La Sierra, SDAs lead archaeological legacy in Jordan
April 7, 2009
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( www.lasierra.edu )By Darla Martin Tucker
In 1953, under an azure Middle Eastern sky, Larry Geraty’s father baptized him in the brown waters of the famed Jordan river. The baptism took place near where historians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus, creating a poignant moment for the 13-year-old Geraty.
“It was very muddy. I know how Naaman the Syrian felt about the Jordan, but at the same time it was very meaningful to think I was literally following in the footsteps of my Lord,” said Geraty, now La Sierra University’s president emeritus and archaeology professor.
The memory stands out among the shimmering recollections of Geraty’s first visits to Jordan where 15 years after his baptism he began leading and initiating excavations that placed Seventh-day Adventist archaeologists -- and ultimately La Sierra University -- on the global archaeological map.
In 1968 Geraty, a student under the direction of noted Andrews University religion and archaeology Professor Siegfried Horn, began excavating the Tall Hisban site in Jordan. “I was on the ground floor of the very first Adventist dig,” Geraty said.
Throughout 40 years of archaeological discovery, Geraty and La Sierra religion Professor Douglas Clark, who joined Geraty’s dig at Hisban in 1973, have unearthed some of the country’s most significant biblical-era artifacts. Key finds include the coin-sized Baalis seal impression mentioning an Ammonite king (Jeremiah 40:14) and an ancient “four-room” house.
Clark led excavations over a six-year period that ultimately unearthed the “four-room” house. “This house was really the center of archaeological life in Jordan,” he said. Walking into the 3,000-year-old ruins, complete with pottery, stoneware, alabaster, metal and other stuff of past centuries was a spiritual experience for Clark and represented the high-water mark of his career. La Sierra’s biology department will use a DNA sequencer to analyze the bones of four people found in the house. “This [house] was the discovery of discoveries,” said Clark, and a manifestation that has attracted scholars from around the world.
Upon his arrival in Jordan in 1973, Clark found everything about the country memorable, “..the new culture, the dry conditions, the biblical feel of the place, the hard work in the sun, the life-long friendships begun with people of all faiths and backgrounds,” he said.
His initiation to the Middle East included hospitalization the first three days for dehydration and an exhilarating first visit to Petra under a full moon.
Geraty led the Hisban dig between 1973 and 1978. Andrews University currently sponsors continuing excavation at the site. In 1984 Geraty started another dig in the region at Tall al-‘Umayri, a project sponsored by La Sierra University where students and Assistant Professor Robert Bates participate in biennial excavations. The La Sierra contingent last summer uncovered more than 1,000 pounds of 3,200-year-old pottery jar pieces which students are cataloging, reassembling and gluing back together.
The university also sent a box of seeds discovered at the excavation to an ancient botany specialist and four boxes of broken pottery shards to Canadian University College where archaeologist Larry Herr is performing diagnostics on the pieces. The process involves making detailed drawings of the shards and recording their color, texture, firing technique, weight, size, shape and other attributes to ultimately determine their age within 25 or so years. “Diagnostics are crucial. They are the bread and butter of archaeology,” Clark said.
In 1992 Geraty initiated another excavation at Tall-Jalul. The three-dig site is collectively known as the Madaba Plains Project. It is located on a highland plateau between the Jordanian cities of Amman and Madaba and is centered at the Andrews University Institute of Archaeology. Clark, who arrived at La Sierra in 2006 from the Boston-based American Schools of Oriental Research, directs the ‘Umayri project. This October, Equinox Publishing in London will release a 40th anniversary volume detailing the excavations and significant finds of the Madaba Plains Project. Clark led a team of directors to edit the book which is dedicated to Geraty and his wife, Gillian. At the request of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Clark is also overseeing the renovation of the Madaba museum, the digitizing of its records and training of its staff.
“The Madaba Plains Project and its offshoots in Jordan constitute the largest, longest-running American archaeological project in 150 years in the Middle East,” said William H. Dever, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern Archaeology at the University of Arizona. Dever is one of the country’s leading biblical archaeologists. In November 2007 he provided a videotaped interview for DVD about the Madaba Plains Project. The DVD is for the proposed La Sierra University Archaeology Museum.
“That project pioneered new regional surveys, new interdisciplinary pursuits and the newest technology in archaeology,” Dever said during the interview. “When you consider it was sponsored by a small, some would say marginal, American Christian denomination, Adventists, it’s even more remarkable.”
“The Hisban excavation was truly a turning point in archaeological research in Jordan,” commented Dr. Ghazi Bisheh, a former director of antiquities in Jordan and long-time friend of Geraty and Clark. “Their multi-disciplinary approach, their interest in environmental issues and prompt publication made very important contributions to the archaeology of the country,” he said.
Adventures of a lifetime
The shepherd boy shouted “mamnouah” and waved as Geraty and a few friends in a Volkswagen camper sped past him along a dirt road in Southern Lebanon. The boy’s shouted word, which translated meant “forbidden,” was an ominous sign to the travelers who didn’t fully comprehend its true meaning until it was too late. “We went around another bend and there were teen boys with rifles,” Geraty said.
