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Neighbors Joining the Jordanian Dig


Øystein LaBianca, professor of anthropology and associate director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University, has spent most of the last 50 summers digging for the past at archaeological sites in Jordan. Recently his efforts have led to more and more community engagement, as the local people near the Tall Hisban dig become more invested in the project. In this interview, he talks about the local women who have created a catering business, and more.

Question: You have been very involved in an ongoing archaeological dig in Tall Hisban, Jordan. Getting the local community involved in archaeological sites has been a major focus for you, I believe. Can you tell us how the local community has gotten involved in the dig in Hisban?

First thing, from the very beginning, back in 1968 when Siegfried Horn started the work in Tall Hisban, he made it a point to meet with all the elders of the village and get to know them personally. These elders would come and actually preside over the dig, while their younger relatives, the young men, would come and work. These elders were also present during payday. There was constant interaction with the elders throughout the project.

In those days the local population who we saw and met with were entirely male. We never saw any women. The workers were mostly young boys and some strong young men who worked as laborers. They did some excavating with hoes and picks, and also learned how to do more careful stratospheric digging. Our trained people would do the more refined archaeological work and all the recording that goes with it.

So in the old days the village provided labor and we paid for that labor. But the local people had no ownership.

The site of Tall Hisban itself belongs to the government of Jordan. There is a fence around it. It is not the property of the village at all.

But when we are not there, no one is there. And the site can become a free-for-all, because it is no one’s private property and there is no one there looking after it. Jordan’s Department of Antiquity has more than 30,000 sites to look after, so it’s not possible for them to watch over each one.

After every dig we worked on in Tall Hisban, big holes would be left. It was not a safe place for animals and children.

How did the team led by Andrews University first start on this dig?

The original project in 1968 was an expedition to look for the biblical place called Heshbon (the Hebrew name). Now the place is called by its Arabic name, Hisban. 

It’s important to remember the origins of this project, because we started the work just one year after the Six Days War in 1967, when Israel took control of the West Bank. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and ended up migrating to Jordan. There was great tension between the state of Israel and Jordan, and the Palestinians were the victims in this tension. 

We came to Hisban to look for the biblical past. But that goal was controversial in the village, because the local people were afraid that if we found something important, the Israelis would have an excuse to come and take that land, too. The seminary professors from Andrews were there to explore the Bible — not to advance a national agenda of Israel. But the local people saw the state of Israel as using archaeology for their own goals. 

After five seasons of work at the site, it was determined that it did not have much to say about the earliest period. We were looking for evidence of the Heshbon mentioned in Numbers 21, as the city of the Amorite king — the king who refused to let the Israelites pass through his land even after they asked nicely — that the Israelites under Moses conquered. That was what we came for — but found no evidence.

Other things were found, however, that were relevant to the Bible, like a big reservoir that could be the “fishpools in Heshbon” that Song of Solomon compares to the eyes of a beautiful woman.

Lots of things were also found from the time of Christ, including a rolling-stone tomb in a nearby cemetery.

How long is a season?

About three weeks long. This year, our season will be from May 27 to June 21.

But the work at the site has not continued every year from 1968 until now?

We ended our work there in 1976 and it fell to the Jordanian government to protect the site. But there was no intervention by the government and the place basically became a wilderness again. It was used by shepherds and basically fell apart.

When did you first get involved with the project?

I joined the project in 1971. I was there from the second season of fieldwork and was there for the third, fourth and fifth seasons. My role was as the anthropologist and ethnographer on the project. I ended up doing a reconstruction of the daily life of the people who had inhabited that area during the biblical era. That was a connection point for the village people. They were interested in my work. 

After five seasons, we ended up moving to another site looking for the earlier periods and I followed along with that for 20 years.

But then in 1996 I visited Hisban again and saw how it was in shambles. I said I would really like to bring this site back and make it accessible. Andrews University was happy for us to go back to the site, and provided some funding. 

By this point I had become convinced that the only way for the site to become sustainable was to involve the whole village. So that is when we started a whole new way of doing archaeology. We hired not just local workers, but also local students. By this time, many were in college. There was a change of culture and mindset.

Now altogether, we have done over 24 field seasons at the site, between the original project and current one.

