The Tall Hisban Cultural Heritage Project, Jordan

Tall Hisban is located in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the edge of the fertile highland overlooking Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea. It is about an hour’s drive south from Jordan’s capital city, Amman, and about fifteen minute’s north of Madaba—the “mosaic capital” of Jordan. From its summit, at ca 980m, the view of the surrounding landscape is breathtaking!

Archaeological exploration of Tall Hisban has proceeded in two phases. The first phase, under the banner of the Heshbon Expedition, began in 1968 and was completed in 1976 by a team of American archaeologists from Andrews University in Michigan, USA. As its name suggests, the primary concern of this first phase was with the site’s biblical connections. Pioneering research on ancient food systems and the ceramic chronology of the Islamic Era is another hallmark of the original Heshbon Expedition.

The second phase of explorations began in 1996 under the umbrella of the Madaba Plains Project, which also sponsors excavations at nearby Tall Umairy and Tall Jalul. Øystein S. LaBianca, guest researcher at UiB since 1998 and Professor of Anthropology at Andrews University and Bethany J. Walker, Associate Professor of History at Missouri State University, are co-directors of this second phase of research at the site. Known as the Tall Hisban Cultural Heritage Project, this second phase has had a much stronger historical and anthropological orientation. The primary concern has been to study the site’s global history connections through time-especially its association over the past four millennia with various expanding empires. A related interest has been the remarkable story of accommodation, resistance and survival of Hisban’s local inhabitants in the face of unabated cultural and political domination by foreign powers. This second phase has also emphasized clean-up and restoration of the Tall’s most important ruins and on making the site accessible and understandable to Jordanian and foreign visitors.

The scientific leadership and financial sponsorship for the archaeological explorations at Tall Hisban throughout both of these two phases have been provided by Andrews University’s Institute of Archaeology in Michigan in close cooperation with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the local residents of Hisban. Other sponsors have included the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society, the Research Council of Norway and the U. S. Department of State’s Ambassador’s Grant for Cultural Heritage Preservation.

Current Research

Over forty years of research at Tall Hisban has brought to light two closely intertwined stories. The first is the story of the march of empires through Jordan which have left their foot-prints in monumental buildings and finely crafted artifacts at this and hundreds of other archaeological sites throughout Jordan. The second is the story of deep-time local practices and daily life traditions that have enabled the ordinary men, women and children to survive and even thrive despite foreign domination by a succession of empires including the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Seleucids, Romans, Parthians, Sassanids, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, Franks, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, French, British, and Americans.

While the monumental buildings representing “the great traditions“ of particular ancient empires and civilizations are what typically attract tourists and scholars to Jordan’s most popular destinations, at Tall Hisban we have the opportunity to study and learn about the daily life practices or “little traditions” that have been critical to the survival of ordinary people throughout the millennia. These are practices that have come to light through nearly four decades of anthropological research on daily life at Hisban through the ages. Better known in the scholarly literature as “food systems research,” this type of investigation has shed new light on a number of traditional practices that, as it turns out, have played a key role in enabling the local population to accommodate and even out-last a long succession of imperial conquerors. The following are examples of such practices that we are currently studying at Hisban:

Local water harvesting and conservation. The ancients in Hisban were masters at collecting and managing rainwater. The hill of Hisban is honey-combed with cisterns and a large water reservoir is a prominent feature of its summit. And the hills surrounding the site preserve evidence of careful attention to water harvesting involving use of terraces, diversion dams, agricultural cisterns and reservoirs. An important line of current research therefore are efforts to trace the history of local and imperial water projects in the Hisban region.

Mixed agro-pastoralism. Most ancients in Hisban were subsistence farmers who depended primarily on dry-farming of cereals and legumes and on herding of sheep and goats for their daily sustenance. Analysis of animal bones and ancient seeds from Hisban tell us that this type of mixed agro-pastoralism was the mainstay of the local economy through centuries and millennia. Current research deploys political and ecological economy approaches as means to account for already documented cycles of intensification and abatement in the local food over the past four millennia.

Residential flexibility. The ancients in Hisban knew how to live in a traditional stone house, in caves, and in tents. They would shift back and forth between these types of dwellings depending on the season of the year and the type of farm work they had to accomplish. What was common to all three types of dwellings is that they were constructed using 100% local materials. An important focus of current research at Hisban is therefore how people in the past used local materials in constructing their shelters.

