The region of central Transjordan known as Moab consists essentially of the Dhiban plateau (modern spelling) to the north and the Karak plateau to the south of Wadi Mujib (Arnon); in all, it extends from the south bank of Wadi ath-Thamad/Wadi Wala to the north bank of Wadi al-Hasa. Prior to recent excavations in this region, Dibon, located north of the Wadi Mujib, was the most prominent Moabite site. Major settlements were scattered thinly in all periods, in part because of the marginal nature of this semiarid zone. For the Iron Age, settlement is seen to increase in the later centuries (ninth–sixth centuries B.C.E.), with a decline in the Persian period and a subsequent increase in the Nabataean–early Roman period (first century B.C.E.–second century C.E.). With the incorporation of the Nabataean realm into the Roman province of Arabia (106 C.E.), there was another decline, with settlement increasing in the Byzantine–early Islamic period, followed by another period of abatement. Only Dibon has occupation dating to both earlier and later periods. Even at this site, continuous occupation is not evident; there appears to be a gap between the Early Bronze Age and the Iron Age, with minimal evidence for Middle Bronze– or Late Bronze–Age remains. The same pattern is seen at Lahun on the north bank of Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s grand canyon, which separates the Dhiban plateau from the Karak plateau.

On the borders of Iron-Age Moab are the land of Madaba and the Madaba plain to the northwest, the territory of the men of Gad in the region of ʾAtarus to the west, Edom to the south of Wadi al-Hasa, the desert on the east, and the kingdom of Ammon to the north. In the Roman period, Madaba was part of the Perea, while the Moabite plateau was part of the Nabataean realm.


Initial interest in Moab was generated when an inscribed stone at Dibon was shown to a missionary, F. A. Klein, in 1868. Now known as the “Moabite stone” or Meshaʾ Inscription (MI), this text dates to ca. 850 B.C.E. and refers to events mentioned in 2 Kings 1 and 3. Its discovery was a stimulus for explorers who traveled to Transjordan in the late nineteenth century and began the work of documenting and identifying ancient sites in Moab. Best known among the early travelers is Canon H. B. Tristram, an Anglican clergyman who lived in Jerusalem and visited Transjordan with a small group of scholars in 1873 to collect botanical specimens and study the natural history of Moab. His books, The Land of Moab and Natural History of the Bible, document the monuments, flora, and fauna of the region. R. Brünnow and A. von Domaszewski in 1897 and 1898 and A. Musil in 1904 undertook extensive photography, geographic and climatic data collection, and mapping of ruined sites and Roman roads. During the 1920s, W. F. Albright surveyed sites in central and northern Jordan, specifically looking for evidence of Bronze-Age occupation. In his examination of the ceramic finds from Karak, he identified a specific ceramic industry as “Moabite.” Later, in his survey of eastern Palestine (1933–1947), Nelson Glueck, Albright’s student, collected samples of broken pottery from more than 1,000 sites in order to identify the periods of occupation and the cultures represented in the archaeological record, including Moabite pottery comparable to that found by Albright.

Along the eastern fringe of the central Jordanian plateau, Glueck thought that he had located a line of early Iron-Age fortresses consisting of isolated sites, several of which were situated on a promontory overlooking a secondary stream that flowed into one of the major rivers. However, his early dates for the pottery of Moab led him to conflate Iron Age–I and –II sites and to posit a decline in Iron-Age civilization at the beginning of the eighth century B.C.E. Udo Worschech also identified certain fortified sites as a “line of fortresses” in his survey of the northern Karak plateau; however, he dates these sites and the formation of the Moabite state even earlier, to the end of Late Bronze Age II. While these attempts to link Moabite sites with biblical narratives were typical of the little that was known of Moabite culture and history, other surveys in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, along with excavation projects, have increased our knowledge of Moabite pottery and challenged the early dating of the Moabite monarchy. The fortresses along the southern border of Moab near the Wadi al-Hasa can now be dated by their pottery to the late Iron Age II. At the same time, these surveys also provide evidence for the extent of Nabataean and early Roman activity and settlement in the region.

Iron I.

