From Abraham to Jeremiah

Andrews University continued its highly respected archeological work in Jordan last summer, opening a new site. Their finds include the first extra-Biblical confirmation of Jeremiah's Ammonite king Baalis.

Lawrence T. Geraty, Ph.D., is professor of archeology and history of antiquity at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

It is a truism in archeology that the unexpected invariably turns up on a dig. This was again borne out during Andrews University's new field effort in Jordan during the summer of 1984. A seventy-five-member staff (see photo 1) centered their work at Tell el-cUmeiri in the Ammonite foothills on the northern edge of the Madaba Plains, some ten kilometers south of Amman (see photo 2). This project encompassed two spheres of research: Larry G. Herr (Canadian Union College, Alberta) supervised excavation at the tell itself, while Oystein S. LaBianca (Andrews University) directed a surface survey of the region within a five-kilometer radius of the tell. Both team efforts produced results significant not only for the archeology of Jordan but also for the Bible.

We do not yet know for sure what Tell el-cUmeiri was called in the Bible or the ancient Near East. Since previous research at Tell Hesban (Biblical Heshbon) has not turned up Sihon's city, some have suggested that our new site may be the Amorite Heshbon (cf. Num. 21:21-30). Others consider it to be Biblical Abel-keramin (cf. Judges 11:33). Its linguistic root could be related to the names Gomorrah, Otnri, and Amram, but most likely derives from a Semitic root meaning "to be plentiful, copious, abundant, abound (in water); to overflow." If so, the name would obviously refer to the tail's spring, the only natural water source between Amman and Madaba.

Site description

The name 'Umeiri actually applies to three tells roughly 250 meters apart, now divided not only by a wadi but also by the new freeway leading from Amman to the Queen Alia International Airport. The new road has opened the entire region to activity destructive of ancient remains. In a sense our entire project can be seen as a salvage effort.

The northeastern tell was occupied most recently, in the Islamic period. The southeastern tell is smaller and was occupied earlier, in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. The western tell is larger than either of the others, approximately sixteen acres in size, and higher, about nine hundred meters in elevation—some 60 meters above the wadi. The tell's slopes incorporate several terraces but rise steeply on all sides except the west, where it joins a ridge. The site offers considerable evidence of architecture, especially on the summit, which is irregular but fairly flat. It drops off abruptly on all sides along a scarp that has proved to be the line of a defensive wall. The surface of the site yields huge quantities of sherds that range in date from Chalcolithic through Early, Middle, and Late Bronze (especially on the slopes) to Iron I and II (primarily on the summit), and a very few Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine. In other words, these sherds derive from the entire chronological range of the Old and New Testament periods.

Aims of project

What was the archaeological team looking for? Our continuing investigation has been primarily concerned with the tension that apparently existed in this region since antiquity between the processes of sedentarizarion, on the one hand, and bedouinization, on the other. Sedentarization is the gradual establishment of villages and towns whose inhabitants engage to varying degrees in the production of crops. Bedouinization is the gradual reestablishment of nomadic, or bedouin, food-getting strategies on previously cultivated lands.

We are interested in the following questions: At what rate did these processes occur within the project area? What were the biophysical and wider sociopolitical factors that affected this tension and the rate at which both processes occurred? What made a balance between these two processes possible during certain periods? What, in turn, disrupted the balance and inflamed the tension? Who played the "parts" in the historical drama represented by these processes? Are any of them mentioned in the Bible or other ancient sources?

To answer these and related problems, we initiated both the stratigraphic and surface survey inquiries referred to. In a methodological innovation, we utilized randomly chosen squares as a control on the judgment samples from both the excavation on the tell and the field survey. We recorded on standardized forms everything that we discovered so that we could computerize all data. A preliminary summary of these results follows.

