Hesban is a Transjordanian mound rising 2,936.4 ft (895 m) above sea level that guards the northern edge of the rolling Madaba plains, where a southern tributary of Wadi Hesban begins to descend sharply toward the Jordan River, about 15 miles (4 km) to the west. The tell is about 35 miles (56 km) east of Jerusalem, 12 miles (19 km) southwest of Amman, 4 miles (6 km) northeast of Mount Nebo, and 590.5 ft (180 m) above ʾAin Hesban, the perennial spring with which it is associated. From its summit visitors can savor a panoramic view of the fertile plains of Madaba, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea, as well as their backdrop, the Cisjordanian (Judean) mountains. The present-day village of Hesban surrounds the archaeological mound on all sides. The majority of its residents belong to the Ajarmeh tribe, whose presence in Hesban and the surrounding area is attested in written sources going back at least 300 years. The site is well known from travelers’ accounts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is also mentioned in Arabic sources going back to Mamluk times.

The Heshbon Expedition (1967–1976).

Hesban has been the focus of over four decades of multidisciplinary research organized and led by archaeologists associated with Andrews University and its Institute of Archaeology. The first team to work at Hesban was organized in 1967 by Siegfried H. Horn, then professor of archaeology and history of antiquity at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Horn’s principal reason for selecting Hesban as a place to dig was to confirm what most scholars have supposed, namely, that remains of biblical Heshbon could be found at Hesban or Tall Hisban, as the site has recently been renamed by the Jordanian government. Horn invited Roger S. Boraas of Upsala College to serve as his chief archaeologist. Together, Horn and Boraas led the first three field seasons of the Heshbon Expedition in 1968, 1971, and 1973. Starting with the 1974 field season, Lawrence T. Geraty succeeded Horn as the expedition’s director. Boraas and Geraty led two additional field seasons in 1974 and 1976. A small team directed by John I. Lawlor returned to the site in 1978 to excavate the Hesban North Church.

When assessed in light of the largely biblically focused agenda that motivated the original leaders of the Heshbon expedition, what is truly remarkable is the project’s long list of achievements, most of which had little to do with its original mission. For example, the expedition ended up uncovering an archaeological record that spans over three millennia and is separable, based on stratigraphy and pottery finds, into 21 occupational strata. The earliest excavated stratum dates to the transition from the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age I and the latest dates to the Hashemite or Modern period. Ironically, the earliest layers—those with potential biblical connections—were found to be the least preserved in terms of architectural remains. Indeed, the vast majority of remains from the Late Bronze and Iron Ages were concentrated in secondary deposits such as dumps and fills. The site’s most impressive monumental ruins were, as can be expected, located on its summit and belong to later periods. Notable are a perimeter wall with four towers dating to the Late Hellenistic period (possibly built upon the foundations of an earlier Iron-Age podium); a monumental stairway and acropolis area that included a public building, possibly a temple from the Roman period, when the town was known by its Latin name, Esbous; the apse, column bases, and mosaic floors of a Byzantine basilica; and a residential complex that included a hot-and-cold bathing facility from Mamluk times. Also discovered on or near the summit were fragments of walls and floors of buildings from other periods, including the Persian, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ayyubid, and Ottoman.

As important as the careful work to uncover these in situ remains are the expedition’s contributions to developing archaeological comparata, typologies, procedures, and best practices that benefit the development of archaeology in Jordan as a whole. For example, the work of ceramicist James Sauer, which was made possible to a significant degree by the high standard for stratigraphic accuracy insisted upon throughout all five field seasons by chief archaeologist Boraas, established Tell Hesban as a type site for the study of pottery from the Islamic centuries in Jordan. Another example would be the expedition’s pioneering work in the field of zooarchaeology (the study of animal bones from archaeological sites) and its adapting what has become known as archaeological food systems theory as a framework for discovering interconnections between various lines of evidence over time and space. These and many other innovative initiatives helped to make the expedition a pioneer in introducing the so-called new archaeology into Jordanian archaeology.