Tell us more about how you got the local community involved. 

It started because I was interested in learning about the daily life of the village. That evolved into a connection where they could see why they should be more than just workers.

One of my specialties is actually the study of animal bones from archaeological sites: I can identify the bones of ancient horses, mules, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, cats, dogs, doves, and chickens. This is important because in the village the people still rely on these same animals. This was a connection I had with the village that the people who were looking for ancient pottery shards and other traditional archaeological finds didn’t have.

As I became more and more interested in the village, I began to do ethnographic work. I started to learn about Hisban practices, including agriculture and local food production. This was very important for learning about ancient food production. 

I wanted to know how people in ancient times produced their food. What types of crops did they grow? My PhD dissertation was a study of long-term changes in patterns of provisioning food at Hisban, and how these changes impacted the archaeological record of the site. This line of inquiry helped us to find a new narrative that was less threatening and more inclusive for the local people. 

How did you come up with the idea of asking the Hisban Women’s Association to help with feeding the workers during the digs?

When we started the second phase in 1996, we looked for local groups we could partner with. Together with Elena Maria Ronza, now a co-director of the work at Hisban, we worked with local stakeholders to establish an NGO called the Hisban Cultural Association. They became a voice for the local people. And, being mostly men, that group introduced us to the local women’s association. 

The Hisban Women’s Association let us know that they were interested in providing food. At first, we paid them to give all of us who were working on the dig what was called a second breakfast. Then in 2018 they began providing lunch. They did a really good job with that. They fed lunch to 50 people every day, and we got the best of local cooking. 

The food was healthy, and much of it was vegetarian. We had lots of salads with cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables, as well as rice with every meal. We had mejadra (a rice and lentil dish with crispy fried onions) every week. Sometimes there was fried chicken. 

About 20 local women were involved in providing the lunches. A committee planned the meals and then handed out assignments to all the women. Someone would go around and collect the food from the different houses and bring it to a central point. It was very well organized, and we were very impressed with their excellent hygiene. In every way, they did a really fine job. 

Before the Hisban Women’s Association started providing food, what did the diggers eat for lunch?

Before 2018, we were provided lunch by the hotel. Those were hotel meals. The hotel did not have a stake in the project. 

How are the women working to expand their business?

Now the women have taken the experience they gained by working with us, and now offer lunches to tourists who visit the area. A local travel agent helps get the word out that this option is available. This is an emerging business opportunity for the local women. Usually there is at least one carload of visitors every other day, and a bus once or twice a week. Most people are interested in seeing Hisban because of the biblical connection.

Now the women’s association is also looking at other entrepreneurial activities. They are trying to establish a farm market that will open a couple of days a week. 

A third project they are working on is marketing traditional plants and seeds that grow in the area. Some traditional recipes call for specific crops or plants that are not so common anymore. The women’s association is trying to save their local agricultural heritage.

How do these entrepreneurial activities help the work of archaeology?

The people who live near the Hisban site are becoming aware that this site can be a source of income.

The women’s association made close to $5,000 US dollars last year, and now they can sell food to tourist buses. 

But the tourists only come if there is something to see. So, the local people really have a stake in making sure the site is presentable and attractive to visitors.

We welcome that, and so does the government. The Jordanian government also recognizes that this sense of ownership is important.

The people who live there help us maintain the site, and also watch over the site and keep it from being vandalized, since it is a source of income for them.

Are there examples of similar successful community involvement at other archaeological sites?

I have served on the board of trustees for the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman for 20 years. Over the years, I have always been a champion for this kind of village engagement, and community archaeology. 

Elena Maria Ronza, the woman I mentioned earlier who worked with me in Hisban, lives near Petra and was hired by the American Center to help introduce our Hisban community engagement model to the work there — particularly focusing on involving local women in activities helping to restore the ancient ruins of Petra. There they are learning a wide range of skills, including how to assist architects with consolidation of ancient walls, how to improve the way outdoor exhibits are presented, and how to make pathways and stairs to facilitate navigation through the site. Recently the men and women of Petra have also been involved in restoring the ancient rainwater harvesting system of the place — repairing ancient terraces and agricultural fields. 