The Western Citadel: Field A

The excavators supervised by John Lawlor (Baptist Bible College, Pennsylvania) opened Field A at the western end of the flat summit, expecting to uncover a gate or entrance. Instead, all four squares soon revealed what are apparently the interior walls and rooms of a large structure we called the Western Citadel. Apparently it was built and used during Late Iron II (c. seventh century B.C.), after which the area was abandoned.

We noted two major phases of construction, each followed by an ephemeral phase. Both phases utilized basically the same plan, had roughly similar-sized rooms, and employed beaten earth surfaces. We found many smashed but restorable whole pots (see photo 3) in addition to stone ballista, pounders, whetstones, pendants, figurines (see photo 4), -fibulae, spindle whorls, a cosmetic palette and spatula, et cetera, on the floors of the earlier Phase 2 building. The walls of the later Phase 1 building, a reorientation of Phase 2, were not as well built, nor were the floors as well done.

The massive size of the building and the thickness of the individual walls (up to 1.65 meters) indicate the structure served more than a domestic function. Future broader horizontal exposure will enable us to determine whether that function was official, administrative, defensive, or something else.

The Western Defense: Field B

A saddle on the west joins Tell el-cUmeiri to a ridge of hills running north-south. This topographical feature makes the tell's western slope the one most vulnerable to enemy assault. We assumed therefore that this would be the logical place to look for the town's defenses. The five squares opened up on this slope under the supervision of Doug Clark (Southwestern Adventist College, Texas) did indeed uncover some five phases of the Iron II defenses and perhaps an earlier phase from Iron I.

Field B provides a section through the western slope not far from Field A, the Western Citadel. From top to bottom the excavation uncovered a number of interesting features. At the summit we found the remains of a massive mudbrick wall or tower that covers nearly the entire square. It appears to be Iron I (c. tenth century B.C.) at the latest, though it was reused in Iron II.

At the crest of the hill lie two parallel stone walls, possibly a casemate defense, the outer wall being two meters wide. Above this construction our excavators uncovered a storeroom destroyed in Early Iron II. The ashy remains of the destroyed room included three large Iron II collar-rimmed jars in situ (set into the earthen surface, supported by cobbles), a perfectly preserved juglet whose floated contents were a few barley and flax seeds (their larger-than-expected size possibly indicating irrigation agriculture), and several stone ballista (see photo 5). On the downhill exterior of this perimeter wall we found an impressive terre pisee glacis, the slope varying from thirty-two to forty degrees. (A terre pisee glacis is a smoothly tamped earthen slope built as part of a city's fortification.) The entire glacis is at least two meters thick and may cover an earlier rampart.

The Northern Terrace: Field C

Among the striking features of the tell are wall lines, originating at both the eastern and western ends of the summit, that gradually converge at the bottom of the north slope near the important spring already mentioned. In fact, the inhabitants may have built the walled suburb in an attempt to incorporate the spring within the walls or at least to protect it. A prominent bedrock shelf crosses this isosceles triangle-shaped area. In its eastern end, outside the wall, this shelf contains what looks like an Iron Age tomb. Field C, under the supervision of James Battenfield (Grace Graduate School, California), was laid out in such a way as to section this bedrock shelf and whatever lay below it.

The southern squares of the field soon reached the bedrock shelf. The face contained anomalies but no tomb or cave entrance—possibly because this portion of the shelf was incorporated within the walls. The terrace in front of (to the north of) the shelf had evidently been used for quarrying. Most subsequent building remains had probably been robbed, for the excavators found only bits and pieces of walls, few surfaces to go with them, and much evidence of erosion. Some theorized that a stairway from the spring to the summit once stood here. Just above bedrock the excavators found quantities of Early Bronze I (third millennium B.C.) pottery, including a whole juglet. The bedrock also contained numerous cup marks.

The last square to be opened on the north terrace, farthest down the slope, revealed a substantial revetment wall or tower, dating possibly to Iron I or even the Late Bronze Age (the Mosaic Age). Further work will enable us to make better sense of what we have found in this field.