Crucial as well to the development of Jordanian archaeology was the promptness and thoroughness with which book-length preliminary reports were published following each of the five field seasons. The multidisciplinary scope of the final publication series is also noteworthy; in addition to the traditional stratigraphic report volumes (Hesban 6–9), the 14-volume series devotes volume-length reports to the food system (Hesban 1), local environment (Hesban 2), historical foundations (Hesban 3), ethnoarchaeological foundations (Hesban 4), archaeological survey (Hesban 5), necropolis (Hesban 10), ceramic finds (Hesban 11), small finds (Hesban 12), faunal remains (Hesban 13), and global history (Hesban 14). Of the 14 volumes in this series, all but four have been published by Andrews University Press.

The Heshbon expedition is thus a good illustration of a biblical archaeological project that managed to reinvent itself in order to deal comprehensively with the complete archaeological record of a tell and not just a selected portion. In doing so, the project has pursued a research program that to a significant extent has run counter to well-established scholarly agendas, traditions, and divisions of labor among researchers studying the ancient Near East. Indeed, efforts to describe and understand long-term culture change processes in the ancient Near East lag behind those of other regions, with fewer textual sources and less entrenched scholarship. Hesban 1 broke new ground in this regard as it introduced the concept of the food system and the related notions of intensification and abatement, sedentarization, and nomadization as theoretical constructs for studying long-term change processes at Hesban and in the Ancient Near East. Aspects of this framework, especially the notions of intensification and abatement, have since been adopted by a number of other theorists studying long-term culture change in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Hesban Cultural Heritage Project.

Renewed fieldwork at Tell Hesban began in 1996, under the umbrella of the Madaba Plains Project, the successor to the Heshbon Expedition. This phase was directed by Øystein S. LaBianca, an anthropologist, veteran of the Heshbon Expedition, and founding codirector of the Madaba Plains Project. His chief archaeologist for the 1997 and 1998 seasons was Paul J. Ray of Andrews University. In 2001, Bethany J. Walker, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto with a background in Islamic art, archaeology, and history, succeeded Ray as chief archaeologist and codirector of the project.

There were several reasons for resuming work at Tell Hesban. The first was to address the progressive deterioration of the site and to undertake work to clean, restore, and present its most significant features for the benefit of visitors and future generations. The second was to focus attention on the site’s most abundant but least understood archaeological heritage, namely, its medieval or Islamic/Ottoman-period remains. The third was to utilize the rich and varied archaeological data from Tell Hesban to develop, test, and deploy theories and constructs for understanding the site as a multimillennial whole. Finally, the fourth was to initiate a program of community outreach aimed at engaging the local community in the effort to protect, restore, and develop the site for use in local cultural heritage education and as a destination for visitors from elsewhere in Jordan and beyond.

Ten field seasons have been carried out under the umbrella of the Hesban Cultural Heritage Project (in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012). A constant during each of these seasons has been the targeted cleaning and restoration of selected in situ features. Additionally, paths and platforms have been inserted to make movement around the site safe for locals and visitors alike. Several stone gardens have been added to display disparate architectural fragments such as column capitals, sections, and bases. A total of 35 signs have been erected at the site to explain its various features to visitors. Some excavation areas have been filled in to make the site safer and to protect the ruins below. A significant amount of the restoration work has been carried out under the direction of Maria Elena Ronza, architectural historian, thanks to funding from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the U.S. Department of State Ambassador’s Grant for Cultural Preservation.

Walker’s intensive work on contemporary textual sources, largely medieval Arabic documents stored in archives in Cairo and other major cities of the region, has been an important innovation of the new project and has produced new studies on land use, tribal–state relations, and imperial decline. The renewed fieldwork at Hesban has compellingly demonstrated that the Islamic-period remains of the site are among the most historically important and best preserved in Jordan. Since 1998, the project has attracted attention for its contributions to Islamic archaeology, in general, and for raising the awareness of the medieval Islamic and Ottoman heritage of Jordan, specifically. Among some of the most important results of excavations in Islamic Hesban are the development of a typology and chronology of Ottoman pottery, the writing of a cultural history of Ottoman Jordan (based on ethnographic work and the study of vernacular architecture) and its tribal societies, environmental and ecological research, and the successful combination of written and archaeological sources in the writing of a new provincial history for the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