Fluid homelands and local commons. Most ordinary people in Hisban throughout the past did not own land privately, but had use-rights to lands held in common by their families and tribes. And what was considered common lands by one tribe might at times overlap with what was considered common lands by another. This fluidity of tribal homelands could lead to conflict (as in the case of Abraham’s and Lot’s herdsmen in the Bible). Current research is concerned with identifying the local and bureaucratic arrangements that structured the control of land throughout the past four millennia in Hisban.

Hospitality. The tradition of welcoming strangers which we call hospitality is very ancient in Jordan. Its deep-time history is attested, for example, in the practice of cutting sheep and goat meat into very small pieces—a practice that can be inferred from the study of animal bones from the earliest times. Hospitality is not only about good manners, however. It is also a means to building bonds of reciprocity which can be called upon in times of need; and it is a means to vital information about opportunities and threats of all kinds. Hospitality is something that Jordan and Jordanians continues to do very well, and at Hisban we continue to research the deep-time history of this important institution.

Honor and shame. The ancients in Hisban used honor and shame to manage social order in their local communities. While various foreign systems of law and order were at times imposed on the population by conquerors, the institutions of honor and shame remained a constant in the lives of the local population. At Hisban we are studying how this institution continues to function even into the present as a means to affirm right doing and punish neglect of duty.

Tribalism. Tribalism is social order based on genealogical affinity, whether real or fictitious. Along with the above locally controlled institutions of hospitality, honor and shame, the tribe is another deep-time institution in Hisban and Jordan which served as a primary source of identity and belonging for the local population. Throughout all of ancient and recent history in Hisban, the vast majority of individuals and families demonstrated primary allegiance to the clans and tribes to which they belonged. In return, these solidarities provided them with the rights to use of land and water, with protection, with spouses, and with a means to conflict resolution and security for the future. At Hisban we are studying the deep time history of tribes and tribalism as a means to individual and collective identity and solidarity in the face of imperial intervention and domination.

Selected Publications

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1984) Objectives, Procedures, and Findings of Ethnoarchaeological Research in the Vicinity of Hesban in Jordan. Amman, Jordan: Annual of the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan 28: 269-287, 482.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1985) The Return of the Nomad: An Analysis of the Process of Nomadization in Jordan. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 29: 251-254.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and Lacelle, L. eds. (1986) Hesban 2: Environmental Foundations: Studies of Climatical, Geological, Hydrological, and Phytological Conditions at Hesban and Vicinity. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1988) Sociocultural Anthropology and Syro-Palestinian Archaeology. Pp. 369-387. In Benchmarks in Time and Culture, eds. J. F. Drinkard Jr.; G. L. Mattingly; and J. M. Miller. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1990) Hesban 1: Sedentarization and Nomadization: Food System Cycles at Hesban and Vicinity in Transjordan. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1991) Food Systems Research: An Overview and a Case of Study from Madaba Plains, Jordan. Food and Foodways 4: 221-235.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1994a) The Heshbon Expedition: Retrospects and Prospects. In Hesban After 25 Years. Pp 301-312. Merling D. and Geraty, L.T., eds. Berrien Springs, MI: The Institute of Archaeology.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1994b) Everyday Life at Hesban Through the Centuries. Pp 197-209 In Hesban After 25 Years. Merling D. and Geraty, L.T., eds. Berrien Springs, MI: The Institute of Archaeology.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1994c) The Journey from Heshbon to Hesban: An Account of the Evolution of the Heshbon Expedition’s Scope of Research. Pp 25-37. In Hesban After 25 Years. Merling D. and Geraty, L.T., eds. Berrien Springs, MI: The Institute of Archaeology.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1994d) The Fluidity of Tribal Peoples in Central Transjordan: Four Millennia of Sedentarization and Nomadization on the Madaba Plains. 206-215. In Palva, H. & Vikor, K. S., eds. The Middle East-Unity and Diversity.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1995a) On-Site Water Retention Strategies: Solutions from the Past for Sealing with Jordan’s Present Water Crisis. In Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan V. D. Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 771-776.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and R.W. Younker (1995b) The Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom: The Archeology of Society in Late Bronze/Iron Age Transjordan (ca. 1400-500 BCE). In The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land. Levy, T.E., ed. 319-415. London: Leicester University Press.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and von den Driesch, A., eds. (1995) Hesban 13: The Faunal Remains: Taphonomical and Zooarchaeological Studies of the Animal Remains from Tell Hesban and Vicinity. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (1999) Salient Features of Iron Age Tribal Kingdoms. In Ancient Ammon. McDonald, B. and Younker, R.W. eds., New York: BRILL Academic Publishers.

