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Archaeologists culminate 50-year Jordan project celebrations at La Sierra


RIVERSIDE, Calif. – When Seventh-day Adventist archaeologists first dug into the sandy soil of Central Jordan back in 1968, their goal was to find evidence of the ancient Old Testament town of Heshbon which was linked to the Israelite Exodus and conquest.

As they searched for verification of the biblical narrative, the archaeologists unwittingly laid the groundwork for an archaeological odyssey in Jordan that would span 50 years and beyond, along the way becoming a successful example of biblical archaeology’s metamorphosis and of its best practices.

Ultimately their work encompassed three sites — Tall Hisban, Tall al-‘Umayri, and Tall Jalul – which came to be collectively known as the Madaba Plains Project centered at Seventh-day Adventist institutions La Sierra University in California and Andrews University in Michigan. The sites have revealed substantive information about the region’s ancient civilizations and have contributed much to Central Jordan’s cultural heritage. Recently the founding archaeologists and their colleagues, students, dig team volunteers and supporters celebrated their work’s semicentennial during La Sierra University’s 10th Annual Archaeology Discovery Weekend. The event was themed “Reinventing Biblical Archaeology: Results after Excavating 50 Years in Central Jordan.”

Organized by the university’s Center for Near Easter Archaeology, archaeology weekend was held Nov. 10-11, 2018 and served as the culmination of celebrations held earlier in the year at Andrews University in Michigan, the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston, Walla Walla University in Washington, and during a July archaeology tour of Israel and Jordan.

La Sierra’s Archaeology Discovery Weekend was anchored by a series of lectures and panel discussions in the Troesh Conference Center of the Zapara School of Business featuring prominent archaeologists from La Sierra and eight other institutions in six states and Canada. They discussed key discoveries and knowledge gained during excavations at the three Madaba Plains Project sites which are situated on a highland plateau overlooking the Dead Sea between the cities of Madaba and Amman. 

Speakers included Professor of Archaeology and Biblical Backgrounds Tom Davis of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas; Susan Ackerman, president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and a professor in ancient religions at Dartmouth College, N.H.; William Dever, emeritus professor, and Beth Alpert Nakhai, professor, both of the University of Arizona;  Andrew Vaughn, executive director, American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston, Ma.; Østein LaBianca, professor of anthropology and Bob Bates, archaeology professor, both of Andrews University, Mich.; Larry Herr, professor emeritus, Burman University, Lacombe, Alberta, Canada; Kent Bramlett, associate professor of archaeology, La Sierra University; Monique Vincent, publications manager at La Sierra’s archaeology center; Doug Clark, archaeologist, former religion professor and director of La Sierra’s archaeology center; and Larry Geraty, archaeologist, former religion professor and president emeritus of La Sierra University.

The weekend also featured hands-on archaeological activities, a kids’ archaeological simulated dig, and Jordanian banquet.

Links to videos of the 10th Annual Archaeology Discovery Weekend lectures are available here: 

• Nov. 10:

• Nov. 11:

A link to in-depth histories and current work at the Madaba Plains Project sites is available here:

Tall Hisban, Tall al-‘Umayri, and Tall Jalulwere respectively initiated in 1968, 1984 and 1992 and over the years have attracted more than 2,200 archaeologists, students and volunteers throughout 56 collective dig seasons. Archaeology teams have unearthed Bronze and Iron Age remnants of major settlements, temples, a massive defense system, huge reservoirs and water systems, evidence of the biblical Ammonite and Moabite kingdoms, and many artifacts from later eras.


The first phase of work took place at Hisban between 1968 and 1976 and was founded by Siegfried H. Horn, a professor of Old Testament and the History of Antiquity at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. His team included Geraty, a Seventh-day Adventist Harvard University doctoral student who led later led two dig seasons at Hisban. Years later Geraty served as president of La Sierra University and as one of its Divinity School professors and archaeologists. He and La Sierra’s Clark are noted as among five founding members of the Madaba Plains Project.

