Mountainside Helicopter Pickup in Vietnam

My “day job” as an archaeologist is working for the Joint Prisoner of War Missing in Action Command (JPAC). One of my favorite parts about our assignments are the places we get to go and often how we get there (it’s the journey, right?!)

Due to the inaccessible nature of many of the places we’re interested in, we often fly in and out of our sites (the other times we drive, hitch onto logging trucks, boats, hike for miles over mountains, whatever). One of these days I swear we’re gonna ride water buffalos.

Anyway, this clip is from the end of an operation where we were up on a mountainside in Vietnam. We’d been dropped off by helicopter early in the day in order to bring in a few older folks in who had memories of where things were during the war and could show us around as part of a survey.

They dropped us off on a minimal landing pad quite literally carved out of the side of the mountain. The pilots didn’t want to set down fully so they dumped us and told us to radio for pickup at the end of the day.

This is the Mi-17 helicopter coming back in to pick us up. The rotor wash (wind being pushed outward by the rotors) off these things is pretty powerful once they get close. I had to shield my face (proving an IQ of at least 65) but subjected the GoPro to it, keeping it rolling as we loaded up to head out.

You really come to appreciate great piloting in situations like this. They never let us down (too quickly) and always got us where we need to go – for that I am much obliged!

How to See Petra

Luckily most of the planes that fly in and out of Jordan look better than this!


If you’ve always wanted to go, just do it. You won’t be disappointed with a visit to Petra.

Traveling into and around Jordan is easier and smoother than you might expect.

I flew into Amman (AMM) on Royal Jordanian, a oneworld airline that offers a daily direct flight from Chicago’s O’Hare that I booked on AA (at 14 hours or so, it’s a long haul).

Upon arrival, I grabbed a simcard for my phone at the airport I was ready to roll.



Once in country, I attended an archaeological conference (WAC-7) for the better part of a week, basing myself around Madaba and the Dead Sea.

I stayed at the cheap and cheerful Mariam Hotel in Madaba on the advice of a fellow archaeologist who’s worked in the region. Basic, no nonsense, affordable lodgings with a “rooftop” breakfast that is awesome. Think hummus and eggs!

Madaba is a great place to get up and running if you’ve just flown into Jordan. Cheaper than either Amman or the Dead Sea by a fair stretch, it’s a conveniently located (30 minute cab ride from airport) non-descript town that has a colorful history and several sites (the Madaba Map, to start) well worth checking out.

I used the time in Madaba to get my bearings. After that, I rented a car to get myself to Petra. The car seemed a bit worse for the wear but it never broke down. I arranged it through the hotel, where they dropped it off for me (with a near-empty tank). Their name? Reliable Rentals, but of course.

I drove from Madaba to Petra on the Dead Sea highway and back roads via Karak, and afterwards back to Madaba via the Desert Highway. I was stoked for the freedom my wheels afforded and felt safe traveling alone (although I didn’t stop or linger all that much between my destinations, but most certainly would have if only I had more time).


Petra at sunrise


In Petra I stayed at the Petra Moon Hotel, which is one of the closest hotels to the entrance of the World Heritage site itself at just a few minutes walk.

It had a decent breakfast (that I mainly missed as I left too early) and a room that felt downright fancy after the Mariam in Madaba – but somehow less personal too.

Petra itself is huge. It really is a city – you could wander around for days. For a good look, head in there prepared to stick around.

Here are the essentials that I packed in every day:

  • food
  • cameraThere is no end of things to see in Petra
  • guidebook
  • headlamp
  • knife/multitool
  • down vest
  • beanie
  • rain jacket
  • money in small bills (for trinkets, snacks, and last minute donkey rides)


I primarily relied on the map and route descriptions from my guidebook, the Rough Guide to Jordan to get around. This worked great as I was able to survey the options and make plans but also able to look up places as I came upon them to learn a little context.

I wore long pants with a wicking tee, and a long sleeved shirt that I took on and off depending on the conditions. Hot and cold with variable weather means it’s good to be able to cover up but also to keep cool. It’s a desert, with the according highs and lows.



Petra is truly a photographer’s mecca. If you’re a photographer with any weakness for history you will be simply overwhelmed. You should be spending at least a few days here, or more.

One thing I would have loved to have with me is Canon’s 24mm tilt-shift lens. Staring up at all these incredible carved faces of rock means that convergence is everywhere. Being able to take that out in the field would have been fantastic.

Another great mission would be going after epic time-lapses at Petra. Given the desert environment, the light, and the ruins, rich potential definitely exists.

One can obviously shoot a variety of lenses. As I wanted to travel light, my approach was to spend one day shooting a wide angle lens and another shooting a long lens. The first day I toted a tripod, the second I did not. It was interesting to “see” the place differently depending on what I had with me to shoot it.

Take your time. I could happily set up shop there for weeks. I’d be in with the camels!



Here’s an fascinating account of a 19th century photographer’s visit to Petra:;cc=cent;idno=cent0031-1;node=cent0031-1%3A2;view=image;seq=13;size=100;page=root

This is what I believe to be the official government site for Petra:

This is a fine account of a 4th of July softball game hosted by Brown archaeologists working at Petra:

Extensive scholarly bibliography on archaeology at Petra from Brown, and much more:


Good luck and safe travels!

Faces of Archaeology

Faces of Archaeology, WAC 2013

I’m currently printing a couple of hundred images that are the result of a recent collaboration with Colleen Morgan and the World Archaeological Congress, called Faces of Archaeology. Here’s the concept:

While scholarship and science can mask their practitioners, the individuals involved in archaeological research are nevertheless a diverse group.  Such diversity, however, is not always easy to see in the discipline.  However, the latest generation of archaeologists has interrogated the question of who conducts archaeological research and the significance of this answer perhaps more explicitly than in any previous era. As a global organization, the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) endeavors to represent, integrate, and further a diverse body of archaeological participants. This project will reinforce these principles, making them visible through a body of photographic work.

We shot over 100 portraits of archaeologists who were in attendance at the WAC Congress, held in Jordan this past January (2013).  We put them on their own little Tumblr site, and we mercilessly populated the cyberwaves of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with their portraits.  I *think* most participants enjoyed the whole deal, except for the occasional contrarian (but they still signed the release)!

One set of prints are each scheduled to travel from here (Hawai’i) over to Illinois and Turkey, in order to make appearances at the TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) meetings in Chicago and Istanbul this summer.  Cool.  @clmorgan will hang one show and @kitabet another, if everything goes right.  Fingers crossed.

There’s also a short article in the works that drills into the question of who is doing archaeology and attending WAC these days.  We think it’s a question worth asking and worth thinking about, and one that dovetails nicely with individual archaeologists themselves.

To all that supported the project including the WAC Executive Committee – and most especially the participants themselves – thank you!