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Tall Hisban Excavation: 2001

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By Oystein S.LaBianca
Andrews University

    Tall Hisban is located on the edge of the highland plateau overlooking the Northern tip of the Dead Sea and the Lower Jordan Valley. On a clear day, one can see from the summit of the site the biblical towns of Madaba, Nebo, Jericho and Jerusalem. It is conveniently accessed via a paved road, which branches off from the new Amman-Jerusalem highway. It is located directly off the road, which each year takes hundreds of thousands of tourists to the well-known destinations of Madaba and Nebo.

    Archaeological excavations by an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists headed by Andrews University professors have brought to light pottery associated with the biblical tribe of Reuben (see Numbers 21:21-31); a huge reservoir believed by many to be the one referred to in the Song of Solomon 7:4; city walls built and abandoned by the ancient Ammonites and later restored by Hellenistic settlers, likely Hasmonian Jews; a temple acropolis area and plaza built by the Romans at about the time of Christ; a rolling-stone tomb; three early Christian churches, with beautiful mosaics, from the sixth century AD; and the standing walls and arches of a palace, which may include a portion of an Islamic mosque, built by the Mamluk governor of Balqa in the 14th century AD. An Ottoman "cave village" is also found on the site!

    Archaeological surveys in the region surrounding this important biblical site have produced numerous examples of vineyards and farms from biblical times (see Isa 5:1-5). The surveys have also enabled project scientists to reconstruct changes over the past several thousand years in the historical landscape, including documentation of cyclic episodes of intensification and abatement of the local food system which have, over the millennia, resulted in the removal of the virgin forests and degradation of the lush pastures, which characterized this landscape during biblical times.

    The results of these excavations and surveys have been published on a regular basis in the popular press, in denominational media and in scientific journals. The final results are presently being published in a fourteen-volume series of books, of which half have been published to date. Financial sponsors of the research, and especially of the publication effort, include Andrews University, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Geographic Society.

    Since 1996, Andrews University, in cooperation with the Department Antiquities of Jordan and the Village of Hisban, has undertaken to install pathways, viewing platforms and signs to make this important site accessible and understandable to visitors. The government has also erected a fence around the site to protect it from damage inflicted by flocks of grazing sheep and goats. Most important, a curriculum and teaching materials have been developed, in cooperation with a schoolteacher from the Hisban Schools, to teach the present-day village children about the site and its importance as a world heritage site.

Proposed goals of the 2001 Field Season at Tall Hisban

    The 2001 field season at Tall Hisban will build on previous work by the Madaba Plains Project at Tall Hisban, Tall al-Umayri and Tall Jalul and their surrounding hinterlands. To this end fieldwork will continue to be concerned with multi-millennial cycles of intensification and abatement in human settlement, land use and political integration in the greater Madaba region. However, whereas previous field seasons have favored the third, second and first millennia B.C., the 2001 season will focus attention on the first and second millennia A.D.

    All research on Transjordan's history and archaeology in the first and second millennia A.D. must begin with the premise that, politically, the region was an outpost--a secondary and more often a tertiary polity in the "the shadow of empire." Tall Hisban, therefore, presents a unique opportunity to study the manner in which a local rural region was administered by such first millennium A.D. empires as those of the Romans, Byzantines, and early Islamic caliphates of Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad, or those of the Egyptian Ayyubids and Mamluks and the Turkish Ottomans of the second millennium A.D. More precisely, there are five primary goals for the 2001 field season.

  1. Revisit excavation areas from which Abbasid pottery and objects were recovered during the original Heshbon Expedition in order to determine whether further excavation in these or adjacent areas might be productive in terms of finding occupational surfaces dating to this period.
  2. Continue excavation of the "Mamluk governor's palace" in order to further delineate its dimensions and occupational history and, in the process, to shed further light on the nature of Egyptian administration of this distant rural province of the Mamluk empire.
  3. Expand excavation of a cluster of Ottoman habitation caves near the site's summit as a means to learn how, and to what extent, the emergence and establishment, during the Ottoman period, of mercantile and industrial capitalism in Europe and beyond was reflected in the humble lives of shepherds and farmers in this remote corner of the empire.
  4. Elucidate in greater depth the survival strategies of the indigenous population in adapting to the widely fluctuating levels of intensity of local administration and regional integration, which has been the norm for this part of Transjordan throughout most of its history. In addition to the above mentioned excavation of habitation caves, which has proven to be a very significant source of information in this regard, various ethnohistorical and ethnoarchaeological inquiries concerned with documenting "indigenous hardiness structures" will also be carried out
  5. Continue soliciting input from various stakeholders in Tall Hisban's future on the best way to preserve, restore, and present the "Hisban story" to Jordanian school children, to the Jordanian public at large, and to foreign tourists. To this end interviews with representatives of various stakeholder groups, along with focus groups with certain of these same groups, will be undertaken in the course of the field season.

Proposed Methodology

    A hallmark of previous research at Tall Hisban and vicinity has been the development and application of food systems research as a means for operationalizing research on changes over time in patterns of settlement, land use, political organization and regional integration in the Madaba Plains region and beyond. This approach focuses attention on the complex unity of various synchronic and diachronic symbolic and instrumental processes involved in the quest for food and water, including how it is procured, distributed, stored, prepared, consumed and wasted. The methodology will continue to serve as the principal means of identifying and interpreting data pertinent to elucidating conditions "in the shadow of empire" as seen at Tall Hisban and vicinity throughout the late Classical, Islamic, and Ottoman centuries.

Proposal for Cultural and Environmental Heritage Education Center

    Given the depth of understanding about the history of this important site and its region that has been accumulated over the past three decades, and given its importance to Jews, Christians and Moslems as a cultural heritage site, Tall Hisban is a prime location for construction of a Cultural Heritage Education Center. Such a center would provide Jordanian citizens and foreign visitors with exhibits that would highlight important lessons about the past, which have been gleaned from the scientific studies of this site over the past three decades. Examples of such lessons include evidence that Jews, Christians and Moslems once lived together in peace in this place, and lessons reminding of ancient solutions to pressing problems in Jordan today, such as has been done already with Project Rainkeep.

    Since the land on which the site is located already belongs to the Department of Antiquities, and given that both the Village of Hisban and the Department of Antiquities are eager to develop the site for tourism, most of the pieces are in place to move forward with this vision. What remains now is for a preliminary plan to be drawn up that can be used as a basis for planning exhibits and exhibition areas. We are eager to involve our Jordanian partners in every phase of this work, which we plan to begin this summer.

Application Process

    All those who would like to participate in this excavation can contact Susan Oliver at 616 471 3273 or by email at for information and application forms.