Report on the 1996 Field Season of the Madaba Plains Project

By: Oystein S. LaBianca, Larry G. Herr, Randall W. Younker, Lawrence T. Geraty, Douglas R. Clark

The 1996 season of the Madaba Plains Project (MPP) consisted of seven weeks of fieldwork carried out between June 16 and July 31, 1996. In addition to continued excavations and sub-surface mapping endeavors at Tall al 'Umayri and Tall Jalul, restoration of Tall Hisban as a tourism site was also begun. A variety of surveys and probes were also carried out in the hinterlands of all three sites, including a palaeoenvironmental survey of the Azraq and Wadi Hisban basins; an epigraphic survey of the desert to the east of the project area; a random-square survey in the region within a five km radius of Tall Hisban; and excavation of a Hellenistic farmstead. Project Rainkeep--a study of recent efforts to restore surface water collection practices in the project area--was also continued.

As in previous seasons, the overall research objective of MPP has aimed at illuminating the multi-millennial cycles of intensification and abatement in human settlement and landuse in the greater Madaba region. To this end, research has focused on discovering further details about their nature, particularly with reference to those which occurred during the third, second and first millennia BCE; on uncovering more about their causes and consequences; and on understanding the course of their unfolding through time. We turn next to reporting on how these general concerns have been addressed by the major research teams making up the project: the 'Umayri Project; the Jalul Project; and the Hinterland Project.

Tall al-'Umayri

The sixth season of excavation at Tall al-`Umayri, about 10 km south of the Seventh Circle on the Airport Highway, uncovered remains from three different cities. The first dates to the foundation of the site around 3000 BCE; the second comes from the beginning of kingship in Jordan when local tribal groups were beginning to settle down around 1200 BCE; and the last dates to the end of the ancient Ammonite monarchy when Babylon was in control of the region.

Early Bronze Age. The earliest settlement dates to the Early Bronze Age, around 3000 BCE, when a dolmen was constructed at the base of the site. Over 20 burials were found in it during excavations in 1994. This season archaeologists found seven floors, one on top of the other, immediately outside the dolmen that date to the same time period as the burials. This shows that the people living at the site celebrated funerary rites at the dolmen long after the burials had begun.

Iron I. The Iron I settlement has been under excavation for a period extending back to 1984. In previous seasons the team began uncovering part of the best preserved site from the early Iron Age (about 1200 BCE) found anywhere in Palestine. This season more of that city was exposed, including more of the city wall and associated houses. The city wall now extends for about 30 meters and more will be found in succeeding seasons of excavations. At its southern end the wall curves into the site, suggesting that a gate may be found there. The cultural finds suggest a simple people with a limited repertoire of pottery and objects, reflecting the settlement of local tribal groups. The city was destroyed in the early 12th century BCE. On top of the destruction, which accumulated to over 2 meters in depth, was a small storeroom with 18 large jars that included grape and olive seeds. The jars date to the 11th century BCE.

Late Iron II. A large complex of buildings from the ancient Ammonite kingdom of about 550 BCE administered scores of rural sites that were dedicated to wine production in the hills around Tall al-`Umayri. This season the largest room of the administrative center was uncovered, complete with three levels of plastered floors. The room was so large that it was probably an open courtyard. But because no domestic objects were found on the floors and the broken pieces of pottery on and just above the floors were consistently of a very fine quality, the excavators suggest the building was not a private residence. Many of the walls from this administrative center contained very large stones, typical of the ancient Ammonite monarchy.

Ground Penetrating Radar. Also part of the 1996 MPP season, the sub-surface mapping team continued investigations utilizing Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) at `Umayri. With the aid of a 400 MHz transceiver, they completed a GPR survey of the southern and northern perimeters of the tell. This represents an effort to clarify, if possible, the Iron I wall system and determine if what we have defined as a "casemate" or "proto-casemate" wall on the western escarpment can be traced farther around the town.

Tall Jalul

Excavations at Jalul, located 5 km east of Madaba, were conducted in four Fields (A, B, C, and D) and uncovered remains from the Early Iron II to the Late Iron II and Persian periods (9th to 5th centuries BCE).