The Lower Southern Terrace: Field D

The broad southern slope of the tell comprises several terraces. Field D, supervised by Larry Mitchel (Pacific Union College, California), was opened up on the edge of the flattest, broadest (twenty to thirty meters wide), and lowest to be occupied. It proved to be a domestic lousing area from the Early Bronze Age (end of the third millennium B.C., approximately the time of Abraham).

We identified some five phases of occupation. The Early Bronze IV phase (c. 2000 B.C.) was the best preserved of the excavated remains. At least two houses were built into shallow pits some .50 to .75 meters deep and approximately four meters wide by four meters long. In both cases the doorsills and steps leading down into the houses were preserved and showed wear patterns from ancient foot traffic. Both entrances are opposite the wadi overlook, at protective angles from the prevailing wind—not likely a coincidence. Inside, the houses had beaten earth floors on which we found mortars, a stone-outlined ash-and-refuse pit, a fine flint blade, and animal bones. In addition, each floor had a stone base for a central support pillar placed approximately 1.6 to 1.8 meters equidistant from the exterior walls. Originally these pillars would each have supported a wooden beam holding the roof rafters, which extended to the walls. The early builders would have placed reeds over the rafters; many of the chunks of fallen plaster preserved impressions of the reeds.

Pottery, lithics, objects

I have already mentioned the chronological range of pottery sherds discovered on the tell. We found scores of whole pots as well. Though not as abundant as the sherds, lithic (stone) tool finds ranged through the same periods. The ongoing analysis of these two categories of artifacts will be of the utmost importance for clearly understanding our site. One fourth of the five hundred objects found were household objects (see photo 5): millstones, grinders, mortars, pestles, whetstones, knives, spoons, flint tools, stoppers, stone rope weights, stone bowls, et cetera. Half of the finds are divided somewhat equally among industrial objects (spindle whorls, spindles, loom weights, weaving spatulas, burnishers, chains, et cetera), weapons (slingstones, maceheads, and arrow heads), and unidentified objects. We also found significant amounts of jewelry and cosmetic items (beads, pendants, bangles, earrings, cosmetic palettes, mirror, et cetera) and cultic objects (mostly figurines; see photo 4). The remainder may be classified as clothing (buttons, fibulae, pins), toys (cart wheels), agricultural implements (stone hoe), and miscellaneous (shells, glass, coins, ostraca, scarabs, seals, and seal impressions). Together these objects beautifully illustrate life in Old Testament times (primarily the Bronze and Iron ages).

Seal impression with Biblical royal name

The single object that caused the greatest stir was a small ceramic cone found by Lloyd Willis (Spicer Memorial College, India) as he sifted surface soil from a random square on the mound (see photos 6 and 7). He passed the cone to his supervisor, Doug Clark, who handed it to his colleague, Larry Mitchel, who happened by. Mitchel recognized that it was inscribed on its flat end. Within a couple of days Larry Herr had a definitive reading: Imlkm-wr 'd byl-'ye ("belonging to Milkom-'ur, prime minister [literally, servant] of Ba'al-yashac"). The Ammonite script and design in the center (a winged scarab flanked by two standards surmounted by sun discs and crescent moons) are typical of the seventh/sixth century B.C. Paleographically, Herr, who is publishing the official report of the find, dates the impression to about 600 B.C. The cone may have served as a stopper with identification mark for a juglet (the contents of which are unknown).

Both names constitute firsts in Biblical archeology. The owner's name was Milkom-'or ("Milkom is light") or Milkom- 'ur ("Milkom's flame," cf. 'Uriah). Surprisingly, this is the first time the well-known Ammonite divine name Milkom has been found as one of the elements in an Ammonite proper name. The juglet's owner must have been a prominent government official; in these Iron Age seals, "servant of invariably precedes a royal name. In this case that royal name too is a first. Bacal-yashac ("Baal saves") or Bacal-yishac ("Baal is salvation," cf. Elishac) is the first extra-Biblical confirmation of the Ammonite king Baalis mentioned in Jeremiah 40:14.