A number of sites with Iron-I occupation (tenth century B.C.E.) cluster around the great bend of the Wadi Mujib: Khirbat al-Mudayna al-ʾAliya, Khirbat al-Mudayna al-Muʾarradja, ʾAraʾir, Lahun, and possibly Khirbat al-Muʾmmariyya. These agricultural villages were positioned on prominent ridges that provided protection on two or three sides. Inside the fortification wall were pillared houses constructed of stone walls with standing monoliths or stacked stone pillars and doorframes with stone lintels (Routledge, 2004, figs. 5.6–5.10). Each fortified settlement was entered through a small gate. The inhabitants in the region were probably Semites, although their ethnic affiliation during Iron I cannot be confirmed. Evidence that these sites were related to the contemporary copper-producing activities south of the Dead Sea is limited by the lack of published pottery and objects and the apparent dearth of metal objects. Baluʾ, the principal site on the Karak plateau during Iron II, has produced little evidence of Iron-I occupation; short-necked collared pithoi (large storage jars) have been dated to early Iron II (tenth–ninth centuries B.C.E.) rather than Iron Age I. Published pottery from Baluʾ is very different from the Iron-I pottery at Tall Madaba and the Ammonite sites of Tall Jawa and Tall al-ʾUmayri, both south of Rabbath-Ammon (Amman). So too, the Iron-I pottery from the Karak survey does not correspond to that known from Israel’s central hill country and from Ammon. The result of this limited evidence is that the date and context of the Baluʾ Stele remain tentative. This basalt monument has an illegible text above three standing figures, whose clothing and crowns are Egyptian in style and can be best dated to the Late Bronze–Iron I (Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties).

Few farmsteads and small villages identified as Iron I on the Dhiban plateau have been excavated, with the exception ʾAraʾir and Lahun, which was a walled settlement that contained pillared houses. Assignment of the pottery to a specific period is still difficult due to the lack of deep stratified sites; many settlements were founded on bedrock, occupied during a single chronological horizon, and then abandoned or destroyed. With no published ceramic sequences dated to immediately before, during, and after Iron-Age levels and the nearly complete absence of radiocarbon dates, a secure identification of ceramics is still in its infancy.

Iron II.

The landscape changed during the Iron Age, and a number of Iron-I sites on the eastern fringe were abandoned and not resettled. Instead, sites that did not exist previously sprang up at the beginning of the Iron Age II (ninth century B.C.E.) as part of a process of territorial state formation. Major town sites were located in different geographical and ecological zones from the earlier villages, and they incorporated different features in their architecture and material culture. Many of these sites were documented by Glueck (1934–1937) as well as by more recent surveys, especially the extensive Karak plateau survey of J. Maxwell Miller and Jack M. Pinkerton (Miller, 1991), yielding detailed data and stimulating sufficient interest in the land of Moab so that new excavation projects were undertaken. Some of these projects include survey work, in an attempt to understand in detail the settlement patterns and changing landscapes of both the Dhiban plateau and the Karak plateau.

The region to the south of Wadi Mujib, which a curious notice in Deuteronomy calls Ar (Deut 2:9, 18, 29), was poorly known to the biblical writers; and only a few place-names of ambiguous location are mentioned (Qîr, Qîr-Ḥereṣ/Ḥăreṣet, the Ascents of Lûḥît and Ḥôrônayim). Regions north of the Wadi Mujib drainage basin, the mîšôr (plateau) or arbôt môāb (steppes of Moab), were better known, as were certain toponyms; however, knowledge of the peoples of this region prior to the mid-ninth century B.C.E. is still very limited. The MI indicates that there were various tribal entities and ethnic groups living in the region, especially in the north and west, whose allegiance to Moab is not yet well understood. Meshaʾ attempted to strengthen national identity and cohesion in order to gain political power and to link these groups to the tribe of the Dibonites and to the Moabite heartland.

Along with a reference to several areas near Madaba in the west-central foothills that were under the control of the king of Israel, the MI extols attempts by Meshaʾ to liberate the “land of Madaba” and the “land of ʾAtarot” as well as numerous town sites. The MI, which deals at length with Meshaʾ’s move against the king of Israel, makes no mention of a tribe known as Reuben. It also casts doubt on the genuinely Israelite character of the Gaddites. Meshaʾ, in his boast of liberating and restoring ʾAtarot (ʾtrt, ʾAtarus), describes the Gaddites as people who had always lived in the “land of ʾAtarot.” The Gaddites were situated in western Transjordan as a separate, native ethnic group. This has been confirmed by excavations that have produced an assemblage of unusual cultic objects, very different from cultic material seen in Israel, Judah, and central Moab. Clearly, the Israelites’ control of the “land of Madaba” and the “land of ʾAtarot” was short, and Kemosh returned his lands to the control of Meshaʾ the Dibonite, a decision that the kings of Israel could not counteract (2 Kgs 3).

Dhiban plateau.