While the first phase of Hisban excavations did not uncover the evidence archaeologists sought, their work led to greater discoveries than they anticipated. Later phases included the Hisban Cultural Heritage Project begun in 1996 aimed at making the site accessible to tourists. This phase was led by Andrews University’s LaBianca who gave a presentation on Hisban for La Sierra’s archaeology weekend. He has led teams of students and scholars in Hisban excavations the past 20 years.

Hisban proved to be an ancient crossroads of civilizations and empires of the eastern Mediterranean. Archaeologists unearthed evidences of multiple civilizations and empires from the time of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and beyond—a massive reservoir, a citadel, Roman acropolis, a Byzantine basilica and much more. One of the key finds at Hisban was a deep reservoir 17-by-17 meters square and eight meters deep. Archaeologists have hypothesized about its use including whether it was linked to royalty, LaBianca said.

The site provided a window into the daily lives of its inhabitants revealing fascinating insights into their food, livestock, buildings, places of worship. Among other things, it was discovered that Hisban functioned as a center for the industrial production of sugar in the valley. It also provided an opportunity for exploring European contact during the colonial period in later centuries.

“We in fact discovered there were many different periods. We had a Jewish past represented there, we had a Christian past there, a Muslim past, and yes, a local past,” said LaBianca.

Archaeology Reinvented

“The task in my view of reinventing biblical archaeology is to develop a more inclusive view of the past and see how that can also inform our understanding of the ancient time,” LaBianca said.

Biblical archaeology’s reinvention has also involved changes in the way excavations are planned and conducted. In past decades, digs were organized like military expeditions with all supplies provided from abroad and with limited community interaction, said LaBianca. At Hisban, archaeologists have reversed this approach and have formed partnerships with the local community to preserve and present the site.

“The way forward for archaeology in this part of the world … is what I call ‘community archaeology,’” LaBianca said. “We are not just telling the story the matters to us. We are telling a global history story, it’s an inclusive story that includes the story of the local people who live there today.

A Hisban Cultural Association was formed with local elders, and villagers have created dig site signs and white sand pathways for tours. Archaeologists have also strived to create a “local heritage economy,” LaBianca said, by contracting with local shops for such services as meal preparation. Site leaders are also working with the community to use old buildings as a museum in which to tell the site’s story.

LaBianca told the lecture audience of the establishment in 2018 of the ASOR Lawrence T. Geraty Community Archaeology Endowment to fund community-initiated projects toward caring for and presenting archaeological sites. Geraty’s many roles include serving as a past president for ASOR.

Following LaBianca’s talk on Hisban, Geraty and Herr spoke briefly about key points learned over 50 years of archaeology which included further insights into the Hisban dig. Geraty noted 12 primary lessons biblical archaeologists have incurred over the years including the need for detailed records, notes and publications, and the awareness that methods change over time with technology. Also, while archaeology does not prove the Bible true, it uncovers the context of the biblical history, which helps produce the best interpretation of the Bible, he said.


During this year’s Archaeology Discovery Weekend, La Sierra’s Kent Bramlett described how archaeology has incorporated technology at the 'Umayri site through use of aerial drones that take overhead photos and video of uncovered ancient settlements, ground-penetrating radar that can capture data about subsurface structures and objects, X-ray fluorescence laser technology that can analyze small fragments, and use of software that can build rotatable 3D models of the site using photographs.

Monique Vincent, a doctoral graduate of the University of Chicago and assistant history professor at Adventist institution Walla Walla University focused her dissertation research on the daily lives of the past ancient inhabitants of ‘Umayri site. “We can try to understand better the everyday practices that are taking place in the households and in the larger community at one particular point in time,” she said.