As important as efforts to bring to light Hesban’s rich Islamic history have been concurrent exertions to pinpoint traces of earlier global–local interactions in the site’s archaeological record. To this end, selected finds from selected historical periods are being reexamined in order to look for traces of polities that are known to have wielded influence and power over the Hesban region throughout historical times. Of the 27 imperial powers and secondary states known to have exerted political and/or cultural influence throughout the southern Levant over the past three and a half millennia, at least 15 are clearly reflected in the archaeological record of the site. The extent and nature of the interactions between these external polities and the population of Hesban during particular historical periods is an empirical question that continues to animate the agenda of researchers working at Hesban.

However, the study of such global–local interactions represents only one side of the coin in ongoing investigations of the forces that shaped local politics and daily life in Hesban throughout the past. The other side involves investigations of the survival strategies developed by the local population to maintain control over their lives in the face of unabating external intervention and predation. Here, the food systems research orientation has proven indispensable, for it has focused attention on the daily life practices of ordinary men, women, and children in their quest to secure food, water, and security for themselves, their families, and their local communities. By combining ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and ethnoarchaeological studies of the twenty-first-century inhabitants of Hesban and its vicinity with studies of archaeological remains of the past, especially animal and plant remains, this approach has helped to bring to light the “little traditions” upon which the local population has relied for millennia in their contestations with externally imposed, elite “great traditions.” In particular, fieldwork has focused on the daily life struggles of the Ajarmeh and Palestinian families of twenty-first-century Hesban, a large number of whom continue to concern themselves with the basics of daily survival in the face of an ever-expanding state apparatus and shifting international economic and political opportunities and threats. Through these various investigations, seven deep-time “indigenous hardiness structures” or “little traditions” have been brought to light.

Local-level water management.

The ancients in Hesban were masters at collecting and managing rainwater. The hill of Hesban is honeycombed with cisterns, and the hills surrounding the site preserve evidence of careful attention to water harvesting involving the use of terraces, diversion dams, and agricultural cisterns. Instead of relying on large-scale water works such as aqueducts, large reservoirs, and dams, local residents shared water from nearby natural springs and seasonal streams with other tribes.

Mixed agropastoralism.

The ancients in Hesban 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 Hesban indicates that this type of mixed agropastoralism was the mainstay of the local economy through centuries and millennia as it enabled locals to shift back and forth between animal and crop production, depending on opportunities and threats.

Residential flexibility.

To accommodate shifts back and forth between nomadic and sedentary ways of life, the ancients in Hesban knew how to live in traditional stone houses, in caves, and in tents. They would shift among these types of dwellings, depending on the season of the year and the type of farmwork they had to accomplish. A common practice was to divide the household so that some would stay in houses near their croplands while others camped in caves and tents during migrations with herds of sheep and goats.

Fluid homeland territories.

There is a saying in Hesban that “land, water, and pastures are from God.” This saying reflects the ancient practice of use rights to water and land being held in common by families and tribes. And what was considered common land by one tribe might overlap with what was considered common land by another. Not surprisingly, at times this led to conflict between tribes.


Hospitality is a means of building bonds of reciprocity, which can be called upon in times of need; and it is a means of vital information about opportunities and threats of all kinds. At Hesban, the deep-time roots of hospitality are attested in the practice of cutting sheep and goat meat into very small pieces, which can be inferred from the study of animal bones from the earliest times.

Honor and shame.

The ancients in Hesban relied on the institutions of honor and shame to manage social order in their local communities. While various bureaucratic systems of managing social order were at times imposed on the population by foreign conquerors, honor and shame remained an ever-present mechanism for mobilizing individual and social action on behalf of family and kin. The institution continues to function as a means of affirming right action and punishing neglect of duty.


Along with the locally controlled institutions of hospitality, honor, and shame, the tribe is another deep-time institution in Hesban, which has served as a primary source of identity and belonging for the local population. Tribes are still the bedrock foundation of social relations in Hesban in the sense that even in the twenty-first century where people live within the village of Hesban depends on the clan to which they belong. Since ancient times, tribal affiliation has provided people with rights to the use of land and water, protection, and spouses and has served as a means of conflict resolution and security for the future.