ʾAraʾir and Lahun on the north bank of Wadi Mujib were redesigned in Iron II. Also on the Dhiban plateau, Dibon was refashioned, and several walled towns, such as ar-Rumayl, Khirbat ʾAlayan, Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, Umm ar-Rasas, and Khirbat al-Jumayl, appeared. A number of isolated structures that overlook the Wadi ath-Thamad and the Wadi Shabik on the Dhiban plateau have been documented by the Wadi ath-Thamad Regional Survey. These sites, usually identified as watchtowers, consist of a single heavily fortified building with surrounding structures, such as cisterns, walled pens, or work areas. Certain of these sites, such as Qaṣr Zaʾfaran I, Qaṣr Zaʾfaran II, Rujm al-Hiri, and Rujm Mohammad, are north of the Wadi ath-Thamad and have a clear view of Khirbat al-Mudayna Thamad or of ar-Rumayl. Their strategic position made them ideal as watchtowers protecting agricultural fields, as well as food-processing and storage centers. The tower sites to the north of Wadi ath-Thamad, such as Rujm al-Hiri, yielded late Iron-II pottery that is Ammonite rather than Moabite in style. Only al-Wathir, a rather small structure overlooking the Wadi Shabik to the south of Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, has produced Moabite-style pottery. Because of its porous clay matrix, certain pottery from later surveys is assumed to date to Iron I. However, much of the pottery from stratigraphically secure Iron-II contexts has the same coarse fabric and simple shapes, making the distinction between Iron-I and -II assemblages uncertain.

Better known is the pottery from Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, which is associated with Assyrian-style bowls and imported bottles and storage jars dating to the late Iron Age II (sixth century B.C.E.). This assemblage appears in the factories and domestic complexes at Mudayna, in association with Cypro–Phoenician juglets and decanters and their imitations. The local pottery from Mudayna (Thamad), Baluʾ, and Dibon reflects a very different forming and stylistic tradition from that seen at Ammonite sites such as Jalul, where Ammonite pottery is dominant, and at Madaba, which has a very mixed repertoire.

A complex of three factory buildings is evidence for intensive textile production at Khirbat al-Mudayna. Loom weights, spindles, spindle whorls, and other textile tools have been found in abundance along with hematite, grinding tools, limestone basins, stools and altars, and bundles of textile fragments (Daviau and Chadwick, 2007, fig. 1). Mudayna has access to water year-round and is located in an area where fields produce grain and vegetables and herds of sheep and goat graze. Assuming a similar ecological setting in the Iron Age, Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad would have been a site well situated to exploit the animal resources needed for textile production on a large scale.

Karak plateau.

On the Karak plateau, Baluʾ is the largest known walled site, a major center during the Iron Age with satellite sites such as Khirbat al-Muʾmmariyya and al-Miṣna. Baluʾ itself was fortified on three sides with a casemate wall and contained widely spaced houses identified by the excavator as Assyro–Babylonian in style. Far to the south was the new site of Mudaybiʾ, with its four-chambered gate and proto-Aeolic capitals. While this is an isolated site facing the desert, it was ideally suited for relations with seminomadic pastoralists, whose animal products supplied an economy based on textile production. Such production may have been related to the payment of tribute to Assyria driven by imperial expansion under Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745–727 B.C.E.) and his successors beginning in the eighth century B.C.E.

Cultic sites.

Three sites, WT-13, Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, and ʾAtarus, have yielded evidence for public religious activity. Site WT-13 consists of an isolated temenos (sacred enclosure) which contained naked female figurines, some holding a disc and a smaller number holding their breasts; female pillar figurines holding a disc or playing a drum; male figures; ceramic statues; beads; amulets and scarabs; miniature vessels, shells, and fossils; model furniture; and architectural models. A second type of cultic activity is seen at Khirbat al-Mudayna in Temple 149, a room lined with benches and containing three limestone altars, one shaft altar for libations, a second altar for burnt offerings, and a candelabrum altar inscribed with a label that includes the term “incense altar.” A different tradition is represented at ʾAtarus, where a temple complex was furnished with zoomorphic statues, one depicting a bull. Other artifacts consist of a double lamp on a pedestal base, a krater with animals in relief below the rim, a limestone platter with an incised lotus design, a kernos ring (vessel with small cups attached to the rim), a cup-and-saucer vessel, and an architectural model with two male figures carrying animals.

Extensive evidence for cultic activity in domestic and industrial contexts consists of ceramic and stone figures, most without parallels in the area, such as a limestone male bust, a naked male statue, female heads with Hathor curls, and a number of miniature figurines with incised facial features from Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad. Female figurines holding a disc as well as a cylindrical stand were also found in the palace at Dibon, and pillar figurines were clustered in a house at Baluʾ. Most notable are the 23 limestone altars from Khirbat al-Mudayna (Thamad), some with burnt organic material still in situ.

