The history and tradition of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) are linked to the parent societies that called for its founding more than a century ago. The first academic organization to press for the establishment of a new society with an archaeological focus was the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), originally founded as the Society for Biblical Literature and Exegesis In 1880. On 13 June 1895, its president, J. Henry Thayer, a specialist in the New Testament at Harvard University, urged the society to establish a school in Palestine that would be able to promote the study of scripture in the very land in which it had taken shape. It was to be called an American School for Oriental Study and Research. Others, notably Henry W. Hulbert, wanted such a school to be located in Beirut and had referred to it as a school of biblical archaeology and philology in the East. [See the biography of Thayer.]

Thayer's suggestion to establish a school in Palestine was referred to committee, which consequently published a circular to win the support and confidence of both theological schools and universities. In that document Thayer's colleagues expressed the rationale for establishing an overseas center in this way: “The object of the school would be to afford graduates of American theological seminaries, and other similarly qualified persons, opportunity to prosecute biblical and linguistic investigations under more favorable conditions that can be secured at a distance from the Holy Land; … to gather material for the illustration of the biblical narratives; to settle doubtful points in biblical topography; to identify historic localities; to explore and, if possible, excavate sacred sites” (King, 1983, p. 26).

The tone and direction of SBL's 1895 circular clearly express the overriding interest of the founding fathers, which remains to this day, although ASOR's purpose was soon broadened to include nonbiblical aspects of Near Eastern studies. The circular also illustrates the Western bias of “Orientalism,” a certain disregard of indigenous culture by those who study a region only in terms of Western and colonial values. At any rate, by 1890 eleven institutions had pledged one hundred dollars each annually, for a period of five years, until a plan for a new school could be implemented.

Another strong supporter of the idea of establishing an overseas research center in the Near East was the American Oriental Society, which formally endorsed the idea In 1896. In 1898 the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) not only endorsed the proposal, but also pledged an annual subsidy. The AIA had established its own American School of Classical Studies at Athens In 1882 and a comparable school in Rome In 1895, which In 1913 was consolidated with the American Academy in Rome, formerly a fine arts school and enterprise devoted to humanistic research. The president of the AIA In 1899 was Charles Eliot Norton, professor of Fine Arts at Harvard; he pledged his complete support to a school of biblical studies that would soon be established in Jerusalem on the model of the American institutes in Athens and Rome.

By 1900 twenty-one institutions of higher learning—colleges, seminaries, and universities—had been organized into ASOR's first academic consortium. Although most of those institutions were secular universities, theological interest and support were key from the outset. The organizing committee's restatement of goals and objectives, which became the basis of ASOR's future bylaws, reflected a broadened intellectual horizon that would enable ASOR to extend its purview beyond the Levant into the greater Near East and to extend its historical reach and interest beyond the mere “biblical.” Its charter also contained an inclusive statement that resonates with an entirely modern spirit: “The School shall be open to duly qualified applicants of all races and both sexes, and shall be kept wholly free from obligations or preferences as respects any religious denomination or literary institution.” ASOR's ties with the AIA and SBL were so strong that in the early years all research studies conducted under ASOR auspices were to be published in the journal of either affiliated society—the former publishing archaeological and nonbiblical material, the latter the biblical.


ASOR's first overseas institute was opened In 1900 in Jerusalem, with Charles C. Torrey, an Old Testament scholar at Yale University, serving as its first director for that year. Torrey, supported by the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, Selah Merrill, himself a distinguished Orientalist, established ASOR's first headquarters in a large room in a hotel in the Jaffa Gate area, launched a lecture program, and began his own series of field explorations. These activities became hallmarks of ASOR institutes' future programs. Without a permanent ASOR facility, American scholars in Jerusalem at the time were dependent on other institutes for library resources. [See the biography of Merrill.]

Palestine's unstable political situation at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the emergence of Arab nationalism clashing with Zionism and signaling the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, made significant progress for the Jerusalem school difficult. The political instability, lack of a permanent facility, and annual rotation of directors meant that a program of activities along the lines established by Torrey and his successors was the correct and most stable course for the school. The character of the program, except for excavation, remained intact until 1920, when William Foxwell Albright became the school's first long-term director, serving until 1929, and then again from 1933 to 1936. ASOR's first major field project in the years prior to Albright was the expedition to Samaria (1908–1910) led by George A. Reisner, Clarence S. Fisher, and David G. Lyon, and In 1908 by Gottlieb Schumacher. The report of this project, delayed by World War I, appeared In 1924. [See Samaria; and the biographies of Albright, Reisner, Fisher, and Schumacher.]