These “little traditions” have, since prehistoric times, provided the means for the local populace to adapt to shifting social, economic, and environmental opportunities and threats. They are a proven set of options for survival and resiliency in a region that has become legendary as a crossroads of commerce, contesting armies, and empires. They reverberate through every century and every occupational layer at the site right down to the present, which is one reason they are difficult to study stratigraphically; they appear much the same from one century to the next and from one stratum to the next. They have, for millennia, represented the bedrock of social life not only in Hesban but also in all of Jordan and much of the eastern Mediterranean, for that matter. The food systems approach aids in understanding the rise of secondary states throughout the Iron Age in the southern Levant, with Ammon, Edom, and Moab (as well as Israel and Judah) being “tribal kingdoms,” whose political elites were never far removed in sentiments and actions from the norms established by the little traditions.

Biblical Connections.

In ways that could not possibly have been anticipated by the original leaders of the Heshbon expedition, their embrace of a broader approach—their willingness to expand the mission of the project to engage with the tell as a multimillennial whole—has crystallized new perspectives and insights for examining not only the biblical narrative about Heshbon but also the biblical accounts about Ammon, Edom, and Moab. To begin with, there is the question of whether, in fact, Tell Hesban is biblical Heshbon.

Is this the Heshbon mentioned 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, most notably as an Amorite stronghold conquered by the Israelites under Moses (Num 21:21–31, Deut 2:24, Josh 12:2, Judg 11:19–26)? Is this the Heshbon where, according to Numbers 21:22, Song 7:4, and Isaiah 16:8–9, the supply of water is abundant and pastures and croplands are rich? Is this the Heshbon that for a season was controlled by the Moabites (Num 21:26)? Is this the Heshbon that was wrested from the Moabites by Sihon, king of the Amorites, who made it his capital city (Num 21:26, 21:28, 21:34; Deut 1:4, 2:24, 2:30; 3:2, 3:6, 4:46, 29:7; Josh 9:10, 12:2, 12:5, 13:10, 13:21, 13:27; Judg 11:19; Neh 9:22)? Is this the Heshbon overtaken by the Israelites (Num 21:34), the Heshbon that, according to Joshua 13:17–26, was given as an inheritance to the tribe of Reuben? Is this the Heshbon which, according to Numbers 32:37–38, was rebuilt by the tribe of Reuben, along with the nearby towns of Elealeh, Kiriathaim, Nebo, Baal-meon, and Sibmah? Is this the Heshbon that, along with “Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon” was settled by Israelites for “three hundred years” (Judg 11:26)? Is this the Heshbon that several other neighboring tribes and tribal kinglets, including those of Gad (Josh 1:38–39, 1 Chr 6:80–81), Moab (Isa 15:4, 16:8–9; Jer 48:2, 48:34, 48:45), and Ammon (Jer 49:3), sought to claim as theirs? Is this the Heshbon of Song of Solomon (7:4), whose pools reminded the writer of the eyes of his beloved? These are all intriguing questions inspired by the narrative about Heshbon presented in the Hebrew Bible. To what extent is this narrative supported by the research of the two teams that have worked at Tell Hesban?

The short answer to this question is that there is no hard evidence incontrovertibly linking the archaeological data recovered at Tell Hesban to this entire biblical narrative; only at selected points do these two parallel narratives intersect. While no single artifact has been uncovered that can be assigned to Sihon or the Amorites, the lack of distinctive cultural or perhaps physical characteristics differentiating them from other cultures compounds the problem. Moreover, no archaeological evidence has successfully been linked to the Amorites. Finds that can plausibly be attributed to a Reubenite settlement at Hesban are largely restricted to the use of the same early Iron-Age ceramic wares, most notably the so-called collared-rim storage jars, found in similarly dated sites on both sides of the Jordan River.