Early Iron II (10th/9th centuries BCE). Architectural remains from the early Iron II were exposed in Field B (east side of the tell) where in previous seasons a paved approach ramp and the foundations of a small, outer gatehouse to the ancient city were found. This season, additional flagstones from this period were found between the outer gatehouse and what appears to be the threshold of the inner gatehouse of the 10th/9th centuries BCE. Stratigraphic evidence suggests that this gateway's entrance was resurfaced with flagstones at least four times during the early Iron II period. The inner gatehouse was marked by a north-south line of several large foundation stones which could be part of a chamber or tower of the outer gatehouse. As noted from previous seasons, the remains of this early Iron II gateway were founded directly upon a massive, ashy debris layer that contained mostly Iron I pottery including typical collared-rim jars and carinated bowls. Some forms, however, could date as late as the early Iron II. This debris layer appears to be at least 1 meter thick, suggesting a massive destruction of the site near the Iron I/II transition period.

Iron II (9th/8th centuries BCE). This season evidence was uncovered to suggest that part of the gateway of the early Iron II period was rebuilt, perhaps a century or so after the original early Iron II gateway was constructed. While it appears that the lower portion of the paved approach ramp continued to be used with this later gateway, the original, small outer gatehouse was replaced by a larger one, slightly to the south. Only four stones of this new gatehouse survive--two large foundation stones of the northeast pylon, and two paving stones at the threshold. Between this new outer gatehouse and the area where the inner gatehouse appears to have been located was a stretch a light gray clay that appears to have served as a roadbed for the gate's entrance as it passed between the two gatehouses. In places, this roadbed was covered with crushed nari, plaster, or flagstones. Near the threshold of the inner gatehouse, it appears that the builders decided again to reuse the pavement of the early Iron II gatehouse as they had further down slope below the outer gatehouse.

Late Iron II (8th/7th centuries BCE). The entire gateway system was reconstructed sometime during the middle of the Iron II period, perhaps during the 8th century since no typical late Iron II pottery forms were found under its flagstones and retaining walls. The approach ramp of this gate follows the same line as the original early Iron II gateway. Pavers from this later gateway could be traced in places through the threshold of the inner gatehouse, although only a few large stones have survived from the inner gatehouse, itself.

In Field A on the north side of the tell a large "tripartite building," dating to this same period, was uncovered. Although badly damaged from later Persian period activity, parts of all four walls of this large building could be traced. Indeed, the west wall has survived completely intact. Typical of tripartite buildings, the two side rooms of this building run the entire length of the building and were paved with flagstones. The floor of the long central room, however, was made of packed earth. The roof was supported by two parallel rows of stone pillars, most of which had fallen over toward the north. A number of fine clay figurines were found in this building which included both human and animal forms. The animal forms included the typical horse-and-rider figurines. One particularly interesting human figurine appeared to wear a headdress that reflected Egyptian styles.

Also from this period were found a couple of engraved seals. The most interesting was written in an Ammonite script typical of the 7th century BCE. The inscription read "belonging to Naqab, son of Zedekel." Both of the names have been found on other Ammonite seals. The presence of this seal might suggest that the border of the Ammonites during the latter part of the Iron Age extended as far south as Madaba.

Late Iron II/Persian (6th-5th centuries BCE). Remains from the late Iron II/Persian period were excavated in both Fields C and D this season. In Field D a number of wall lines were exposed which appear to belong to domestic structures. Large quantities of bowl fragments typical of the late Iron II/Persian period were found in this vicinity, as well as a few figurines and a limestone cosmetic palette. In Field C a large Persian period building was uncovered. This building was supported by at least two and possibly three rows of stone pillars. The building was buried by roof collapse. Artifacts found in the ruins included a couple of incense altars, a stone roof roller, numerous basalt food preparation vessels, and a couple of iron tools.

