When I tell people that I am traveling to Jordan for archaeological excavations they tend to respond in one of a couple ways. Some say, “Wow! That’s cool!” Others give a blank stare that communicates “huh?” Others say something like “Is it safe?” Each type of response is entirely understandable and I try respond genuinely to each one. Less often do I get to explain why I participate in archaeological digs, why archaeology is a fascinating endeavor, and how it contributes to our understanding of the past. So, I thought I would take a moment to do so before getting to my fall activities.
As far as I can tell, fascination in general is one of those human traits that is near universal. Fascination with the past, though not quite as widespread, is visible in historical fiction, the search for one’s ancestry, and in documentaries and TV series focused on famous events in the past. I might be odd, but I often find the past more fascinating than the present. For those who know me, that would likely confirm what they already knew…I live in the past. But I am willing to own that because I think the past, and what we think about the past, is crucially important in the present.
As I studied the Bible and ancient Near Eastern history in graduate school, I became more and more interested in what we could reasonably say about the history of ancient Israel and Judah. That interest grew as I realized that the cultures of these two ancient sociopolitical groups was very similar to the cultures of the surrounding groups. The main difference is that those other people did not leave behind a Bible. So, how to investigate them? That question was linked to other questions about how to understand the relationship between biblical texts and the material remains that archaeologists were excavating in the Holy Land. Do archaeological remains confirm or contradict the historiographical recollections presented in the Bible? Or is archaeology essentially neutral on such matters?
These questions and others spurred on my initial fascination with archaeology, but as I began participating in archaeological excavations, there were additional reasons to be fascinated. Think of it this way, every excavation is a mystery; you don’t know what you will uncover. And so, you have to pick and trowel carefully, looking for clues and hoping that you are careful enough not to destroy them along the way. When you do find something, even then you must work carefully, looking for clues to how and when the item was deposited. The mystery is always there with every layer you peel back. It is why one of my teammates—an 87 year old retired hospital administrator—has been participating in excavations in Israel and Jordan every summer since the mid-1970s!
What ancient texts don’t tell
Most people can understand at some level the interest that comes from not knowing what you might dig up. But, then there is the question, “Did you find anything?” This is a perfectly good question, and the fact is that every archaeologist is happy when they come up with an exciting and unique find. However, the reality is that much of what is uncovered is of an ordinary nature. So what’s the deal? Aren’t archaeologists just glorified treasure hunters? Indiana Jones was!
It might be nice to find a full-time job as a treasure hunter, or be independently wealthy so that you could embark on whatever adventures you want. But, that is not how academic archaeology works. I would argue that the academic pursuit of archaeology is less glamorous than treasure hunting in some ways, but more exciting in others. The excitement and interest is in the long-range gathering and analysis of material and the production of new knowledge about things that could not have been known in our time because they have been buried for thousands of years.
In the period of history that I work on—the Iron Age, ca. 1200–500 BCE—this knowledge is really important because we have very few texts describing it, and the ones that we do have (such as the Bible) are only concerned to recount very specific things that are largely focused on kings and temples. The material culture dug up in excavations tells a story that the texts cannot. Let me take one example. The Old Testament presents a story of frequent conflicts between ancient Israel and Judah on the one hand, and their neighbors (the Philistines, Aramaens, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, etc.) on the other hand. From these stories one might be tempted to think of ancient Israel and Judah as totally different from the surrounding peoples. That is where archaeology comes in with its own story. On the ground, there are some regional differences in material culture, but the similarities are much more striking. It would be like looking at the differences in material culture between Niagara Falls, USA and Niagara Falls, Canada. Sure you would find more Tim Horton’s in Canada, along with more metric rulers, but much else is the same. So, one basic thing that the archaeology of the Holy Land tells us that the texts don’t, is that the conflicts portrayed in the Bible are between closely related peoples, not between groups that are totally foreign to each other. Such conclusions open up further questions. Why were such closely related groups in conflict? How did they distinguish their own culture from those of their neighbors? Which aspects of individual, kin group, and political identity were important in making such distinctions? Who would be most interested in exploiting these distinctions? These and other questions emerge from the archaeology in a way that could never come from the texts, and these are the kind of questions that propel me to continue my archaeological pursuits.
Excavations at Khirbat al-Balu‘a 2017
This year’s excavations begin a new chapter for the team I am on. In the past, the team focused its seasons on a site close to Amman, Jordan. That site can no longer be excavated because it is on private land and the owners are no longer willing to allow excavations because it is thought to diminish the commercial value of the land. As a result, the team looked for another site and decided upon a site farther south called Khirbat al-Balu‘a. While the site had minor excavations in the past, it remains largely untouched. The remains date from the Bronze Age (3rd millennium BCE) down to the 19th c. CE and are scattered over a site of some 16 ha (40 acres) that overlooks a deeply cut wadi (seasonal river) that has remains of roads dating to the Iron Age, Roman Period, and even today. The strategic placement of the site along an overland thoroughfare, and the large amount of architecture visible on the surface, make it an ideal site for investigating the sociopolitical and economic history of the region.
Three five-by-five meter squares were laid out in strategic places on the site, one along what seems to be the outer defensive wall, one in a domestic area, and one alongside the remains of some kind of fort or citadel (called a qasr in Arabic). Each square had a small team of about five to six people working carefully to peel back the layers of dirt and rock in order to trace the different occupational levels of the site. Because the chronology of the site is not well-known, the efforts this season were designed to clarify occupational history of the structures we were working on, and specifically to find foundation trenches if possible. Like the foundation of your house or other modern buildings, foundations of ancient buildings were dug into the existing layers of dirt and rock and datable items such as pottery often fell in before they were backfilled. Uncovering such items allows a secure date of the earliest use of a building. Founding layers were uncovered in one of the squares along the outside of the outer defensive wall. Preliminary analysis of the pottery suggests a date in the early part of the Iron Age II (perhaps 10th or 9th century BCE). Pottery found at the qasr suggests a date in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BCE?), though founding levels were not reached. In future seasons, more attention will be given to these areas in order to more fully construct the occupational history of the site.
In addition to this brief summary of the dig, please also look at the dig updates, The BRAP Beat attached to my research page. There is more to come . . .