Building styles.

Public buildings include fortification walls in casemate style, chambered gates, drains and cisterns, and monumental buildings. The best-preserved Iron-II gates are those at Mudaybi, with its four chambers, monolithic doorframes, and proto-Aeolic capitals, and the gate at Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, which is preserved to the lower courses of the upper-story walls. The central road through the gate was lined with benches and a drain that extended from the south threshold to the sump under the north threshold. The front bastions were also lined with benches, as was the north face of the eastern tower, which faced a small shrine area with two standing stones.

Structures inside Iron Age–II towns were sometimes linked to a room in the casemate wall system, although in other instances it is clear that the doorway was blocked and the casemate room was entered only from above. The ground plan of houses from Baluʾ is similar to, but more varied than, the better-known four-room houses at Tell el-Farʿah (N), Tell en-Naṣbeh, and Beersheba, while at Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad domestic structures reveal complex room arrangements previously unseen in the region. Domestic and industrial architecture consists of boulder-and-chink exterior walls and pillared interior walls, some with linking walls in boulder-and-chink construction. Buildings are two-storied with stairs leading to the upper floor or roof terrace, where the inhabitants performed domestic, cultic, and industrial activities. Present in the houses are ovens, working platforms, basalt milling stones, pottery, high-status imported wares, exotic objects, seals, scarabs and scale weights, and figurines and statues of various styles, which reflect the richness of the local culture.

Based on the limited excavation of Iron-II sites, the best example of monumental architecture remains the palace at Dibon. Small sectors of this large structure, 69 by 141 ft (21 by 43 m), excavated by William Morton in 1989 and described by Routledge (2004) reveal boulder-and-chink stone walls more than 3.3 ft (1 m) thick. The plan appears to be unique, with a central hall/court flanked by rooms on the north and south sides and multiple rows of rooms on the east.

Burial customs.

Few cemeteries dating to the Iron Age are known, limiting our knowledge of burial customs. At Dibon, eight Iron-II chamber tombs were cut into the bank of the wadi; their openings were framed with a stone or bedrock lintel and a stone-built doorframe with stairs leading down into the chamber. Only two tombs had benches, although some had niches for lamps and pits for bone deposits. Although all of these tombs had been disturbed and looted, they still contained Cypro–Phoenician juglets, local ceramic vessels, jewelry, shells, and a large number of lamps (close to 15 lamps from Tomb J6 alone). At Mount Nebo, two cave tombs were used for burial over an extended period. Grave goods included a wide variety of ceramic vessels reflecting both Ammonite and Moabite styles, such as bowls, cups, cooking pots, kraters, jugs and juglets, tripod cups, lamps, as well as two pillar figurines. Such chamber tombs suggest use by an extended family that was resident in the area over several generations.

Specialty items.

Of special note are the male figurines, ceramic statues, and stone statuettes recovered from sites in Moab. The largest assemblages come from houses at Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad and from Shrine WT-13. These consist of tiny stone figures with simplified bodies incised with eyes, mouth, and arms that are sometimes supported by a large foot. A miniature enthroned with its feet on a footstool may also represent a male. Other types only partially preserved include one small stone head of a figure that is in the shape of an Easter Island statue and a second figure with a flattened head, tapered shoulder, and somber face, which may have been part of a balustrade. Most unusual is a naked male with his hands at his sides, carved from limestone and painted red. This statuette is missing its head, right leg, and left arm but still measures nearly 16 in (40 cm) in height from neck to foot. Male figures also appear in ceramic; one is bald, while another has elaborate curls on the head. Other male figures are in the form of ceramic statues in the style of those from En Haseva in the Arabah, south of the Dead Sea. Greater in number are the more than 150 equid figurines from Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, some of which are bridled and others unbridled, with a few examples of horse-and-rider figures. At ʾAtarus, in the land of the Gaddites, zoomorphic figures, especially bull statuettes, reflect a distinct cultural tradition.

Heirloom items such as Middle Bronze–Age Hyksos scarabs, one in a gold setting, and looted objects are also unusual since they appear in late Iron-II domestic contexts at Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad and in Shrine WT-13. Most surprising is the presence of a stone macehead and basalt bowl, both typical of Early Bronze–I tombs from Bab edh-Dhraʾ near Karak. Imports from Egypt, Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Assyria also make their appearance at various sites in the form of black-on-red juglets, glazed bottles, faience and calcite pyxides, alabaster juglets, steatite cosmetic mortars, faience amulets, and a faience New Year’s bottle. Such items reflect the complex trade and exchange networks in place during the late Iron Age, prior to the destructive Babylonian attacks on sites in the region.

