“Ammon” refers to a territory located in and around the modern city of Amman, Jordan during the Iron Age II (approximately 1000–586 B.C.E.), where a people group called “Ammonites” lived. In the Hebrew Bible this group is referred to as “the sons/children of Ammon.” Neo-Assyrian inscriptions from the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. also mention “Ammon,” and refer to its inhabitants as “the House of Ammon.” The biblical narrative describes the origin of the Ammonite nation in the Lot story of Genesis 19, and Ammon is remembered as a political adversary to Israel and Judah during the time of King David, and later during the time of the Divided Monarchy.

Historical Geography. According to ancient texts and archaeological discoveries, the core of the Ammonite territory corresponds to the modern city of Amman, a comparatively small area to the northeast of the Dead Sea. Ammonite control over the regions surrounding it expanded and contracted over time (MacDonald 2000, 157–70). The traditional and natural boundary of the Ammonites to the north was the Wadi az-Zarqa (biblical Jabbok). There was no natural boundary to the south; however, based on analysis of distinctive regional pottery assemblages, it seems likely that Ammon’s border lay on the southern part of the Madaba Plains. Pottery from sites such as Tall Jalul and Tall Madaba, at least in some periods, were Moabite rather than Ammonite, indicating a change in territory.

The territory of the Ammonites falls in the Mediterranean climate zone typical of the region, with wet, cold winters, dry, hot summers, and transitional periods in the fall and spring. Once distinguishing feature, however, is that Ammon lies in a rain-shadow area, meaning conditions have to be just right for precipitation to occur. It receives 450–500 millimeters of rainfall on average in a normal year, but this number can drop as low as 150 millimeters in dry years or rise to 1,000 millimeters during wet years. This rainfall, combined with water from springs and wells, typically allows two harvests each year in May and September, including cereals, fruits, and vegetables. These conditions are typical for the region and it is only in times of political strength and peace (i.e., Pax Assyriaca) when a surplus would be possible.

Biblical and Postbiblical Texts. The origin story of the nation of Ammon takes place in Genesis 19:30–38. In the story, Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with his two daughters. Lot’s daughters got him drunk, laid with him, and eventually give birth to the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites (other passages showing biblical lineage include Deut 2:19; Gen 19:38). Throughout the Pentateuch passages such as Deuteronomy 2:19–21 and Numbers 21:24 describe the privileged relationship between God and the Ammonites.

Despite their biblical lineage, relationships between the Ammonites and the Israelites are consistently conflictual, beginning with Deuteronomy 23:4–7 where the Ammonites and Moabites were forbidden from being part of the assembly of Yahweh. These conflicts continue in 1 Samuel 11:1–11 which begins a series of accounts detailing the battles between first King Saul and then King David and the Ammonites. In 2 Samuel 10:1—11:1 David defeated the Ammonites. In 2 Samuel 12:26–31 David and Joab besieged the capital city of Rabbah. In 1 Kings 11:1–5, 14:21 Solomon had Ammonite wives who caused him to worship other gods and build “high places” for them, including one for Milkom, the primary deity of the Ammonites, a biblical reference to the god of the Ammonites who is also mentioned in primary texts discovered in archaeological excavations.

Biblical and deuteurocanonical/postbiblical historical sources are somewhat ambiguous about the relationship between Ammon and Israel/Judah and their Mesopotamian conquerors. Beginning in Nehemiah 2:10 and continuing throughout the book, Tobiah the Ammonite and Sanballat the Horonite, along with other groups, opposed the building of the walls of Jerusalem and accused Nehemiah of planning a revolt. The Ammonites are often negatively grouped with Moabites in exilic and postexilic prophetic texts (such as, Amos 1:13–15; Jer 27:1–15, 40:7–41:15; Ezek 21:33–37, 25:1–7; and Zeph 2:8–11).

There are several references to further conflicts between the Israelites and the Ammonites in the deuterocanonical books of Judith and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The Ammonite army was recruited to help the Assyrians in their siege (Jdt 7:17–18). Scholars addressing the history of the southern Levant in the Neo-Babylonian Period frequently refer to Josephus, Ant. 10.9.7, as possible evidence for a Babylonian attack on the Ammonites and Moabites in the year 582 B.C.E. There are a number of sites (such as Tall al-Mazar and Tall Safut) that were destroyed around this time, but the destroying forces are unknown. Josephus creatively built his account of Nebuchadnezzar’s 582 B.C.E. campaign from the text of Jeremiah, and as such, provides no independent witness to such a campaign (Tyson 2014, 144).