During those years, the Jerusalem school was managed in the United States by committee. Reports on the school's activities and research were given at special meetings or at ASOR meetings held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the SBL or AIA. To all intents and purposes, ASOR and the Jerusalem school were one and the same. In 1907 the Ottoman government recognized the school in Jerusalem as the “American School of Archaeology at Jerusalem.” In 1910 the managing committee changed its official name to The American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. In 1917 Torrey announced the promise of a gift of $50,000 by Jane Orr Nies to erect a permanent facility in Jerusalem on land that had been purchased In 1909. James A. Montgomery of the University of Pennsylvania and the Protestant Episcopal Divinity School, the Jerusalem school's annual director In 1914–1915, became the chairman of ASOR's managing committee In 1918. At its annual meeting the committee voted to reopen the Jerusalem school the following year (it had been temporarily closed during the war from (1916 to 1918). At that 1918 meeting, Albright was elected Thayer Fellow for 1919. The school reopened In October 1919, with William H. Worrell as director. The first issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR), the journal that was to become the central organ of scholarly communication for ASOR, also appeared in that year. The first issue of ASOR's Annual appeared In 1920, edited by four former directors of the Jerusalem school.

The legal incorporation of ASOR in the District of Columbia In 1921 reiterated the plural “Schools” in the title, correctly anticipating the future of other institutes in the Near East, but specifically the imminent start of the school in Baghdad. In 1923 the Egyptian ankh, the symbol of life, inside of which was the eight-pointed Babylonian star, the sign of deity, became the logo of ASOR.

ASOR Presidents.

ASOR's presidents form an illustrious group. The work of these individuals represents the height of scholarship in their respective fields.

1921–1933 James A. Montgomery, University of Pennsylvania
1934–1948 Millar Burrows, Yale University
1949–1954 Carl H. Kraeling, University of Chicago
1955–1965 A. Henry Detweiler, Cornell University
1966–1974 G. Ernest Wright, Harvard University
1975–1976 Frank Moore Cross, Harvard University
1976–1982 Philip J. King, Boston College
1982–1988 James A. Sauer, University of Pennsylvania
1988–1989 P. Kyle McCarter, Johns Hopkins University
1990–1996 Eric M. Meyers, Duke University
1996– Joe D. Seger, Mississippi State University

[See the biographies of Montgomery, Burrows, Kraeling, and Wright.]


With the long-term appointment of Albright as director in Jerusalem In 1920, archaeological activities there expanded and the school's future was secured in a way that had not been possible before. Such stability also allowed ASOR to enlarge its horizons to Mesopotamia, where the Baghdad school, originally called the American School of Mesopotamian Archaeology, opened officially In 1923. That school was the first American academic institution in Baghdad; it was housed in a space provided by the American consulate. The Baghdad school, although not a full-fledged institute, had an outstanding library, and from its inception provided an important base from which researchers conducted field surveys and on-site examination of the most important sites in Mesopotamia. Among the best-known excavations conducted from the school were the ASOR-Harvard excavations at Nuzi, particularly from 1925 to 1931. [See Nuzi.] Other noteworthy excavations include Tell Billa, Tepe Gawra, Tarkhalan, and Tell Oman. [See Tepe Gawra.] Baghdad's first publication, Edward Chiera's The Joint Expedition with the Iraq Museum at Nuzi, appeared In 1927.

It soon became clear that there were not sufficient financial resources to support a permanent facility in Jerusalem and a new one in Baghdad. Hence, ASOR's academic managing committee was reorganized In 1929 to include non-academic, lay members on a board of trustees to broaden its financial base.

The Baghdad school attracted a series of distinguished scholars as annual professors until 1970. Then, for political reasons, it was no longer possible for Americans to be in residence there. Among those who worked out of Baghdad were Ephraim Speiser (1926–1927, 1931–1932), Nelson Glueck (1933–1934, 1942–1946), Samuel Noah Kramer (1946–1947), Thorkild Jacobsen (1953–1954, 1968–1969), Robert McC. Adams (1968–1969), Albrecht Goetze (1955–1956), and McGuire Gibson (1969–1970). [See the biographies of Speiser, Glueck, and Jacobsen.] From 1947 to 1956 Goetze served as director of the school; among his most notable achievements was the founding of the Journal of Cuneiform Studies In 1947. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War made any future significant ASOR presence in Iraq doubtful. ASOR's last field project prior to the war had been In 1963, but it renewed its fieldwork there in the 1980s. The 1991 Gulf War ended that activity as well.

The annual professorship in Baghdad was converted to a Mesopotamia fellowship following the termination of a physical presence at the school in Baghdad. Today, a committee supervises ASOR's interests in the region and oversees publication of the Journal of Cuneiform Studies.

Interwar Period (1919–1945).