LaBianca, Ø.S., Paul J. R. and Walker B. J. (2000). Madaba Plains Project, Tall Hisban, 1998. Andrews University Seminary Studies, 38 (1), 9-21.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and Walker B. J. (2001). Countering the Urban Bias in Islamic Studies: Final Report on MPP2001: Tall Hisban, Jordan. Newsletter of the American Center of Oriental Research, 13 (1), 3-4.

Walker, B. J. (2001a). The Late Ottoman Cemetery in Field L, Tall Hisban. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 322, 1-19.

Walker B. J. (2001b). Mamluk Administration of Transjordan: Recent Findings from Tall Hisban. al-‘Usur al-Wusta, 13 (2), 29-33.

Walker B. J. and LaBianca, Ø. S. (2003a). The Islamic Qusur of Tall Hisban: Preliminary Report on the 1998 and 2001 Seasons, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 47, 443-471.

Walker B. J. (2003b). Mamluk Investment in Southern Bilad al-Sham in the Fourteenth Century: The Case of Hisban. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 62 (3), 241-261.

Walker B. J. (2004). Mamluk Investment in the Transjordan: A ‘Boom and Bust’ Economy. Mamluk Studies Review, 8 (2), 119-147.

Walker B. J. and LaBianca, Ø. S. (2004). Tall Hisban, 2004 – An Investigation in Medieval Rural History. Newsletter of the American Center of Oriental Research, 16 (2), 1-3.

Walker B. J. and LaBianca, Ø. S. (2005). Tall Hisban. In Savage, S. H. Zamora, K. A. and Keller D. R., eds., Archaeology in Jordan, 2004 Season (pp. 536-539). American Journal of Archaeology, 109 (3), 527-555.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and Scham, S.A. eds. (2006) Connectivity in Antiquity: Globalization as Long Term Historical Process. London: Equinox Publishers.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (2007a) Tells, Empires, and Civilizations: Investigating Historical Landscapes in the Ancient near East. Near Eastern Archaeology 69 (1): 4-11.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (2007b). Thinking Globally and also Locally: Anthropology, History and Archaeology in the Study of Jordan’s Past. In Levy, T.E. et al. eds., in North American Contributions to the Archaeology of Jordan (pp. 3-14). London, England: Equinox.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (2007c). Great and Little Traditions: A Framework for Studying Cultural Interaction through the Ages in Jordan. In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, 9, 275-89. Amman, Jordan: Department of Antiquities.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and Walker, B. J. (2007d). Tell Hesban: Palimpsest of Great and Little Traditions of Transjordan and the Ancient Near East. In Levy, T.E. et al., eds., in North American Contributions to the Archaeology of Jordan (pp. 111-120). London, England: Equinox.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and Witzel, K. (2007). Nomads, Empires and Civilizations: Great and Little Traditions and the Historical Landscape of the Southern Levant. In van der Steen, E.J. and Saidel, B.A., eds., On the Fringe of Society: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives on Pastoral and Agricultural Societies (pp. 63-74). BAR International Series S1657, 1657. Oxford, England: Oxford University.

Walker, B. J. (2007a). Regional Markets and their Impact on Agriculture in Mamluk and Ottoman Transjordan. In van der Steen, E.J. and Saidel, B.A., eds., On the Fringe of Society: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives on Pastoral and Agricultural Societies (pp. 117-125). Oxford, England: BAR International Series 1657.

Walker B. J. (2007b). Transformation of the Agricultural Economy of Late Mamluk Jordan, Mamluk Studies Review, 11 (1), 1-27.

Walker B. J. (2008). The Role of Agriculture in Mamluk-Jordanian Power Relations, Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 57, 77-96.

Walker B. J. and LaBianca, Ø. S. (2008). Tall Hisban. In Savage, S. H., Keller D. R., and Tuttle C. A., eds., Archaeology in Jordan, 2007 Season (pp. 516-518). American Journal of Archaeology, 112 (3), 509-528.

Walker B. J. (2009a).  Identifying the Late Islamic period ceramically: Preliminary observations on Ottoman wares from central and northern Jordan. In Walker B.J., ed., Reflections of Empire: Archaeological and Ethnographic Studies on the Pottery of the Ottoman Levant (pp. 37-66). Boston, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.

Walker B. J. (2009b). The Tribal Dimension in Mamluk-Jordanian Relations. Mamluk Studies Review, 13 (1), 82-105.

