Kenneth W. Russell is credited with the identification of the Petra Church and served as the archaeology director until his premature death in early 1992. Fieldwork by ACOR took place between 1992 and 1996, initially co-directed by Zbigniew T. Fiema, Robert Schick, and Khairieh ‘Amr; Fiema became chief field archaeologist in 1993. The overall project director was Pierre M. Bikai. Patricia M. Bikai played a key role in the management of the project and its subsequent publication. Excavations initially focused on the church interior and the atrium, then moved on to the clearing of the collapsed rubble north of the church, which resulted in the discovery of a cache of papyri. Lastly, trenches were prepared for the shelter and the baptistery was fully excavated. Careful documentation of these excavations has resulted in a full picture of the Petra Church over time.
Early remains found beneath the church complex date to the Nabataean and Roman periods (1st century B.C. to 4th century A.D.). After the earthquake of A.D. 363, an early Byzantine residential quarter was built. Members of the Christian community in Petra first built the church complex, including its mosaic floors and the cruciform baptistery, in the mid-5th century, a date supported by pottery, glass and coins found at the site. Over time, the apses (semicircular vaulted areas), an elaborately tiled floor in the nave (central area where the congregation stood), a repaved atrium with portico, and a large underground cistern were added to the complex. Lastly, a synthronon (a tiered seating area behind the altar, for the clergy) was added to the central apse. Approximately 140 carbonized papyri written largely in Greek script, dated to between A.D. 537 and 594, were found in a room northeast of the church proper.
Renovation was probably taking place during what would be the final phase of the church’s use. The presence of large ceramic jars used for oil or grain, found stacked in the south aisle, suggest the church was being used for storage. The fire that destroyed the church in about A.D. 600 is evidenced by ash, charred timbers, and damage from roof collapse, which particularly impacted the fragile marble installations within the church, including the screens and ambo (pulpit). Various phases of dumping, reclamation, and earthquake collapse followed in the 7th century. Much of the marble pavement of the nave and chancel (an area near the altar for clergy and choir) was robbed in antiquity. Concentrations of glass fragments and tesserae (mosaic pieces) indicate post-destruction recycling efforts.
Artifacts from the church include ceramic vessels and lamps, coins, glass, metal fittings for hanging lamps and doors, and many iron nails. A Roman-era marble crater (bowl for mixing wine) with handles in the form of panthers was found in fragments on the nave floor and had perhaps originally been installed as a water basin (see images below). Reclaimed elements from Nabataean buildings, including decorated ashlars, column capitals, and inscriptions were integrated into the building alongside Byzantine masonry featuring cruciform motifs and images of plants and birds.
Marble Vase with panther-shaped handles from the Petra Church. Shown during and after restoration. Currently on display at the Petra Museum. Height 85 cm.