However, no longer can one be as confident about this negative archaeological evidence as were earlier biblical scholars, for what the written texts relate about particular people groups and polities does not necessarily correspond to what is reflected in the available archaeological record. Thus, while there is no direct evidence of Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, or Persian imperial interventions at Hesban, this negative archaeological evidence does not preclude their having impacted the livelihoods of the residents of Hesban. On the contrary, a careful study of the archaeological data does indeed point to the influence of these major empires on the material culture and economy of Hesban. For example, Assyrian cultural influences may be observed in the distinctive Ammonite pottery of the seventh century, which was used at Hesban. Neither should Persian influence in Hesban be discounted, given the fact that Ammon fell within the sphere of the Persian province of Ammon (Ezra 8:36, Neh 2:7–19), part of the fifth satrapy “beyond the river.” Five administrative seal impressions from nearby Tall al-ʾUmayri that name two Ammonite officials, Shubaʿ and Aya, provide evidence that the surrounding region indeed became a Persian province after Cyrus inherited the former Babylonian Empire. Excavations at Hesban unearthed several walls, Attic ware, as well as two Aramaic ostraca dating to the Persian period. Where the archaeological evidence does allow for conjectures about biblical connections is with regard to the Israelite, Moabite, and Ammonite “tribal kingdoms.”

Israel and Judah.

With the expansion of the Israelite monarchy, Transjordan came under Israelite control after David’s military victories over Ammonite, Moabite, and Aramean forces (2 Sam 8:2, 8:6, 8:12, 8:14, 10:1—11:1, 12:26–31; 1 Chr 18:2, 19:1—20:3). Hesban and the surrounding region came under Israelite hegemony after a pitched military engagement east of Madaba (1 Chr 19:7).

The discovery of a very large rock-hewn reservoir, dated to the tenth century B.C.E. (Iron Age IIA) by its excavators at Hesban, has been equated with one of the “pools of Heshbon” spoken of poetically in Song of Solomon 7:4. However, research and discussion about Iron-Age royal gardens and estates may provide a clue to the function of this reservoir, which went out of use early in the Hellenistic period. The existence of lavish royal gardens is well known in the ancient Near East, and their use continued throughout the Islamic periods. The Hesban reservoir’s enormous 581,178.2 gallon (2.2 million liter) capacity and superb construction strongly favor governmental initiative or royal sponsorship, and its ashlar masonry closely parallels contemporary walls at Megiddo (level VA–IVB). Hesban’s attractive geographic setting and strategic location at the confluence of geographic zones demarcating traditional tribal and political borders make it a superb choice for an administrative center and perhaps even for a royal estate. The possibility should therefore not be ruled out that the insertion of a huge reservoir in the hill of Hesban was part of an elite-sponsored project to establish in this magnificent location a royal estate and gardens (Eccl 2:4–6). While one cannot be certain about the identity of the elite actors behind this initiative, the fact that biblical sources hint that Hesban served as Solomon’s twelfth district capital late in his reign (1 Kgs 4:19) provides a plausible working hypothesis for future research on this problem.

The political status of Hesban after the division of the Israelite kingdom is unknown, but the Israelite Omride dynasty controlled the Madaba Plains until it was driven back by Mesha of Moab after the coup d’état of Jehu. Hesban and its vicinity may have fallen under Judahite control during the mid-eighth-century B.C.E. reigns of Uzziah and Jotham (2 Chr 26:8–10, 27:5), after Uzziah gained control over Jeroboam II’s Transjordanian holdings (2 Kgs 14:28), which extended from Gilead south to the Sea of the Arabah (Dead Sea).


The Moabite presence at Hesban may actually predate that of the Amorites. According to Numbers 21:26, Sihon and the Amorites defeated the Moabites, eliminating them from the Madaba plains. While the political status of Hesban during the late tenth and early ninth centuries B.C.E. remains unclear, Mesha, king of Moab, rebelled against Israel after Ahab’s death and Israel’s defeat at Ramoth Gilead in ca. 853 B.C.E. Mesha advanced north from the Arnon gorge, capturing Israelite (Gadite) towns including Madaba, Ataroth, Nebo, and Jahaz. However, unless Hesban is included as part of the “land of Madaba” in the Mesha Stele, its absence in Mesha’s victory inscription implies that it remained within Israelite territory as a border town. Later eighth- and seventh-century B.C.E. prophetic texts presuppose Moabite control over both Hesban and Elealeh (Isa 15:4, 16:8–9; Jer 48:34). The Isaianic oracles clearly reflect the geopolitical realities in Transjordan that followed the fall of the Jehu dynasty, the destructive Syro-Ephraimite War, and the brutal campaign of Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745–727 B.C.E.), whose army obliterated Aram-Damascus, decimated northern Israel and weakened Judah. Close ceramic parallels among Hesban and Dhibon and Aroer during the eighth century B.C.E. (Iron Age IIB) suggest Moabite influence and perhaps control. However, the remains of this level (stratum 17) at Hesban are negligible and lack any discernible phasing.