A remark made by Millar Burrows when he served as director of the Jerusalem school (1931–1932) provides insight into the period between the world wars and is remarkably relevant. Noting the dearth of American archaeologists and the plethora of archaeological activities in Palestine, he observed that most of the funding was American, that most of the leadership of excavations was non-American, and that chief among ASOR's goals was to raise a cadre of “young Americans who would like to take up the fascinating work.” The interwar years produced a new generation of leaders in the field in the Near East, yet there was a genuine shortage of qualified Americans to carry forward the aims of ASOR's founders, as well as a shortage of funds to carry them out. Despite the considerable achievements of the Jerusalem and Baghdad schools, politics soon again interfered in the progress of the first half of the twentieth century.

A major figure to emerge during this period was Nelson Glueck, explorer par excellence. Trained in biblical studies at Jena in Germany, Glueck came under the influence of Albright in the late 1920s while digging at Tell Beit Mirsim. There he learned the essentials of stratigraphic archaeology and the basis of ceramic typology. Glueck succeeded Albright as director of the school in Jerusalem In 1936, a position he held three times, first In 1932–1933, again from 1936 to 1940, and finally from 1942 to 1947.

Glueck's major contribution to work in the region was his extensive explorations in Transjordan and the Negev desert. As a result of this enterprise he became fascinated with the history and material culture of the Nabateans. Glueck conducted his surveys while serving as director of the Jerusalem school. He developed his expertise in Nabatean studies from 1952 to 1964, while based at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, Ohio; he had been a faculty member there since 1928 and became president In 1948. One of his major accomplishments as an administrator was the building of the HUC campus in Jerusalem, which opened In 1963 with an archaeological component he envisioned as the successor to ASOR's Jerusalem school, which had been cut off from Israel as a result of the 1948 War of Independence.

The irony of the situation cannot be overstated. Glueck, president of a theological school for training American Reform rabbis, had explored the territories that largely became part of the Kingdom of Jordan. He founded an archaeological school in Israeli Jerusalem largely because Arab lands had been cut off from Jewish archaeologists after 1948. However, following the 1967 war and the reunification of Jerusalem, there were two schools in the city devoted to archaeological work, ASOR's Jerusalem school and HUC, later to be renamed the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology. [See Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology.] The 1967 war, however, had even far greater implications for ASOR.

ASOR and Its Overseas Centers:

1967–1978. One of the major results of the 1967 war was the Arab boycott of all scholars working in Israeli territory, former territory or newly held, which effectively meant that archaeologists and Near Eastern specialists in other disciplines had to decide whether to continue to work in Israel. If they had worked in Israel they could choose to work in Arab lands, especially in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan or in Syria, but could not then continue to work in Israel as well. Because the Baghdad school was defunct, to all intents and purposes, the ASOR board of trustees, headed by G. Ernest Wright of Harvard University, president at the time, decided that the only way for ASOR scholars to continue working on both sides of the Jordan River was to create separate institutes: a separately incorporated Amman center in Jordan administered by its own board of trustees, so that ASOR's historic aims and goals could continue to be pursued unimpeded, and the Jerusalem school to be reorganized along these same lines. The ASOR trustees approved the move In December 1969. The Jerusalem school was renamed the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (AIAR); it still occupies the building whose construction was begun In 1924, completed In 1931, and designated a historical landmark by the State of Israel. The Amman center was named the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR); it moved into a spacious, state-of-the-art facility In 1986.

Both institutes, newly constituted with their own boards of trustees, began their operations in spring 1970. The ASOR board continued to subsidize in part the activities at both schools, but increasingly turned its attention to generating funds for new overseas field projects, publications, and other programmatic activities relating to its annual convention held in conjunction with the SBL and the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

In creating a decentralized ASOR, Wright and the trustees had averted the political repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The parent organization was, however, still expected to seek and secure funds as before for both centers and to fund field projects on both sides of the Jordan River. ASOR subsidies to the centers continued through the 1980s, but responsibility for raising funds for the overseas centers, their programs, and their buildings began to shift to their own boards.

During the tumultuous period in the region between the 1967 and 1973 wars, ASOR entertained the idea of establishing a center in Beirut that would focus scholarly attention on Lebanon's special heritage of Phoenician culture, in addition to other aspects of its rich material remains. Although the Civil War in Lebanon and ASOR's increased financial responsibilities ultimately precluded undertaking the project, interest in Phoenicia led ASOR scholars to look to two of Phoenicia's principal colonies, Cyprus and Carthage, for the recovery of new data through archaeological excavation. [See Cyprus; Carthage.]