Visitors from USAID based at the American Embassy in Jordan were so impressed with this work that they decided to establish a new funding program, called SCHEP or Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project (USAID SCHEP) which today funds dozens of similar programs throughout Jordan. Together with several other local residents from Petra, Elena Maria Ronza has since gone on to form a corporation called Sela for Vocational Training and Protection of Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to improve training and working conditions for men and women who may not have higher education, but who live near archaeological sites and have a stake in their being well maintained. 

It’s wonderful to see what’s happening now with community engagement all over Jordan.

And we at Tall Hisban had a role in pioneering this trend. 

In the current Hisban project, can you tell us more about how Andrews University and Andrews students are involved?

The students and staff are involved in many ways. Yes, they learn archaeological methods in the project, but we also have many different disciplines participating, including architecture, agriculture, and history and community development. These students can all gain field experience in their discipline. Their professors come too and can teach simultaneously. A student earns six credits for coming for three weeks. 

In addition to serving as associate director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University, you are also professor of anthropology and served as chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences from 1982 until 1990. Does this focus on community involvement at archaeological sites marry your two fields of behavioral science and archaeology?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, I was chair of behavioral sciences from 1982 until 1990 and during that time I became convinced that we need more hands-on experience for our students. So, we took them to a local inner city and started a program to work with single-parent households. That made such an impact on students, I felt we needed to expand. I resigned as department chair and started the Andrews University master’s program in community and international development. We partnered with ADRA to do the same program all around the world.

I teach community development, so was able to bring the skills from this discipline into archaeology.

The first course I taught for ADRA workers around the world was Global Food Security. What I emphasized in my courses was what I had learned from my work in Jordan about resilience as a means to food security and sustainable livelihoods. I could take what I had learned about how people survived in hard times in Jordan, and apply this in my teaching about food security to students from all over the world. I had studied and researched this, so I could teach it.

You have been at Andrews for a long time. What have you most enjoyed about teaching there? 

I have had a wonderful run at Andrews. I’m now finishing my fourth decade — 40 years at this institution. The university has been singularly supportive of the research, and backed us every year when I organize another dig. There has been lots of support of archaeology at Andrews, and a wonderful team of administrative staff, teaching colleagues, and students to work with. 

Two-thirds of the tuition paid by students who go on the dig goes to help support the dig. That has been wonderful.  

And at Andrews University we have a wonderful museum and library.

We have a mission to illuminate the biblical past, but also to look at a more inclusive past — including Muslim history, which we can teach in Jordan, and now this work of community development, which is ultimately what we should be doing.

Would you do anything differently if you were beginning your career all over again?

If I had not been a professor I might have gone into international diplomacy or gone to work for an NGO. But I would have missed working with students and also the satisfaction which comes from a career devoted to the advancement of knowledge.  

What’s next? Do you have any exciting goals or projects you are working on?

I’m planning to go back to Jordan, continue to work with the women and on the excavations. We have over sixty participants signed up to join us — a team that includes over a dozen different nationalities and universities from around the world.

Right now we are working hard to create an online gateway for visitors to interact with Hisban. It will be available in Arabic and English. We want the local people to be able to see the fruits of decades of labor. 

We hope the portal will be up with something pretty exciting by this autumn. Lots of students are involved, and architecture students are helping to do reconstructions. It will be something amazing that people all over the world can interact with.

Another initiative that I look forward to championing is the newly established ASOR Lawrence T. Geraty Community Archaeology Endowment. The main purpose of this endowment is continuing to spur economic opportunity for local residents living near archaeological sites such as Tall Hisban. The target of annual distributions from the endowment during its first five years of giving will be various local community mobilization initiatives at Tall Hisban and other MPP sites, Tall al-`Umayri and Tall Jalul. In particular, we want to grow and expand the sort of initiatives that now are underway at Hisban that engage local residents by providing income-generating services to visitors. Other sites will become eligible after the initial years of distribution. I am pleased to share that we are now two-thirds on our way toward our initial target of $100,000 for this endowment. See more information about this important initiative and a way to give here.


Øystein LaBianca


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Main image: Tall Hisban from the air. Photo credit: APAAME, Robert H. Bewley, and Madaba Plains Project.


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