Reports From the Field
Tall Hisban Excavations, 2013 Field Season
Week Two (May 26-30)
The second week of a brief three-week field season is the most “excavation-heavy”, with less time spent on logistics and all efforts channeled into achieving our research goals. It was a very eventful and productive seven days. The week also brought to the site many visitors: old friends (Dr. Robin Brown and Prof. Tom Parker of North Carolina State University, both members of the original Heshbon Expedition of the 1970s, and Prof. Debra Foran, Director the Madaba Excavations, and her students from Wilfred Laurier University, Canada), officials and local dignitaries (representatives from the Madaba District Department of Agriculture and Dr. Mohammad Safa al-Nabulsi), and tourists (two bus loads from China and South Korea).
There is no doubt about it: the site is a massive rock pile. With an occupational history that spans the Paleolithic through modern times, and a ready quarry of limestone in the tell itself, excavation at Tall Hisban is complicated by the tumble of overburden created by collapsed vaults, ceilings, and walls; centuries of erosion; and repeated earthquake damage. In spite of this, this week we managed to reach post-collapse levels, beginning to clarify architecture and the organization of space across the slopes of the tell in the process. In some cases we reached plastered floors and other beaten earth surfaces, which produced evidence of a range of domestic and pastoral activities. Studying the room of a Byzantine building at the top of the reservoir was challenged by the discovery of three large pits there – the evidence of successive use of the building for medieval trash. This week we also gained some knowledge about possible ancient agricultural terracing, the interconnectedness of various water systems and their development over the centuries, the structure of Mamluk-era settlement at the site, and trade connections in the early 13th century CE. It is our hope to eventually be able to say something new about family and community structures at Hisban in the Middle Ages after this and forthcoming seasons.
The gradual transition to a completely digital world continued this week. Pottery readings have been integrated into our new Filemaker-based locus sheets (developed by Prof. Bob Bates of Andrews University), and we experimented with 3-D photography of the site through a combination of traditional cameras and aerial photos taken with the low-flying drone, each supported with special software.
Several smaller projects were initiated this week in support of the excavations, including ethnographic work in the village (interviews with families about their collective memories about the archaeological site, and with local herbal and spice merchants about the multi-sided use of local plants) and cave exploration (drawing floor plans of structures, investigating the connections with other caves and water systems, and documenting the built environment of cave-based architecture).
Monday and Wednesday evening lectures this week highlighted the work of our environmental team and artists. On Monday Chiara Corbino and Annette Hansen spoke about scientific approaches to the study of changing human-animal and human-plant relations, as well as the preliminary results of their bone and seed analysis at the site. On Wednesday Aris Legowski and Felicitas Weber (Egyptologists based at the University of Bonn and Swansea) gave a spirited, hands-on workshop on inscriptional drawings. The lectures of the previous week were presented in the same spirit: to introduce new methods and approaches in the study of the history of the site and its peoples. Sofia Laparidou’s Sunday lecture offered insight in the kinds of questions phytolith analysis can answer and how to sample soils for this kind of silicate plant fossil. Last Tuesday Sten LaBianca (Senior Director, Hisban Cultural Heritage Project) and I gave brief presentations to open the field school, addressing the topics of the conflicting narratives of Hisban’s history and the excavations’ contributions to current debates in Islamic historiography.
The weekend tours are an important component of the field school’s educational and cultural program. Friday found the team at the Dead Sea and the Bethany baptism site in the Jordan Valley, and Saturday we travelled to four of the Umayyad “desert castles” (Kharanah, Quseir Amra, Qasr Azraq, and Mshatta).
We are all feeling the pinch now of the impending end of season, and all of the report-writing, artifact processing, photography and drawing, and packing and shipping arrangements that go with it. With only three “dig days” left, and two more devoted to a variety of project-ending duties, our field season is flying quickly to a close.
Report submitted by Prof. Bethany Walker,
Director of Excavations