Seismic Refraction. As at `Umayri, the MPP sub-surface mapping team also worked at Jalul, but used Seismic Refraction (SR) rather than GPR due to soil conditions. A 40-by-55-meter topographical depression 2-3 meters below the surrounding terrain on the eastern portion of Jalul was the subject of SR research. The depression may indicate the presence of a large water system. Analysis of results is still in process.

Hinterland Projects

Undertakings of the Hinterland team during the 1996 season included excavation of a Hellenistic farmstead (`Umayri Survey Site US 37); start-up of restoration efforts at Tall Hisban; initiation of the Hisban Random Square Survey; decipherment of a substantial portion of the Khirbat Rufeis cave inscription and discovery of over 40 Thamudic E texts by the Eastern Desert Epigraphical Survey; recovery of an important Palaeolithic kill and butchering site in the Azraq region by the Environmental Survey team; delineation of the indigenous knowledge involved in cistern construction and maintenance by the Ethnoarchaeology Team; and capture, by means of digital videography, of a wide range of visual material pertinent to telling the story of Jordan's indigenous people.

'Umayri Survey Site 37. `Umayri Survey Site US 37 (Rujm Miriam) is one of numerous food production and processing sites documented by the survey over the past decade. Situated mid-slope and overlooking the upper reaches of the Wadi al Bunayat, Rujm Miriam consists in a central rectilinear structure and assorted other features: terraces (one of which is contiguous with the structure's southern wall); four cisterns (three in use); a cave complex with stepped entrance (a cistern in antiquity); and numerous stone piles. Excavation of the farmstead revealed the 16.5-by-13.7-meter central structure which consisted of a single, roofed long room fronted by a substantial, partially paved courtyard. It was protected on two sides by the continuation of its massive 2-meter-wide external walls and on the third side by a low running wall or fence. Ceramics place the construction and abandonment of the building in the Hellenistic period and join with the architecture to suggest non-domestic utilization, possibly as an agricultural produce collection depot. Precise determination of its function and its relation to two other Hellenistic rural structures excavated by the Madaba Plains Project (Rujm Salim and al Drayjat) await further analysis. Artifactual finds were meager but imply an orderly abandonment of the structure after a relatively brief period of occupation. Its well built terraces remained in tact, but the structure was never again used except as a source for building material.

Restoration of Tall Hisban. One of the major goals of the 1996 season was to start the cleaning and restoration of Tall Hisban. This site, which was excavated by Andrews University archaeologists between 1968 and 1976, had deteriorated greatly since the last season of fieldwork twenty years ago. As the site is important both because of its historic role in the development of archaeology in Jordan and because of its ruins--which span more than three millennia--such a project was badly needed. The project benefitted greatly from strong support from Dr. Ghazi Bisheh of the Department of Antiquities and the Mayor of the Village of Hisban.

The cleaning effort included tearing down of balks in Areas A, B and D and removal of rubble, stones and boulders to bring back into view exemplary Iron Age, Classical and Islamic installations and features. A number of pathways and steps were also constructed to guide visitors from the parking area up to and around the tell. Also, interpretive platforms--equipped with signs in Arabic and English--were constructed in areas over-looking various ruins. Thanks to assistance from the Department of Public Work, signs directing motorists coming from Madaba and Amman to the tell were also erected. A special effort was made to obtain local participation in the project, including numerous meetings with the mayor; use of village boys as laborers; use of the services of the local iron smith; and training of a local guide.

The Hisban Random Square Survey. A total of 49 out of 100 randomly selected 200-by-200-meter squares were examined out of nearly 2000 such squares within a five-kilometer radius of Tall Hisban. Twenty new sites were discovered, despite the fact that the region had already been explored by the Heshbon Survey. An important finding of the survey is that, due to centuries and millennia of intensive landuse, sites appear to be grossly under-represented in the plains region. This is no doubt due to the greater intensity with which ruins and artifacts in these fertile regions were destroyed by intensive landuse and settlement activity. The two most visible periods, as far as pottery remains are concerned, continue to be Iron II and Byzantine.