Assyrian and Ammonite Epigraphic Sources. The earliest possible reference to Ammon in a primary source discovered in an archaeological context is found in Shalmaneser III’s Kurkh Monolith Inscription (Grayson 1996, 11–24). In his description of his sixth campaign (853 B.C.E.), Shalmaneser described his attack on the lands of Irhuleni of Hamath. Shalmaneser captured four of Irhuleni’s cities before being met by a military coalition from the Levant. The name mentioned can be translated as “Baʿašaʾ, son of Ruḫubi, the Ammonite,” and would be the earliest nonbiblical reference to an Ammonite ruler. There is much debate on this interpretation, since every other time the Ammonites are mentioned in an Assyrian source, the phrase “house of” is used. However, it seems that the majority of scholars view the interpretation “the Ammonite” as most accurate translation.

The majority of Assyrian texts mentioning Ammon are simply lists of tribute and the rulers offering said tribute. All these texts use “house of Ammon” to reference Ammonites. The king of the Ammonites, “Šanipu of the House of Ammon,” is listed as paying tribute to Tiglath-pileser III in 734 B.C.E. along with the other Transjordanian kingdoms of Moab and Edom (Tadmor 1994, 170–1). In his third campaign, Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.E.) listed five Phoenician kings and “Puduil of the House of Ammon,” along with the kings of Moab and Edom as bringing “their heavy gifts/tribute” to him for the fourth time. During the reign of Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.), the Ammonites appeared twice in royal inscriptions. The first time “Amminadab king of the House of Ammon” appeared in a list of southern Levantine rulers who provided troops for Assurbanipal’s campaign against Egypt in 667 B.C.E.

Several inscriptions were found in and around the capital of Ammon, modern day Amman. These inscriptions are royal and reference kings and usually the god Milcom. The Amman Citadel Inscription (Aufrecht 1989, no. 59) was discovered in 1961 in the remains of Iron Age fortifications on the southwest part of the Amman Citadel. References are made to Milcom, the god of the Ammonites, and it is possible that this monumental inscription originally was located in a temple beneath the Temple of Zeus. The inscription is dated paleographically between the mid-ninth and early eighth centuries B.C.E. The Amman Statue Inscription (Aufrecht 1989, no. 43) was found with three partial statues in 1951 outside the Roman city wall on the north end of the Amman Citadel. The script is either Aramaic or Ammonite and dated paleographically to the late eighth or seventh century B.C.E. (Aufrecht 1989, 108). Scholars read the end of line two in different ways, though most typically it is translated as “Yerahʾazar, son of Sanib” (Aufrecht 1989, 106). This translation may provide an identification with “Šanipu of the House of Ammon,” who paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser III in 734 B.C.E., and would therefore reference two kings. A third, the Amman Theater Inscription (Aufrecht 1989, no. 58), was located below the Iron Age site.

In 1972 excavations on the campus of the University of Jordan uncovered a small metal bottle 0.70 meter below the modern surface near bedrock. Pottery in the square came from the Hellenistic through Ayyubid/Mamluk periods and the seventh–sixth centuries B.C.E. The Tall Siran Bottle is 10 centimeters long and made of copper, lead, and tin. The inscription has eight lines of fully preserved text in Ammonite script, dated paleographically to about 600 B.C.E. The bottle was made for a king “Amminadab, son of Hissal-el, son of Amminadab.” The King Amminadab for whom the bottle was made was the grandson of the Amminadab listed in the inscription and mentioned as giving tribute to Ashurbanipal in 667 B.C.E.

There are a number of Ammonite ostraca from various sites throughout Jordan dating from the seventh through the fifth century B.C.E. These inscriptions are typically considered Ammonite based on some combination of paleography, linguistics, geography, and archaeology. They are largely administrative or economic in function. There is also a large corpus of Ammonite seals determined to be Ammonite based on similar criteria for the ostraca. These seals were dated from the eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E.

