Roman and Byzantine Jordan

My 2007 undergraduate honours thesis, in summarised poster formatMy first archaeological field experiences were located in central Jordan, at Tall Jalul (2005) and Tall Hisban (2007), key sites within the collaborative and influential Madaba Plains Project. My undergraduate honours thesis focused on Hisban in the classical period, and it was through this work that I developed my passion for dynamics of life and interaction at the edges of the Roman Empire, including the production of hybrid cultures within this frontier zone. After moving to the UK for postgraduate studies that would more fully immerse me in the theoretical discourse of the Romanization debates, I shifted my regional focus to the north of Britain (see my Antonine Wall page for more details). Recently, however, I have returned to research and fieldwork in Jordan, and this is now allowing me to develop a long-term research objective centred on comparative studies within former Roman frontier zones.

My current Jordanian research focuses on the classical and late antique periods, particularly in the vicinity of Tall Hisban. I have been tasked with completing the synthetic report for the site’s Late Roman/Byzantine strata, and I am working with the project’s co-directors to prepare new excavations of one of the site’s three Byzantine churches for summer 2018. I have recently begun preparing a monograph, Hesban 8: The Diachronic Production of Place and Culture in Late Roman–Early Islamic Jordan, Hisban ca. AD 200–700, as part of the Hesban Final Publication Series, published by Andrews University Press. This will build upon previously unpublished excavation records, two unpublished PhD theses (i.e. Lawlor 1990; Storfjell 1983), and the results of carefully targeted new excavation and survey fieldwork.

Hisban 40th Anniversary Celebration, 2007Hisban, a small village and archaeological site in central Jordan, has much to offer studies of place and culture. First excavated in 1968, Hisban has been the focus of regular archaeological investigation for five decades, and this provides a rich database of the material remains of life in a modest settlement spanning more than three millennia. The primary focus of this research has been Tall Hisban, an ancient “tell” or artificial mound site that has been formed by the accumulation of successive settlements over many centuries or millennia. Tall Hisban was initially targeted for excavation in order to confirm the long-held suspicion that this was the site of biblical Heshbon, where the patriarch Moses is said to have defeated Sihon, king of the Amorites (Num 21:21-36), where the tribe of Reuben was settled (Num 32; Josh 13:15-28), and the pools of which Solomon compares to the beauty of his lover’s eyes (Song 7:4). Despite early disappointment that definitive evidence for the site’s biblical identity was not forthcoming, the project broke with and “reinvent[ed]” traditional “Biblical Archaeology” practice (Dever 2011) by remaining to work at the site for several more seasons (instead of abandoning the site due to its inability to “prove” the Biblical narrative), and adopting a regional, multi-period, and “new archaeology” approach that focused on anthropological and scientific aspects of archaeological enquiry. Perhaps the most enduring legacies of these initial excavations were the training of numerous now-prominent archaeologists who have gone on to direct many of the major archaeological projects in the region, and James Sauer’s (1973) production of the first multi-period Transjordanian ceramic chronology (emphasising the classical through Islamic periods), which has made Hisban the seminal type-site within the country.

Detailed analysis of the 1968–76 materials/records, and extensive modern ethnoarchaeological fieldwork through the late 1970s and ‘80s allowed Prof. Øystein S. LaBianca (1990; 1991) to develop a “food systems” approach to the site’s (and wider region’s) long-term development, identifying correlated cycles of intensification and abatement in agricultural production and sedentarization and nomadization in human settlement patterns over more than three millennia. This work has been widely influential, both across the region and beyond, with the concepts LaBianca developed at Hisban forming key recurring themes in Horden and Purcell’s (2000) landmark study of the Mediterranean. LaBianca has subsequently augmented his food systems research by seeking to identify the underlying causes of the peaks and troughs in agricultural and settlement intensity over the millennia, and this has been leading to a new Diachronic Cultural Production Model that interrogates the material record to balance local-level negotations between long-standing “little traditions” and imported and elite-driven “great traditions” brought to the area by successive imperial powers. As the Roman and Byzantine periods represent the most substantial rise in agricultural and settlement intensity, with a particular zenith within the Byzantine era, this research is of particular importance. I bring both a background within the Hisban project, and a wider theoretical and comparative perspective, notably in terms of my own reseach on archaeological place theory.