Details from other historical sources also point toward Moabite control during this period. The Mesha Stele highlights Mesha’s water-conservation projects; and, while Hesban is not mentioned, Moabite occupation of sites just to the south of Hesban (Nebo, Madaba, and Bezer) make a later northern Moabite thrust to control Hesban a possibility. If the Moabites indeed occupied Hesban in the late ninth century B.C.E. or later, they may have cleaned, repaired, and (re)plastered the tenth-century B.C.E. reservoir since ceramic material from the preceding period was lacking. Nevertheless, the sparse remains of this level suggest more of a squatter settlement than a town.


The Ammonites, known from the Hebrew Bible as well as other sources, established a kingdom at Rabbath Ammon, an imposing site at the headwaters of the Jabbok River (modern Jebal Amman). Archaeological evidence indicates that the Ammonites were indigenous to the region as far back as the second millennium B.C.E. or earlier. The location of Hesban borders the Ammonite hill country to the north, with Rabbath-Ammon less than 12.4 miles (20 km) distant. Hence, Ammonite influence and hegemony over Hesban undoubtedly occurred at various times during the first and possibly the late second millennia B.C.E. Scholars are unsure exactly when the Ammonites controlled Hesban. Some suggest that the site was probably outside of Ammon’s sphere of influence during the Iron-I period, except perhaps during a brief period of expansion in the days of Ehud and Jephthah (Judg 3:13, 10:6—12:7). Hesban fell under Ammonite control at some point during the Iron Age IIB–C period, most demonstrably during the seventh and sixth centuries (Jer 49:3) but perhaps as early as the late eighth century. The ebb and flow of regional kingdoms probably resulted in Hesban falling under the control of various neighboring powers during this time. Characteristic Ammonite pottery appears at Hesban from the late seventh century B.C.E. (Iron Age IIC) to at least the end of the Iron Age, and certain forms persist until the fourth century B.C.E. The most dramatic finds that demonstrate an Ammonite presence at Hesban are the six ostraca and two graffiti in Ammonite script recovered from the site. This small corpus has been dated to the late seventh to the early fifth centuries B.C.E. Of particular note is Ostracon 1, which constitutes a list of sizable commodities, apparently received as taxes and duly recorded by the Ammonite royal steward, since the Ammonite king is the intended recipient (revealed by the mention of [L]MLK in the opening phrase). The Ammonites and their descendants continued to live at Hesban for centuries, probably well into the Hellenistic period if not later.

Hesban = Heshbon?

The question as to whether Hesban equals biblical Heshbon continues to be debated. This ongoing dialogue is largely due to the paucity of pre–Iron Age remains at the site, although a few Late Bronze to Iron I transitional sherds have been identified. However, in light of the tribal kingdom model, perhaps an abundance of architectural and ceramic archaeological remains should be neither expected nor sought at the site. The high bedrock level and correspondingly shallow remains that cover much of Hesban, coupled with extensive clearing and modifications for construction projects undertaken during later historical periods, have all but eradicated earlier stratigraphic remains. Such realities, faced by Hesban’s excavators, demonstrate the limitations of archaeology in historical reconstruction for this critical period of biblical history. Consequently, Hesban should remain a leading candidate for biblical Heshbon, based upon topographic and toponymic considerations as well as upon information gleaned from archaeological and historical sources.

[See also MOAB.)]


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Øystein S. LaBianca and Jeffrey P. Hudon