Nabataean–Early Roman Period.

Extensive resettlement is seen on the Dhiban plateau during the Nabataean period (late Hellenistic–early Roman). This has been documented extensively by surveys on the Dhiban plateau and in the excavations at Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, Dibon, and Lahun. Adjacent to the agricultural fields along the Wadi ath-Thamad and Wadi Shabik are a series of farming villages, each consisting of houses, agricultural installations, cisterns, and tombs. Documentation of WT-12, a large settlement on Wadi Shabik, identified habitation caves, a temple similar to that at Lahun, cisterns, and dams. These features are dated by the presence of Herodian-style lamps, Nabataean painted and plain wares, imported terra sigillata (pottery with a fine polished red or reddish-brown slip) vessels, coins, and glassware. South of the Shabik, 80 sites, mostly along the rim of the plateau, include farms, villages, and watchtower-type structures, with a few larger towns in the central plain. Excavation of a settlement at the foot of the Iron-Age town at Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad revealed a reservoir and a 15-room house similar in style to the Nabataean houses and reservoir at Mampsis in the Negev. This Nabataean-controlled region bordered Herod’s kingdom, represented by his palace fortress at Machaerus (Mukawir), due west of Mudayna and north of Wadi Wala, overlooking the Dead Sea. To the north of Moab proper, Nabataean pottery is present at sites such as Madaba, Qaṣr az-Zaʾfaran I and Qaṣr az-Zaʾfaran II, Umm al-Walid, Khirbat Umm al-Quṣayr, and ar-Ruṣayfa, although farther north the density begins to decline steeply.

At Lahun, on the south bank of the Dhiban plateau, there is a small Nabataean temple, which suggests the presence of a larger settlement in the immediate area. The largest known building from this period is located at Dibon and consists of a temple with a broad staircase leading to the pronaos and naos (portico and inner temple, respectively), a sequence of broad rooms facing the tripartite adytum (innermost sanctuary). A north gate at Dibon can also be assigned to the Nabataean period. At both sites, the characteristic painted pottery that had its production center in Petra is abundant (Tushingham, 1972, figs. 2–4). Other sites east of Dibon, such as Muṣaytba, also yielded Nabataean pottery.

In the Karak plateau survey, 170 sites yielded five or more recognizable Nabataean sherds as evidence of extensive settlement and development of the region during the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods. None of these Nabataean sites identified by regional surveys has been extensively excavated, with the result that their character and function are not adequately understood, nor is their relationship to Petra, the principal urban center of Nabataean culture. However, Iron-Age structures at Baluʾ were reused as part of a larger Nabataean settlement. Nabataean pottery and terra sigillata sherds were also found at sites in the southern sector of the Karak plateau, such as Nakhl, a large settlement with a Nabataean temple, recognized by Musil and Glueck, as were numerous cisterns.

Inscribed materials.

Various Iron-Age scripts and orthographic conventions are indicative of the diverse groups inhabiting the region. Lapidary script is best known from basalt monuments, such as the MI, fragments from Dibon and Karak, and an unprovenanced inscription that also appears to come from Moab and refers to Ammonite prisoners involved in Moabite building projects. Brief inscriptions appear on objects, such as a basalt pestle and a possible basalt ring weight from Baluʾ, a limestone incense altar, a stone tablet, and various stone scale weights from Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad, while incised and chiseled letters appear on ceramic vessels and clay bullae. Inscribed stones with text from the Nabataean–early Roman period also reflect diverse cultural groups. At Khirbat al-Mudayna ath-Thamad alone, there are inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Thamudic. One resident of the Nabataean house incised a long text on one of the doorframes, while at Dibon there were two imperial inscriptions in Greek dating to the early Roman period. A stone inscribed in Nabataean Aramaic, reused in the Roman castellum of az-Zuna, suggests an earlier Nabataean building to the east of Khirbat al-Mudayna prior to the formation of the Limes Arabicus (the desert frontier of the Roman Empire). Arabic inscriptions and graffiti in Thamudic script (23 from the Wadi ath-Thamad survey alone) are plentiful throughout northern Moab and in Madaba. Thamudic graffiti are also preserved on the plaster lining of the reservoir at Muṣaytba and on the wall stones of Qaṣr az-Zaʾfaran II. The presence of Arabic-speaking inhabitants dwelling in farming communities and dispersed across the landscape indicates a complex interaction of urban, farming, trading, and pastoral groups in the Nabataean realm prior to the Roman takeover.



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P. M. Michèle Daviau