The Eastern Desert Epigraphical Survey. The primary objective of this survey was to explore the desert regions east of the Desert Highway for any epigraphic remains of Pre-Islamic Arabian inscriptions. A major reason for mounting this survey was the hope that texts might be found which could be helpful in explicating the signs and possible graffiti from the cave at Khirbet Rufeisah near Yadudah (which was originally discovered in 1992). Even though the survey lasted only about ten days, from July 15 to 26, it succeeded in finding 40 or more Thamudic ("E") texts. In addition, numerous wasum or tribal marks were also found throughout the survey area, many of which are identical to those found in the Khirbet Rufeisah cave. The team is now fairly certain that the wall of the cave initially contained a few Thamudic texts that were later imitated by subsequent generations which also enlarged some of the marks and corrupted others by adding marks to transform them into wasum.

The Environmental Survey. Perhaps the most important discovery of the 1996 field season as far as the Hinterland Team is concerned was the location, by the environmental survey team, of a new palaeolithic site in Azraq. This was a serendipitous find, as the team had not gone to Azraq to look for such a site, but rather to search for a suitable wetland location to collect pollen cores for use in ascertaining changes in the local environment throughout past ages. After three days of intensive, controlled surface collection, the team recovered over 500 pieces of worked stone and faunal material.

The collection consists of nearly 100 bifaces, numerous unifacial flake tools, blades, points, and debitage. Preliminary indications are that the complete collection contains material from the Acheulian and the Epipalaeolithic. Additional indications are that it contains Neolithic, Middle Palaeolithic and Late Acheulian components. The oasis appears to have been a kill and butchering site, judging from the high proportion of killing and butchering tools in the assemblage.

Project Rainkeep. Now in its third season, Project Rainkeep is an initiative of MPP to encourage restoration of ancient abandoned cisterns, of which hundreds have been located by the Hinterland Team inside the project area. Thanks to funding provided by the Canadian Government, ADRA-Jordan (MPP's partner in this effort) was able to restore over 30 cisterns between the 1994 and 1996 field seasons. In order to lay the groundwork for expanding this project, an evaluation was undertaken by members of the hinterland survey. The results of this evaluation were shared with ADRA-Jordan personnel. A number of recommendations were offered for improving the design of the project as it continues to expand.

About the Authors

Oystein S. LaBianca is a professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Andrews University. He has been working in Jordan with the Madaba Plains Project since 1971, and has been the director of Hinterland Survey since 1984. Correspondence may be sent to the Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104, or by email: Oystein LaBianca --

Larry G. Herr is a professor in the Department of Religion at Canadian Union College. His work with the Madaba Plains Project dates back to 1971 when he excavated at Tall Hisban in central Jordan. Since 1984, Larry has directed the excavations at Tall al-`Umayri, 12 km. south of Amman, Jordan, and serves as co-director of the larger project. He can be reached at: Religion Department, Canadian Union College, 235 College Avenue, College Heights, AB, Canada T4L 2E5; phone: (403) 782-3381; or by email: Larry Herr --

Randall W. Younker is Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University where he is also an assistant professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology . He has been on the staff of the Madaba Plains Project since 1984; currently he serves as a co-director of the project and as director of the Tall Jalul excavations, 5 km. east of Madaba, Jordan. He may be reached at: Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, 49104; phone: (616)-471-3273; or by email: Randy Younker --

Lawrence T. Geraty is President of La Sierra University in Riverside, California. His work with the Madaba Plains Project dates to its inception in the late sixties, having excavated at Tall Hisban through its first three seasons, then directing the expedition in 1974 and 1976. Since then, he has been the senior project director. Correspondence may be directed to: La Sierra University, 4700 Pierce St., Riverside, CA 92515; phone: (909) 785-2000; or email: Larry Geraty --

Douglas R. Clark is Professor of Biblical Studies and Archaeology and Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla College in Washington State. He began excavation with Siegfried Horn at Tall Hisban in 1973, has worked at Tall al-`Umayri starting in 1984 and, since the mid-eighties, has served as Consortium Director of the project. Correspondence may be directed to: School of Theology, Walla Walla College, College Place, WA 99324; by phone: (509) 527-2194; or by email: Doug Clark --