For instance, she noted the inequality of the size and style of construction between structures which correlated with the inequality of artifacts in the houses, suggesting socioeconomic disparities. Her analysis of bits of stone and pottery gave insight into what it meant to be a part of an emerging identity in the early Iron Age, she said.

Herr of Burman University, also an Adventist school, discussed the evidence discovered at ‘Umayri of wine production and of administrative activities. He showed a slide of the seal impression that bore the name of the Ammonite King Baalis as mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah 40:14. “That’s a way of putting the Bible together with archaeology—names,” Herr said.

Clark described efforts to preserve the cultural heritage of ‘Umayri and other Madaba Plains Project sites. Space at the museum in Madaba has been reserved for preservation and presentation of the ‘Umayri Late Bronze Age temple, he said. He also described progress in the development of the Archaeological Park West and the ongoing USAID-funded international effort he is spearheading to create a new museum which will house the Madaba Plains Project’s artifacts. Included in the park are a Byzantine church and palace and an Ottoman period settlement which will serve as the ground floor of the museum.

“This new museum stands to benefit all of us, and we’re doing it by developing community archaeology,” Clark said.


Horn and other organizers of Hisban were deeply disappointed with the lack of evidence at the site to support the biblical text. They decided to conduct a 5 kilometer radius survey of the area to determine the potential for discovering artifacts from the era in question, Geraty said in an introduction to a Jalul site presentation by LaBianca. “In the process we came across the major tell in Jalul, probably the largest, and it had all kinds of Bronze Age remains on it,” Geraty said.

Once the first phase of the Hisban site was finished in the 1970s, the team decided to move on to the Jalul tell site which is southwest of Amman. Before they left Hisban, the dig team experienced a brush with modern royalty.

Just as they were finishing a site cleanup, a helicopter approached and landed, blowing dust and dirt back onto the excavation area. “Out stepped King Hussein and he said, ‘I understand that you’re finishing you’re work here, give me tour of the site,’” said Geraty. After they showed the king around the dig site, Hussein asked how he could help their project. The archaeologists told him they were in need of aerial photos of the excavation but had not been able to secure permission from the nation’s air force. So King Hussein offered to fly the archaeologists with their camera over the Hisban site in his helicopter so they could take photos. He then offered to fly them over Jalul. “So we got our first aerial views of Jalul,” said Geraty.

Bates of Andrews University presented a lecture on a key find at the Jalul site — an 18-acre area dating to the Iron Age and roughly the size of a Walmart supercenter and parking lot. Bates, who excavated at Jalul in 2004, filled in for site director Andrews University Professor of Archaeology Randall Younker who was unable to attend the La Sierra archaeology weekend events.

At Jalul, archaeologists uncovered an acropolis with grain silos, temples, stables, and a large reservoir and water system dating from approximately 2500 BC. The massive reservoir was 25 meters wide, 30 meters long and 3 – 5 meters deep. It was able to hold approximately 750,000 gallons of water, large enough to function as an Olympic swimming pool with a 10-meter high diving board. It was significantly larger than a similar reservoir discovered at Hisban six miles away. Given the location of both reservoirs atop the tells, archaeologists decided it would be difficult to use the water they held for crop irrigation, leaving a gaping question — “Why in the Iron Age did they need so much water in these two places?” Bates asked.

A keynote with insights on the past, current, and evolving state of biblical archaeology, its contributions, and the work of archaeologists associated with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was given by Dever. Davis, Dever’s former student, also gave a keynote presentation on his work in New Testament biblical archaeology.

Fragile future

Dever, a former theology student and clergyman turned noted archaeologist, studied with renowned biblical archaeologist and pottery expert G. Ernest Wright. Dever specializes in the biblical history of Israel and the Near East and has lived and excavated in Israel and the Middle East for decades. He has known the Madaba Plains Project organizers for years as they have pursued excavations next door in Jordan and at times included Dever’s students in their digs.

