efficient and effective manner ... both now and then.

You’re incredibly familiar with Petra, but we find that hands-on learning provides new perspective. What did you learn while creating “Petra: Lost City of Stone”?

How the Nabateans carved these 800+ facades has been questioned for millennia, so this “NOVA” project may have answered these questions, or at least offered a new, empirical answer.  

These have always been hunches, so this “project, process and product” exposes all sorts of options which are more practical, rational and efficient. Why do we so often assume that societies in the past where SO different in terms of our basic human nature and behavior? Why would the Nabateans have developed a technique and technology based on overuse and ineffective sustainability? Are we really the first societies and cultures to understand the conservation and recycling of materials (renewable or non-renewable)? 

This project shows us that this technology now (and maybe then) was created to conserve/recycle wood use in the carving of the abundant sandstone cliffs that surround Petra.

What’s one thing you hope that viewers take away from the episode?

Nothing in the sciences or social sciences beats old-school, empirical examination-investigations. When a question arises, then an empirical reconstruction of the process or product might not answer the question but may offer alternative answers and solutions. 

With so many scholars tossing around ideas about Nabatean architecture and their abundant use of a rare resource, what better way to answer those questions than to duplicate the process, using the same tools, with the same material (substrate, resource, etc.) and produce the same or a similar product.

If it’s possible to name just one thing, what do you find most interesting about  the Nabateans?

How well they seemed to live and be SO influential in a landscape with so few of the resources (like water, access to trade, minerals, wood, civic centers, etc.) available to other cultures and societies.  They were able to maximize their limited resources to create a thriving, vital and influential crossroads city in the far eastern corner of the Roman Empire.

If you had the chance, is there any other “Building Wonders” project you’d like to be involved in?

Wow, this was an extraordinary opportunity, but maybe working on the Pyramids of Meroe (Northern Sudan), or on some of the lesser known sites near Angkor Wat or Borobodur. 

Also, the Nabateans extended their kingdom into what is now northern Saudi Arabia (Meda'in Saleh). Working there would be a wonderful opportunity since it is still carved sandstone architecture by Nabateans, but in a more complicated political and less accessible setting. 

Also, not in terms of reconstruction of architecture but working to create broad-scale master plans and infrastructure for emerging sites (like Meroe, Wadi Rum, etc.) would be thrilling and exciting. It would not only help to guide tourism and avert potential deterioration from visitation, but also set up our children's children, to experience these amazing sites before they fade away from tourist impacts.

What inspired you to enter your field? What advice would you give to Arkansans who would like to learn more about geology, architecture and geomatics?

Follow your bliss. I was always told and guided by my parents and friends to follow my loves ... and they were always nature, art, history, architecture and geography. I made a huge career shift in my thirties to follow that bliss and have never looked back.  

I am a certified gemologist (UK and US degrees) and ran a major international auction house jewelry department ... and entering my thirties, I realized that it was a great career path but not what I enjoyed doing. So, I earned my PhD and that was the beginning.  

My dissertation from Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ) was conducted in Petra on the various influences that were affecting the deterioration of Petra's huge hewn theater (rock, climate, tourists, etc), and it required a fundamentally multi-disciplinary approach to answer these questions. It was/is the balance of geography (understanding Petra, its landscape, culture, and the region), geology (understanding the petrology of the Petra sandstone, AND the California 'surrogate sandstone'), cartography (knowing how to create the archetype-prototype models in 2D and 3D), architectural history (to understand how to read the elements and composition of the archetype facade), and materials science and history (to understand how the original Nabatean-Roman stonemasonry tools and dressing marks (chisel marks found across Petra now) could be used to now in the recreation and reconstruction of this California facade. These all had to be used in this task and undertaking.  

Most fields required a more and more narrowed focus, while this project, my education and even my teaching now, requires that same approach ... to examine the connectedness of fields and the answers that may ONLY be answered though multi-disciplinary examination, training and perspectives — not through a narrow focus.  This is the way GEOGRAPHY, as a discipline, is re-emerging in the United States because the very nature of the field is to build bridges between fields, rather than focus deeper within one conventional field (or convention, school of thought or discipline).  

The Europeans fundamentally understand this, while in the United States, many universities do not understand or know where to place faculty who work toward the building of bridges between disciplines.  In Europe, it is often lauded as a goal in academia.

Is there anything else that’s come to mind that you’d like to add?

I could never have imagined a better, smarter or more fun team of professionals with which to work, than the team from Providence Pictures and the stonecarvers. I looked forward to the trips to Petra and the weekly flights to California to oversee the facade reconstruction. It was all a joy, and a professional luxury which few scholars will ever experience. I am so fortunate to have had this opportunity.



Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015

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


“NOVA — Building Wonders”

Dr. “Tom” Thomas Paradise

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Petra Project