Biblical Archaeology of the Common Man

Deciphering Layers of History–Biblical Archaeology of the Common Man


Three thousand years ago, a man brought a flock of sheep to the pools at Heshbon. He took a drink of water from a clay jar, set it down, and went to tend to his sheep. When Øystein LaBianca uncovers that same jar, it isn’t in quite the same shape. It may be mixed in among a clutter of animal bones, oblong stones and beads. To most, this would be a perplexing pile of debris, but LaBianca can look at a field of seemingly insignificant artifacts and piece together a picture of daily life in Heshbon. By examining the little traditions woven through the shifting great traditions of passing civilizations, he can reconstruct the effects of over 3,000 years of history at Heshbon (now Hesban) that go back to the time of the biblical judges.

Examination of little traditions as a way to understand the broader scope of history was first used in South America and India, but LaBianca was one of the first to apply the method to sites in the Middle East.

Before the mid-1990s, Biblical archaeology was primarily concerned with finding artifacts that proved the Bible’s validity. Searching only for significant or impressive items, argues LaBianca, leaves out half the picture. While it is important to identify the migrations of large empires, these empires had traceable effects on the lives of farmers and nomads throughout the region. In the 1970s, Biblical archaeology began to examine the lifestyles of local residents to find both the influences of empires and those practices that remained the same over time. 

LaBianca began working with the Madaba Plains Project at Tell Hesban 30 years ago as part of his doctoral research. His thesis discussed the cycles of history in the Hesban area, expressed through the relatively recent food systems theory. This theory is a way of understanding the archaeological record through an analysis of the processes residents used to acquire food, water and security. “If you understand how people made their living and lived their daily lives,” says LaBianca, “suddenly you get interested in animal bones, pieces of pottery, all kinds of things that are essential to the daily lives of people.”

Food systems may indicate a boom or bust period, but does not explain the reason behind these economic fluctuations, an omission that may be explained through examination of great and little traditions. LaBianca cites the example of water transport as an intersection of food systems and great and little traditions. “Construction and maintenance of aqueducts requires labor and organization on a scale that only an elite ruling class can provide. Cisterns, on the other hand, can be built and maintained at the household level without a ruling class. Whereas great traditions involve universalized collective knowledge, little traditions are based solely on localized indigenous heritage and knowledge.”

LaBianca and his team of professors, graduate and undergraduate students spend five to six weeks every summer in Jordan, at the three Madaba Plains Project sites; Tell el-Umeiri under the direction of Randy Younker, Tell Jalul under the direction of Connie Gane, and Tell Hesban, where LaBianca works.

They work through the cool of the morning, when they pause for a second breakfast at nine o’clock, and resume work until midday. After lunch and a siesta, the team analyzes artifacts found that day, most of which are animal bones, shards of pottery, beads and earrings, some coins, and farming implements—remnants of the daily lives of Heshbon inhabitants throughout the centuries.

Their day begins at five in the morning with a light breakfast, and the archaeologists are at their sites by six. 

Lacey Barroso, LaBianca’s undergraduate research assistant and a junior anthropology major, spent last summer in Jordan. She sees research as necessary to those pursing a behavioral science degree: “Although we discussed interview techniques and excavation rules prior to departure, no amount of lecturing was able to grant the same amount of knowledge that experience in the field did.” And despite the fact that she was in “a different country with different people who have different cultural values, there were always familiar traits, beliefs and characteristics to latch on to. I rarely felt like an outsider and quickly considered Jordan my ‘home’ for the duration of my visit,” she says.

The Madaba Plains excavations contribute to a broader understanding of the history of Palestine as a whole. As vice president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), LaBianca works with teams of archaeologists across the country to reconstruct and understand the environment of the Ancient Near East. Sites throughout the Middle East work together to create a comprehensive picture of life throughout the ages.

Now this collaboration will become a visual representation of the entire Holy Land throughout time, available to the general public. The Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land (DAAHL)1 is a website that will combine interactive Google maps with scholarly research to create the first online digital atlas of the “cradle of humanity.” Site visitors will be able to watch representations of the rise and fall of empires while learning about their rulers and history, and explore characteristics and key finds of each archaeological period.

The Madaba Plains’ contribution to the DAAHL website will involve the efforts and talents of a wide range of professions—not only archaeologists to excavate, but artists to draw and interpret their finds, and photographers and videographers to chart and document progress. In order to bring these talents together, the newly established Jordan Field School has been created from a partnership between the Madaba Plains Project and Andrews University.

Much more than an excavation of old pottery, the work at Tall Hesban builds bridges between the past and present, the East and West, and results in intercultural relationships beneficial to both countries and deadly to stereotypes.

The Jordan Field School will offer classes in architecture, communication, behavioral sciences and anthropology, religion and history, which can be combined to fulfill degree requirements. LaBianca explains: “It’s more than just digging—it now includes film, photography, art, ethnography… The Jordan Field School is a way for faculty and students to work together on bridge building, as we meet people in other cultures and come to learn about their way of life.”

But the Field School is much more than just a tour. Its long-term goals include academic training for Jordanian students, English classes for local residents, and a lasting partnership with the community and nation of Jordan to improve the long-term economic and social wellbeing of the area. Andrews University faculty and students quickly become a part of the Jordanian community, staying in locals’ homes and building friendships that last for years. “There’s a sense that we’ve become one of the family, the ajarma. The Jordanian people are memorable for their hospitality and willingness to embrace us as individuals regardless of the politics.”

These friendships and on-site partnerships make cultural ambassadors of the faculty and students, says LaBianca. He quotes the words of Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” The Field School works closely with local archaeologists and maintains respect for the host country, two practices still relatively uncommon in Middle Eastern excavations that result in an intersection of international development
and archaeology.


All photos courtesy of Jordan Field School