These various inscriptions are important because they fill in the history of the Ammonites. Several Ammonite kings are now known, their primary deity Milcom is confirmed, and most importantly their connection to the Assyrians is better understood. Unlike Israel and Judah, Ammon maintained peace with the Assyrians and didn’t suffer because of it.

Archaeological Evidence. It is unclear when the people group self-identifying as Ammonite began living in the land of Ammon as described above. A unique material culture identified as Ammonite appears in the Iron Age IIB (and perhaps IIA), so speaking of the Ammonites archaeologically earlier than this time period is difficult. However, there does seem to be enough continuity in the material culture between the Iron Age I and the Iron Age II to warrant surveying the archaeological data in the early Iron Age I.

Iron Age I. As mentioned above there are enough similarities between Iron Age II “Ammonite” material and the Iron Age I material culture from the area typically associated with the kingdom of Ammon to discuss the archaeological finds from this period. The discoveries at sites such as Tall al-ʿUmayri and Tall Safut show the importance of these locations beginning in the Iron Age I and continuing on into the Iron Age II. The type of site and material culture is very similar to what is appearing in the land of Israel and Judah during this time, and the events that are taking place in the book of Joshua and Judges.

The most significant Ammonite finds come from the Late Bronze II/Iron IA transition period at Tall al-ʿUmayri. The 1.5-hectare site contained several houses, including a four-room house, and had an extensive fortification system that included a fosse, a glacis with a retaining wall, and a set of casemate walls at the top (which was constructed in the Late Bronze and incorporated the earlier Middle Bronze fortification system). This fortification system was then destroyed sometime in the twelfth century, as evidenced by a massive destruction layer with burned material up to 2.0 meters thick (Clark 1997, 62–85). The succeeding two strata date to the end of the Iron I and consist of a few partially exposed buildings with a cobbled courtyard where ritual activities took place (Herr 2008, 185; Herr and Clark 2007, 125–126).

Occupation during the Iron Age I is represented at Tall Safut by a domestic area in Square B6. In that square a number of collared-rim storage jars were found located next to the city wall—a feature found at other Iron Age I sites, such as Tall al-ʿUmayri and Shiloh. Two installations were also found in this square, likely related to storage or possibly food production. This domestic area was the only Iron Age I stratigraphy found at the site (Chesnut2018).

Other sites with evidence for occupation in the Iron I also point to continuity with the Late Bronze Age IIC. The town of Saḥab expanded beyond the confines of the Late Bronze Age fortification walls where some domestic buildings that date to the Iron I were uncovered (Ibrahim 1997, 450–451). At Tall Ḥisban, a few remains from the Iron I (Strata 21–19, although only two diagnostic sherds come from 19 [Sauer and Herr 2012, 53]) consisted of pottery, a deep bedrock trench, and a cistern. Several other sites provide possible evidence for Late Bronze/Iron I transition and Iron I habitation, including Tall Jawa from Stratum X (Daviau 2003, 468–469), Khirbat al-Hajjar, Rujm al-Malfuf South, Khirbat Umm ad-Dananir, and Rujm al-Ḥenu East (McGovern 1986, 8–13).

It has been suggested that some of these sites (such as Tall al-ʿUmayri) be connected to the tribe of Reuben, who settles in Transjordan instead of in Israel. However there isn’t enough archaeological evidence to clearly state whether Reubenites, proto-Ammonites, or some other group occupied these sites. Suffice to say, in the following period Ammonites would begin to emerge in the archaeological record and historical sources.

Iron Age IIA. The remains from the Amman Citadel are significant here because of their connection to the biblical account of King David warring against the Ammonites. The events of these stories would fit in this archaeological period. There is very little evidence elsewhere for solid occupation dating to this period. This idea would fit well with what we know from the Bible and history of the kingdom of Ammon beginning in the time and expanding in the Iron Age IIB and IIC.

Very few remains from the Iron Age IIA have been found in the territory of the Ammonites (Herr and Najjar 2001, 329–331). Soundings conducted in 1969 at the Amman Citadel found some walls and a possible gate. Dornemann dated the walls to the tenth–ninth centuries (Dornemann 1983, 90–92, 170–172). Excavations on the lower terrace likewise found some possible tenth- to ninth-century pottery in several ashy layers not associated with architecture (Zayadine 1973, 30).

