Teams from North Carolina State University and East Carolina University were on a dig in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan this summer, looking for ceramics, coins, bones and other evidence of how the Nabatean people lived their lives there in the first four centuries A.D.
N.C. State history professor Tom Parker said during an excavation of a second-century villa, the trench supervisor noticed what looked like two "butts" beginning to emerge from the sand.
"And then as we began to dig, then the limbs began to emerge and the rest of the torso began to emerge," Parker said.
Parker said the anticipation grew when the team realized the human figure was made of marble, relatively rare for Petra. Eventually the team pulled from the rubble two marble statues of the goddess Aphrodite, in rare condition.
"These are worthy of display in the Louvre, or the British Museum, or the Met in New York. They're that good," Parker said.
Parker and his team dated the figures to the second century A.D. He and his co-director, ECU professor Megan Perry, have theorized the statues likely stood in a wealthy home, temple, or bathhouse during the second century.
Then, in 363 A.D., a massive earthquake shook the city of Petra. Parker and Perry believe the statues fell and were damaged, and that during the clean-up they were dragged to the an abandoned villa outside the city.
"The complex was abandoned in the second century A.D., and then it was filled with trash because it was outside of the city walls," Perry said.
That's where the statues were left in a pile of waste and rubble, and where they were discovered more than 1,000 years later by the North Carolina researchers.
"I've been doing field archeology in the Middle East for 45 years," Parker said. "And I have never in all my excavations, working in several countries over decades, come across anything like this."
Researchers believe the statues were originally imported to Petra from the west during the period when the Roman empire began to strengthen its hold on the Arab Nabateans.
"So the find of these really classical Roman statues of Aphrodite would I think indicate strongly the kind of Roman and Greek cultural influence that affected the Nabateans," Parker said.
While the statues are in good condition, considering their age, Parker said they will still need restoration. They will likely remain in Jordan.