Universität Bonn

Islamic Archaeology Research Unit of the University of Bonn

Tall Hisban, Excavation Season 2014, Week One ( May 2014)

Following in the tradition begun years ago to post weekly “Reports from the Field”, we share with you updates on how work is progressing, how our students and staff are doing, and on what special projects they have been involved. This is the second season of Phase III excavations at Tall Hisban, begun by Andrews University in 1968. Excavations long focused on the summit of the tell, where a Mamluk-era Citadel was built on the ruins of a Byzantine basilica and a Roman temple. In 2013 we shifted our operations to the slopes of the tell and the flatlands below, where the lay of the land suggested the presence of a densely occupied settlement. This year we continue where the 2013 left off, exploring further the complex network of farmhouses, water and storage facilities, and stables that made up the village (or small town) of Hisban in the 13th and 14th centuries. We are particularly interested today in rural life on the Mamluk frontier – that is the physical and functional structure of village life, agriculture and water use, family structure and life - and the relationship between local societies and the Mamluk state.

The team this year consists of 65 students from four universities (Andrews University, Missouri State University, Queen’s College in London, and our own Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of the University of Bonn), as well as staff, specialists, and workmen from Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. After many years of developing a network of environmental specialists, we were able to put together a team that includes a phytolith scientist (Sofia Laparidou – University of Texas, Austin), archaeobotanist (Annette Hanson, Groningen University, Netherlands), and zooarchaeologist (Chiara Corbino, University of Florence). We are very happy that two leading American Mamluk historians have also joined us this season, to study our coins and water systems, respectively: Warren Schultz (De Paul University) and Stuart Borsch (Assumption College). In support of our efforts to fully document our subterranean water systems, two engineers from the Beuth Technical University of Applied Science in Berlin – Thomas Mewes and Henning Nitschke – are with us to do laser mapping and 3-D renderings of some of our cave complexes and the reservoir. We are fortunate to have such a capable team on-site this year.

We have very specific goals this season:

  • Begin to map the village plan of Mamluk Hisban
  • Fully document the history of occupation and architectural style of houses in Fields O and B (by reaching foundation levels)
  • Better understanding of the nature of storage facilities and possible stables, especially in Field M
  • Stratigraphically separate Mamluk from Ottoman ceramics
  • Systematic study of the site’s ancient water systems and water regime of the Mamluk period
  • Study land use/agriculture of the Mamluk period
  • Investigate how the site functioned economically in the Mamluk period
  • Create a narrative of Mamluk Hisban for public consumption

Participants have been divided into smaller working groups for specialized work to help us meet these objectives: stratigraphic excavation, mapping and 3-D imagery, low-flying aerial photography, GIS, pedestrian water survey, environmental research, numismatics, and ethnography. The working groups are working in a collaborative fashion with one another, in an experimental form of transdisciplinary research. We are further developing our digital field recording this year and will incorporate all of the data from the different working groups into a multi-disciplinary Filemaker database in Bonn.

Our brief, three-week field season got off to a brilliant start with the excavation of a house pit of the 14th century in Field B, containing a deposit of both handmade and imported glazed jars. Found together in such a context permits us to date, perhaps for the first time in Jordan, a common kind of coarse ware with some chronological precision. We will report on this important development, and describe the imported vessels, in detail at a later point.

We also made progress on developing a typology of vernacular architecture, having reached Mamluk-era floor levels in all of our houses and storage facilities. Each has preserved a rich assemblage of ceramics, metal and stone tools, and glass wares that formed the accouterments of a village household in this period. We are also retrieving the remains of the food people consumed and the animals they raised, in extensive kitchen and refuse deposits. At such a well-preserved site as this, we have the opportunity to write a history of Mamluk rural history that has not been archaeologically possible until now.

Our evening lectures are an important component of the academic program of the field school. The lecture program this year will take on a different form than in the past, with joint presentations by specialists on how collaborative research is promoting Mamluk Studies at the site of Tall Hisban. On Sunday Sten LaBianca (Andrews University) and myself discussed the ever-evolving research profile of the excavations since 1968, the ways in which archaeology and heritage management and community development initiatives complement one another, the “practical” application of our archaeological research, and the specific research goals of this season and how all of the components of the project intersect to reach those goals. Warren Schultz, a well-known Mamluk economic historian who has led research on Mamluk numismatics – and a figure long acquainted with Jordan and archaeology here - gave a lively lecture Wednesday on methods of studying coins and the meaning of our coin record at Hisban. Such information will ultimately help us to better understand the nature of the economic networks in which the site participates, how did rural markets work, local standard of living, and to what degree the rural economy was actually monetarized.

On Thursday, a film crew from Yarmouk University spent much of the work day on site doing interviews and filming our work as part of an Arabic-language documentary on the meaning of archaeological sites to local communities, and the ways the narrative of place and people has changed at Tall Hisban, in over four decades of excavations. Plans are in place to submit the documentary to al-Jazira (Arabic language version) for international broadcasting.

Our tours this weekend – which, like the lectures, are an important part of the academic program – will take field school participants to sites in northern Jordan (Jerash, Um Qeis, Ajlun, and Pella), as well as in Amman (the Amman Citadel and the historic neighborhoods of downtown).

We are off to a good start this year!

Submitted by Bethany J. Walker,
Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg (Research Professor),
Director of Excavations

Photos by Daniel Redlinger

30 May 2014
Madaba, Jordan

Anna Abdul Aziz and Krystal Uzuegbu excavating the courtyard.jpg
© Anna Abdul Aziz and Krystal Uzuegbu excavating the courtyard
Ayman and Bob and the jar.jpg
© Ayman and Bob and the jar
Discovery of the jarts in the Mamluk house pit.jpg
© Discovery of the jarts in the Mamluk house pit
Henning Nitschke in the cave.jpg
© Henning Nitschke in the cave
Rihab Ben Othman at the sift.jpg
© Rihab Ben Othman at the sift
Sunrise at Tall Hisban.jpg
© Sunrise at Tall Hisban
Thomas Mewes beginning survey.jpg
© Thomas Mewes beginning survey
Walker preparing for the film crew.JPG
© Walker preparing for the film crew
Village of Hisban in early morning.jpg
© Village of Hisban in early morning
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