Ḥesban Stratum 18 dates to about the eleventh–tenth centuries B.C.E. based on pottery, although Herr would date material from the eleventh century B.C.E. through the ninth century B.C.E. (Sauer and Herr 2012, 53). Very few remains are securely dated to this stratum; however, one subterranean room with a cobbled floor dates to this period. It is possible that the large Iron Age reservoir dates to this period, but based on parallels, it better fits in the Iron Age IIB.

There is very little evidence for Ammonite occupation at Iron IIA ʿUmayri. Thus far, the remains from Stratum 9 consist only of a floor from the preceding Field H sanctuary, which may have been used during this period (Herr and Clark 2009, 90). During the 2016 excavation season a storage room with a cobbled floor and intact storage jars was excavated, likely dating to this stratum. However, the pottery must be fully analyzed before a final decision can be reached.

Iron Age IIB. The book of Chronicles mentions several wars between the kings of Judah and the Ammonites. These skirmishes would fit best during this period. The archaeological record shows the growth and development of many sites in the territory of the Ammonites after the lull from the mid-Iron Age I through the Iron Age IIA. Many sites, including those at the periphery of the Ammonite territory, expand to large sizes during this time, evidence of a strong cultural entity that could have carried out wars against Judah.

The Amman Citadel has yielded a small number of finds from the Iron Age IIB. Some pottery from the Amman Citadel as well as some possible walls, a possible gate, and a tunnel may date to the Iron IIB (Dornemann 1983, 89–90, 170–172). On the lower terrace there are remains below Iron IIC levels that probably date to the Iron IIB and provide evidence for a destruction.

Tall Jalul is one of the largest tells on the Amman Plateau, although the material cultural evidence at the site is fluid with remains from the Iron Age IIC seeming to be Ammonite, but remains from this period possibly indicate Moabite presence. Excavations, which began on the site in 1992, have uncovered a ninth-century flagstone-paved ramp that goes up to the city gate, where remnants of a gatehouse still exist (Younker 2007). A rebuilding of the ramp and several buildings indicates occupation in the eighth century B.C.E. as well. The largest water system in Jordan, and perhaps all of the southern Levant in the Iron Age, is currently being excavated at Jalul. Although analysis of the finds is only beginning, it appears as if this large plastered reservoir and accompanying water channel and architecture were constructed in the eighth century B.C.E. Adjacent to the water channel is a large pillared building with a room containing broken pottery a little under 1 meter deep throughout.

At Tall Jawa, significant remains have been found from the Iron IIB. Stratum IX consists of a perimeter wall with offsets and insets, a retaining wall and possible glacis, as well as passageways, a tower, and guardroom (Daviau 2003, 49–57). A large building (B102) with orthogonal planning was also found in this stratum (Daviau 2003, 125–130).

At Safut the major Iron II perimeter wall rested on a pure Iron IIB destruction level. This wall is founded on a deep pit (0.9 meter wide by 2 meters long by 2.25 meters deep) faced with stone and containing burned material dating to Iron IIB (ninth–eighth century B.C.E.). It appears as if the entire complex located in Areas B and C was founded during this period and continues throughout the Late Iron Age IIC (Chesnut 2018).

The 2008 season at ʿUmayri found a house in Field A that dates to the Iron IIB (late ninth–eighth century). Excavations exposed three rooms of the house with walls preserved around 1.0 meter high. It is likely that the sanctuary from Field H continued into this period (Herr and Clark 2009, 90).

Iron Age IIC. Archaeology shows the period of Assyrian and Babylonian influence largely corroborates the picture as seen in biblical, postbiblical, and epigraphic sources. Certain finds including the Baʾalis seal from Tall al-ʿUmayri lend credence to biblical passages dating to the time of the prophets. It clear from small finds, architecture, and pottery that the Assyrian presence was felt throughout the territory of the Ammonites.