Manger, L. and LaBianca, Ø. S., eds. (2009) Global Moments in the Levant: Tells, Text and Ethnography. Oslo, Norway: Bric.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (2009) Tall Hisban, Jordan: Window on the March of Empires and the Hardy People that Outlasted Them. In Global Moments in the Levant: Tells, Text and Ethnography. Manger, L and LaBianca Ø. S., eds., Oslo, Norway: Bric.

LaBianca, Ø. S., deVries.B. and Walker, B.J.. (2009) Imperial Projects in the Levant. In Global Moments in the Levant: Tells, Text and Ethnography. Manger, L and LaBianca Ø. S., eds., Oslo, Norway: Bric.

LaBianca, Ø. S. (2009) Organization of the local and imperial world in Jordan: The example of Tall Hisban. In Da Petra a Shawbak: Archeologia di una Frontiera. Edited by G. Vannini and M. Nucciotti. Florence: Giunti Industrie Grafiche. Pp154-155.

LaBianca, Ø. S. and Ronza, M.E. (2009) Interpretation and Presentation of Multi-period Sites: The Case of Tall Hisban. In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan vol IX. Pp 443-458. Amman, Jordan: Department of Antiquities.

Clark, D.R, Herr, L.G., LaBianca, Ø. S. and Younker, R.W., eds. (2010) The Madaba Plains Project: Forty Years of Archaeological Research into Jordan’s Past. London: Equinox Publishing.

Walker B. J. (2010a). From Ceramics to Social Theory: Reflections on Mamluk Archaeology Today. Mamluk Studies Review, 14 (1), 109-157.

Walker B. J. (2010b). Jordan in the Late Middle Ages: Transformation of the Mamluk Frontier. Chicago: Middle East Documentation Center, University of Chicago. Chicago Studies on the Middle East Monograph Series, 8.

News and Activities

Jordan Field School

The project directors cooperate with colleagues from universities in Italy, Jordan, Norway and the United States to provide opportunities for students to undertake supervised fieldwork at Hisban and in the surrounding region in a range of disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, history, media and religion. The field school is delivered over three three-week intensives starting the second week of May and ending mid-July. The dates for 2012 are as follows: JFS 1 = May 11-June 3; JFS 2 = June 1-24; JFS 3 = June 22-July 15.

Tours to the following major cultural heritage sites are included as a part of each three-week intensive: the Citadel and Roman theatre in Amman; Saint George’s church (the map church) and the Roman street in Madaba; the Memorial of Moses at Mount Nebo; the Nabatean caravan city of Petra; the baptismal site of Jesus at Bethany in the Jordan Valley; the Decapolis cities of Geresa (Jerash) and Gedara (Um Qais); the Umayyad desert palaces of Qasr Amrah and Mshatta; the Crusader castles at Kerak and Shobak; and the Ayyubid leader Saladin’s castle at Ajlun.

The participation fee is $1000 per week or $3000 per 3-week intensive, which includes airport transfer from Amman International Airport to Madaba, hotel accommodations in Madaba, meals, and weekend tours. The field school budget is based on a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 26 full-paying participants. Deadlines for on-line completion of all required paperwork for each intensive is three months before the intensive begins, or February 11 for JFS 1; March 1 for JFS 2; and March 22 for JFS 3. Forms that must be completed by each participant include a Jordanian Government Security Form; a Participant Information Form; a Medical History form; A Hold Harmless Agreement; and a Code of Conduct Agreement. The latter is about respecting the beliefs and cultural norms of our hosts in Jordan. The relevant forms can be found at (click Hisban).

Links (the official project website) and (the “lab” site at Missouri State, with links to affiliate projects)

Project Directors

Oystein S. LaBianca, Ph.D. Senior Director

Bethany Walker, Ph.D. Co director and Chief Archaeologists

Elena Maria Ronza, M.A. Co director for Preservation, Restoration and Presentation

Martin Smith, MA. Administrative director


Deep-time at Tall Hisban, a short documentary film:

Hesban: Avdekker dagligliv under imperiene - Jørgen Lohne - Blogg -


Senior Director: Øystein S. LaBianca

Mailing Address: Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI 49104

Telephone: 269-471-3273 Fax: 269-471-3619


Co-Director(s) Name: Bethany J. Walker

Mailing Address: History Department, MSU, 901 S. National Ave., Springfield, MO 65897

Telephone: 417-836-5099 Fax: 417-836-5523