At Carthage, ASOR fulfilled its field objectives from 1975 to 1979 by sponsoring a series of excavations, financed with U.S. federal funds, at Punic and Roman Carthage. During this limited period ASOR supported a new center nearby, the Carthage Research Institute, which served as a base for the excavation and survey work at the site. The western Mediterranean region could not maintain its hold on ASOR's historic constituency, however, which was far more oriented to the east, and the institute closed upon the completion of fieldwork.

Cyprus, the other important Phoenician colony, attracted ASOR's attention in the early 1970s. Encouraged by Wright to engage in fieldwork that would shed further light on Phoenician culture and also establish a definitive typology of Cypriot ceramics, ASOR scholars began excavations at the Cypriot site of Idalion In 1971. Preliminary work at Idalion had involved Wright and three of his former students: Paul Lapp, until his untimely death In 1970; Lawrence Stager; and Anita Walker. Wright's interest in establishing a permanent ASOR facility away from the center of the ancient Near Eastern mainland was further stimulated by his own work at Idalion. Wright died In 1974, four years before the founding of the most recent of ASOR's overseas centers, the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI), in Nicosia. [See Idalion; and the biography of Lapp.]

Establishing a research center on the island of Cyprus enabled ASOR at long last to enter institutionally into the world of classical archaeology and to provide a bridge between it and Near Eastern archaeology. In fact, Near Eastern sites are replete with remains from the classical period, and ASOR field projects had long dealt with material originating in or influenced by Aegean cultures. The new institute in Nicosia brought formal recognition to ASOR's broader interest in the classical and pre-classical Aegean worlds, for Cyprus in nearly all its periods of human occupation exhibits a meeting or synthesis between Near Eastern and Aegean cultures. Because there was no university on Cyprus until 1993, CAARI had and continues to have a special role in the intellectual life of the country. Like ASOR's other institutes, CAARI cooperates closely with the local department of antiquities and invites scholars of all countries to use its library and facilities. Although ASOR-sponsored excavations on Cyprus have thus far been few, CAARI's presence has nonetheless been influential. The institute's facility is a meeting ground for scholars from all over the world. CAARI moved into elegant renovated quarters In 1991 and, like AIAR and ACOR, is managed by an independent board of trustees and received subsidies from ASOR until 1990.

The establishment of ACOR In 1970, initially a way of continuing traditional patterns of Near Eastern archaeology with a strong biblical focus, also led to a significant widening of ASOR's perspective on archaeology in general and on several subfields in particular. Far more digs were carried out in Jordan at prehistoric sites by Americans than in Israel (where the biblical focus remained a constraint), a reality paralleled also on Cyprus. Archaeology in Jordan began to prosper in new and unanticipated ways. The Late Antique floruit of Transjordanian Christianity, for example, which extended well into the Early Islamic period, has become a special field along with Islamic archaeology, which is also flourishing. With its abundance of U.S. federal funding, ACOR has also enabled cultural resource management—the excavation and restoration of antiquities sites for national and touristic purposes—to set the standard for the entire region. [See Restoration and Conservation; Conservation Archaeology.]

New Directions:

1978–1995. With the decentralization of ASOR and with the operations and programs of the overseas centers run entirely by separate boards, ASOR's historic role in fostering excavations and scholarship has changed. ASOR's home office continues to assist the overseas centers in building their libraries through book and journal exchanges, in communicating with U.S. trustees and scholars, in some banking activities, in preparing and auditing federal grants, and in some fund raising. The approximately 150 colleges, universities, seminaries, and museums that constitute the ASOR consortium of corporate members are by and large the same institutions that send volunteers and students to digs and that support scholars in their academic pursuits at each of the centers.

ASOR's annual convention and its publications are the two major vehicles for facilitating interaction among scholars in the field of ancient Near Eastern archaeological studies. ASOR remains the premier international scholarly organization dedicated to fostering research in the modern Near East. Its record of sustaining its projects through periods of war and political tension has won it valued admiration in the region. The realization of peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors makes the future seem brighter than ever before and should result in new projects in Near Eastern research. Current developments within ASOR and its overseas centers can be followed in its quarterly Newsletter, or more generally in its quarterly journal, The Biblical Archaeologist. ASOR's home office was located on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore, Maryland; as of July 1996 the office, together with those of the three overseas centers, was relocated to the campus of Boston University, adjacent to the headquarters of the Archaeological Institute of America.

[See also Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; American Center for Oriental Research; American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad; Archaeological Institute of America; Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute; Periodical Literature; and Society of Biblical Literature.]


  • King, Philip J. American Archaeology in the Mideast: A History of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Philadelphia, 1983. The definitive work on ASOR's history, prepared by a past president and commissioned by the ASOR trustees.

Eric M. Meyers