Dever described the practice, evolution, and current challenges of archaeology and archaeological scholarship and education in Israel in comparison with the American conception of archaeology, and talked about the significant contributions of the Madaba Plains Project leadership and their teams.

“In the early 70s [the] Madaba Plains Project was beginning to do what I said we should be doing, and that is why I have been such an early supporter of the project,” Dever said.

American archaeological programs at major universities are drying up, according to Dever, with only three active institutions within the University of California system and in Chicago. However, “I want to brag on you,” he told the Madaba Plains Project archaeologists who are predominantly Seventh-day Adventist and based at Adventist archaeology programs. “You do, and you have done something nobody else even seems to imagine – you create jobs for your young people. You send them away and you bring them back. That’s where the future is, only there.”

He later noted that the future of biblical archaeology rests with the evangelical community. Dever, who has authored numerous books, said he wants to write a new one focused on the maturation of biblical archaeology after 150 years. “It isn’t about whether to use the Bible, but how to use it critically,” he said.

In Madaba, “you have been doing it right along,” Dever said. “Biblical archaeology is a small but very important part of the archaeology of the Southern Levant. …For most of us it is still the connection with the Bible.”

Go backward to go forward

Davis is a champion of New Testament biblical archaeology. For biblical archaeology to survive, communication must be maintained between professional archaeologists, and biblical scholars and historians, he said.

“The history of the Madaba Plains Project, which we celebrate this weekend, reflects this paradigm change in our field and exemplifies a successful multi-disciplinary approach integrating anthropology, archaeology, and ancillary fields,” Davis said.

New Testament archaeology was previously used to demonstrate classical literature and to build historical chronologies with entirely textual data, Davis said. It focused on site location and the world of Jesus. Early excavations of New Testament communities showed its further importance in establishing historical context. Its most well-known discoveries include the Pilate Stone, a block of carved limestone discovered at the Caesarea Maritima dig site by an Italian archaeological team in 1962. The stone’s inscription helped identify the accurate title of Pontius Pilate as a prefect of the Roman province of Judaea.

Present New Testament archaeology involves regional surveys, maritime archaeology, synagogue excavations and other research to better understand how First Century cities operated, Davis said.

“Only archaeology has revealed what a First Century synagogue actually looked like,” he said. “When one reads that Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue in Luke Chapter 5, we now have accurate archaeological information to create the setting and sense the intimacy of the physical space.”

“Biblical archaeology, if done correctly, can be vibrant, dynamic and contribute the best way forward,” Davis said. “Theologians don’t like it when I say it, but the only way we ever learn anything new about the Bible is through archaeology.”

A model for archaeology

A Saturday afternoon panel discussion with leading archaeologists centered on the contributions of the Madaba Plains Project excavations to the field of biblical archaeology.

“The Madaba Plains Project is the longest, continuously running American archaeological project in the Middle East,” Dever said. “It is, and probably has been, the best equipped project in the field.”

Ackerman lauded the Adventist archaeologists for their ability to change their research design and course when they didn’t find what they were looking for at Hisban during the beginning stages of what would become the Madaba Plains Project.

Nakhai of the University of Arizona noted five major achievements of the Madaba excavations and its archaeologists, scholars and dig teams including their incorporation of data and theory, contributions to local communities, and the training of future generations of biblical archaeologists.

 “I see the Madaba Plains Project as really a model for what archaeology should be,” said Vaughn, ASOR’s executive director. A shared cultural heritage can unite people of differing races and religions, he said, and could serve as a model for the United States, he said.

“I think this is a way that you are transforming the world. As a leader of ASOR I want to thank you for that work and showing us a model of how to continue to proceed in the years to come.”


This article was provided by Darla Martin Tucker and originally appeared on the La Sierra University website.

Image: Archaeologist Doug Clark, director of La Sierra's Center for Near Eastern Archaeology and a founder of the Madaba Plains Project presents an overview of the project's achievements over 50 years. Image courtesy of La Sierra University.

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