The difference between Jeremiah's spelling of the royal name and that of our seal impression may be explained as an intentional pious change in the Bible to avoid heathen theology, or an unintentional change reflecting the way the Judeans heard the name pronounced in Ammonite—partially preserved, perhaps, in the Septuagint (chap. 47:14) as Belisa, or simply as an hypocoristicon or nickname.

Discoveries of the regional survey

Robert G. Baling (McCormick Theo logical Seminary, Illinois) supervised the regional survey. His team focused on three types of studies: a survey of thirty-eight randomly chosen two-hun dred-meter squares within a five-kilome ter radius of Tell el-cUmeiri, site-seeking within the same territory (fifty-five sites were surveyed, mapped, and cataloged), and specialized studies by various staff members. As the team carried out their research they took special note of current patterns of land use (especially water resources) and of plant communities (especially in relation to their geographical-environmental contexts). They also carried out numerous interviews with villagers and farmers whom they met.

Among the many interesting sites discovered, some warrant special men tion. During their sherding of an adjoining random square, the team found what may be the oldest, largest, and richest Paleolithic site yet discov ered in Jordan. A seasonal lake to the southeast may have drawn the first inhabitants to the site. Today virtually the entire three-hundred-meter-square site is under cultivation. In just a few hours the team collected hundreds of stone artifacts, which, according to prehistorians Gary Rollefson and Al Simmons, include Acheulean hand axes (Lower Paleolithic), predominantly Lavalloiso-Mousterian tools (Middle Paleolithic), and some Neolithic/Chalcolithic specimens. They recognized no good Upper Paleolithic tools.

Opposite Tell el-cUmeiri, on the summit of the wooded hill just to the south, they found a twelve-meter-square Early Bronze watchtower. Inhabitants of the slightly lower tell would have needed it to see what was happening on the Madaba Plain.

The team identified a hitherto-undiscovered station (Roman Period) on Trajan's via nova by remaining portions of the ancient road and three uninscribed milestones—two of them in secondary use. We think these establish the route of the via nova south of Amman, running to the east near Yadoude rather than to the west toward el-Al.

They also found an impressive colum barium, artificially carved out of the hillside, dating possibly to the Byzantine Period. More than fifteen meters on a side, it was composed of two chambers full of hundreds of shallow niches for cinerary urns.

And the team discovered numerous cemeteries from the "Classical" Period, including hundreds of opened tombs. A Roman/Byzantine cemetery just to the north of the tell contained a nearly completed rolling stone. Another cemetery held a basalt stele carved in low relief; it appeared to depict a stylite monk standing before his pillar.

An archaeological context for Isaiah's song of the vineyard

Nearly half of the sites identified by the regional survey, however, are characterized by small rectangular (but sometimes round) "towers," with or without perimeter walls and associated structures (cisterns, winepresses, heaps of stones from field cleaning, et cetera) and mostly dating to the Iron Age (1200-500 B.C.). In most cases these structures are too small or too poorly located to serve a military function. On the edge of what used to be forested ridges, they command broad views of farm fields today and probably did so in antiquity as well (see photo 8). They illustrate exceedingly well the husbandman's work as recounted in the song of the vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7. Thanks to the cooperative work of archeologists, zooarcheologists, and paleobotanists, we now have a clearer perspective on Iron Age agriculture in general and the background for Isaiah's contemporary oracle in particular—one more example of the value of archeology as a contextual aid in understanding and interpreting Scripture. The second season of excavation and survey in the vicinity of Tell el-cUmeiri is planned for June 16-August 12, 1986. Those interested in participating may inquire by writing to: Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104.

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Lawrence T. Geraty, Ph.D., is professor of archeology and history of antiquity at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

April 1985

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