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 an example of biblical archaeology’s metamorphosis and 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 two Seventh-day Adventist institutions in the United States, 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.

At La Sierra University’s 10th Annual Archaeology Discovery Weekend, Andrews University professor of anthropology Østein LaBianca gives a presentation on the Hisban dig site in Jordan, the first of three excavations that came to be known as the Madaba Plains Project. Photo by La Sierra University News

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 Eastern Archaeology, the archaeology weekend was held November 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 (ASOR) in Boston, Walla Walla University in Washington State, and during a July archaeology tour of Israel and Jordan.

Tall Hisban, Tall al-’Umayri, and Tall Jalul were 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.

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,” said Andrews University professor of anthropology Østein LaBianca.

An attendee of La Sierra University’s 10th Annual Archaeology Discovery Weekend views a display of ancient artifacts at the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology. The archaeology weekend was held November 10-11, 2018. Photo by La Sierra University News

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, LaBianca said. At Hisban, the first excavated site, archaeologists have reversed this approach and 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 that 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.”

Fragile Future

Bill 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,” he said.

American archaeological programs at major universities are drying up, according to Dever, with only three active institutions, two within the University of California system and one in Chicago. “I want to brag on you,” he told the Madaba Plains Project archaeologists, who are predominantly Seventh-day Adventists 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 all 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.”

A Model for Archaeology

A Saturday (Sabbath) 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.”

ASOR president Susan Ackerman lauded the Adventist archaeologists for their ability to change their research design and course during the beginning stages of what would become the Madaba Plains Project.

Beth Alpert 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 Andy Vaughn, ASOR’s executive director. A shared cultural heritage can unite people of different races and religions, he said, and could serve as a model for the United States.

“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.”

The original version of this story was posted on the La Sierra University news site.

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