Excavations conducted on the upper terrace of the Amman Citadel just outside the Roman temple uncovered a building dating to the seventh–sixth century B.C.E. It is a massive building consisting of an east-west wall 21 meters long and a north-south wall 6 meters long. This north-south wall may continue and bring the dimensions of the building to a large square. A lack of interior walls suggests it was a substantial courtyard that was most likely part of a public building. The main building had a beaten earth courtyard measuring about 10 meters wide by 15 meters long, a bathroom with a stone toilet and drain, and some storage rooms. These elements parallel Assyrian open-court architectural style.

The seventh–sixth century B.C.E. is represented at Jalul by a tripartite building complex, a pillared house, and a number of small finds. Within the tripartite, several bodies were found in a cistern along with arrowheads, evidence of the destruction of the area. The small finds include animal and human figurines, a deity figurine (Younker 2007, 132–133), as well as an inscribed seal attributed to the seventh century, and an ostracon dated to the sixth century (Gane 2008).

At Tall Jawa Strata VIIB (ca. seventh century B.C.E.) and VIIA (ca. sixth century B.C.E.), continue from the earlier settlement. Stratum VIIB include buildings 800 and 700, two large structures (ca. 230 m2 and 190 m2 respectively) with some parallels in Neo-Assyrian domestic architecture.

The site of Safut was at its largest during the Ammonite period and a more extensive defense system was built. It was likely used as an administrative and trade center during the periods of Assyrian and Babylonian hegemony (Chesnut 2018). The casemate wall (2.2 meters thick) was reinforced by another wall with a dirt core. The casemate room (Room A/Square A1), fully excavated to its floor, showed a destruction level with smashed cookpots, loom weights, lamps, and female-figurine heads. A number of Ammonite-type vessels were found that date to the Iron Age IIC. In Areas B and C there are six phases of a large building. Five of these phases belong to the Iron IIC/Persian Period. There are three living surfaces separated by two fills or collapses. Important finds include a Babylonian seal impression depicting a priest worshipping the god Marduk, an Assyrian seal, and a large amount of Assyrian-style pottery.

At Sahab the Iron IIC settlement appears to have been a smaller but better planned town than its Iron I counterpart. Excavations uncovered a large pillared building (ca. 19 by 10 meters) (similar to ones from Jalul, al-ʿUmayri, Safut, etc.) in Area B.

At Tall al-ʿUmayri the most prominent remains in this period are a complex of three buildings, the whole measuring 15 by 25 meters, that was built in the sixth century and continued in use into the fifth century. The complex used stone walls around 1 meter thick. Sixteen seals and seal impressions came from this building complex, including those belonging to the Persian province of Ammon (similar to the Yehud seals found in Judah), and a seal belonging to an official of King Baʿalyašaʿ (equated with Baʿalis mentioned in Jer 40:14).

Rujm al-Ḥenu West (Baqʿah Valley Site 2) is located in the middle of the Baqʿah Valley just north of Tall Safut. A large rectangular building measuring 46 by 44 meters with a circular tower in one corner was uncovered. The walls consisted of two lines of fieldstone, in the same manner as most of the so-called towers around Amman. Recently, the site has been excavated further by the Department of the Antiquities of Jordan, revealing a very large staircase and a significant destruction level. Iron IIC/Persian pottery predominated in this building, indicating that it is essentially a one-period site.

Other Late Iron Age sites include Rujm al-Kursi, ad-Dreijat, Rujm Selim, Khirbat al-Hajjar, Khilda, Rujm al-Malfuf, Rujm al-Mekheizin, and Abu Nseir.

Conclusion

The Bible remains the dominant source for the history of Ammon, with archaeology, epigraphy, and geography providing additional perspective on the region and its inhabitants. For the beginning of the Iron Age archaeology is the only real source for understanding the Ammonites. As the Iron Age continues the archaeological evidence is supplemented by biblical texts, local inscriptions, and Assyrian sources, which together paint a more complete picture of ancient Ammon as a political rival to its Israelite and Judahite neighbors, and a local Levantine polity that seems to have pursued a policy of appeasement toward the imperial forces of its day. It is only with the rise of the Assyrians that the Ammonite polity shows the most economic growth and political complexity. It is during this time that Ammon is a target for oracles from the biblical prophets.

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Owen Chestnut