Aerial photo of the Hisban North ChurchProposed parts of the new volume will include: introduction and contextualisation (both regional and in terms of relevant research at the site and across the period); a detailed interpretation of the site’s stratigraphy, plan, structures, and material culture across the period (drawing on published and unpublished specialist studies); and a substantial critical evaluation of the complex interplay between globalizing supra-regional imperial cultural systems and long-standing local traditions, with an emphasis on both change and continuity as they can be observed within the site’s archaeological record and material culture. Throughout the volume, the focus will remain centred on the place and people of Hisban, but this will be examined in terms of Hisban’s context at several scales: local, regional, imperial, and in both the wider contexts of the former Roman and emerging Islamic empires in which Hisban found itself at the beginning and end of the period under investigation. Discussion of the central Byzantine period will emphasize the site’s three Christian basilicas (and, in particular, the imposition of the acropolis basilica over the location of a former pagan Roman temple), major public works such as the extensive water management and storage facilities, industrial and agricultural production, residential settlement, and burial practices.

Byzantine Hisban, portrayed on mosaics from nearby sitesThe transitions from Roman to Byzantine and Byzantine to Islamic will receive particular attention, and the site’s cultural production will be noted for the degrees to which it reproduces templates imposed from the top down but also creatively re-imagines both these imperial templates and former local traditions in hybridized manifestations of the global and local, drawing upon the remnants of material culture at multiple scales. This volume will not only provide the long-awaited full synthetic report for what may have been Hisban’s most significant period, but it will also present Hisban as the initial case study for a new and broadly applicable interpretive framework that is emerging from half a century of intensive research at the site.

I have also begun discussions with Prof. Bert de Vries (Calvin College, USA) about prospects for future fieldwork and research at Umm el-Jimal, the best-preserved Byzantine period town in the Southern Hauran (a volcanic plateau in southern Syria and northern Jordan). As the focus of two of the longest-running archaeological projects in Jordan, Umm el-Jimal and Hisban provide rich datasets for a comparative approach to late Roman and Byzantine rural towns in the near east.

Works Cited

  • Dever, W.G. (2011) Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Madaba Plains Project. In The Madaba Plains Project: Forty Years of Archaeological Research into Jordan’s Past, edited by Douglas R. Clark, Larry G. Herr, Øystein S. LaBianca, and Randall W. Younker, 69–78. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • LaBianca, Ø.S. (1990) Sedentarization and Nomadization: Food System Cycles in Hesban and Vicinity in Transjordan. Hesban Final Publication Series 1. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.
  • LaBianca, Ø.S. (1991) Food Systems Research: An Overview and a Case Study from Madaba Plains, Jordan. Food and Foodways 4: 221–235.
  • Lawlor, J.I. (1990) The Historical and Stratigraphic Significance of the Hesban North Church. PhD Thesis, Madison, NJ: Drew University.
  • Sauer, J.A. (1973) Heshbon Pottery 1971: A Preliminary Report on the Pottery from the 1971 Excavations at Tell Hesban. Andrews University Monographs 7. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University.
  • Storfjell, J.B. (1983) The Stratigraphy of Tell Hesban, Jordan in the Byzantine Period. PhD Thesis, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University.

Image Credits

  • A poster version of my 2007 undergraduate honours thesis, focusing on classical Hisban.
  • My own photo of the 40th Anniversary Celebrations at Tall Hisban, 2007.
  • Aerial drone photo of the Hisban North Church, courtesy of Ivan LaBianca.
  • Byzantine Hisban as portrayed in sixth and eighth century church mosaics at (left) Madaba and (right) Umm ar-Rasas. Photos courtesy of the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME) Project.

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This page was last updated on 6 November 2017.