The boys indicated the travelers had entered Palestinian controlled territory and led the Volkswagen into a refugee camp. There, in a room of a village house, Palestinian terrorist leaders took away the travelers’ cameras and angrily accused the group of serving as spies for the United States and Israel.
It was the summer of 1970 and Palestinians were carving out and controlling regions of Arab countries. Geraty, a Harvard University graduate student, was in Jordan on a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Hebrew University. While there he determined he would visit the original city of ancient Tyre, a mainland site that had not yet been excavated by archaeologists. It was this destination to which he and his friends were headed, eagerly anticipating a close-up look at the ruins when the Palestinian terrorists derailed their plans.
Geraty, who spoke on the group’s behalf, chose to employ patience and respect with their gun-wielding kidnappers, rather than belligerence derived from fear. “By the end of the day we had a relationship,” Geraty said. The kidnappers eventually brought the group drinks. By late afternoon they freed the Americans, returned their cameras minus the film, and instructed them to spread the word about Palestine’s predicament as a result of U.S. Middle Eastern policies.
From the startling run-in with terrorists to the discovery of amazing biblical-era artifacts, Geraty, and later Clark, experienced colorful adventures of a lifetime in Jordan and a renewed perspective of biblical stories. They forged lifelong friendships with local workers, royalty and national leaders who treat the archaeologists like family. Some friendships reached part way around the world and touched down at La Sierra.
In 1968, an eight-year-old boy named Mustafa Al-Barari begged to work for the team after his father, a laborer for the excavations, died. “This guy worked harder than any three men. Even at break time he wanted stuff to do,” Geraty said.
The young Al-Barari hauled dirt and rocks away from the dig sites in wheelbarrows. An ambitious young man, he later earned a scholarship to the University of Jordan where he studied accounting. He worked for the Jordanian offices of one of the largest American accounting firms and after becoming a certified public accountant, he served as manager of a foreign trade zone in Aqaba, Jordan. Around 2005 Al-Barari came to La Sierra where he earned a Master’s in Business Administration. Following a stint in England to earn a doctorate, Al-Barari became the chief of Jordan’s audit bureau.
“What matters in Jordan is that family, friendships, hospitality, personal ties always trump getting down to business,” Clark said. “…priorities always put people and their well-being first.”
Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, daughter of Prince El Hassan bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan, for several years helped the archaeologists with restoration plans for the excavation site. She later wrote a preface for the Madaba Plains Project 40th anniversary volume. When Clark and his wife visited the princess and her family in the palace in years past, “she and her children baked brownies for us,” Clark said.
“Both Hisban and ‘Umayri projects provided the opportunity to make friends, good friends,” said Bisheh, the former antiquities director in Jordan. “It has always been a great pleasure to get to know these gentlemen and I’ll always cherish their friendship.”
La Sierra’s archaeological mission
La Sierra University achieved its status as a major contributor of biblical-era archaeological discoveries through long-term commitment, said Dever of the University of Arizona. “By comparison with much larger, more prestigious universities, La Sierra University stands on its own.”
La Sierra now has the largest collection of artifacts outside of Israel. The assemblage includes table settings typical of a home in 8th Century Judah, a full complement of artifacts from a Judean tomb, 300 to 400 lamps and jars. “It’s a stunning collection. No museum in America has anything like it,” Dever said. And now the university faces an “enormous challenge” establishing a museum with a full-time curator and assistant curator, he said. Other higher educational institutions, particularly secular schools, have little in interest in biblical archaeology, Dever said. “The future of American biblical archaeology lies in the hands primarily of Adventists,” he said.
In September 2008 Geraty and Clark proposed an Archaeological Research Center at La Sierra. The center proposal calls for 2,000 square feet of research space and a 5,000-square-foot museum. La Sierra University President Randal Wisbey requested that Geraty raise funds for an endowed chair in archaeology as well as the museum which will also house the anthropology collection of La Sierra’s Stahl Center and its World Museum of Natural History.
The university also wants to move Clark’s archaeology lab with its 75, three-foot tall ancient Middle Eastern storage jars from Walla Walla, Wash. to La Sierra.
In 2007 La Sierra’s School of Religion launched an archaeology minor degree program and in 2008, through Bates’s encouragement, La Sierra students Jessica Logan, Megan Channer and Steven Salcido won Heritage Fellowships of $1,000 to $2,000 each, the university’s first archaeology scholarships. The funds helped cover expenses for the students to participate in last summer’s Jordan dig.
Toward furthering the university’s archaeological program and engendering the interest of future generations, Bates established the Archaeological Adventures Program in May 2008 for elementary students in grades three through eight. With the help of archaeology students, and in collaboration with Craig Lesh and the Heritage Education Program in Redlands, the university has thus far hosted approximately 400 to 500 students from public and private schools in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The youngsters participate in simulated excavations dug into a grassy field on La Sierra’s campus. Using small trowels, brushes and large sifters, they dig through two, 10-by-10-meter sites searching for pottery pieces and artifacts from the Middle East, or for California and Native American artifacts donated to the university.
“This provides an opportunity for students to learn about the principles of archaeology with real archaeologists. Students gain hands-on experience in excavation techniques, artifact analysis and critical thinking skills. It also fulfills certain curriculum requirements as well. It is a great enrichment activity,” Bates said. “La Sierra University is in a unique position to reach out to the community through archaeology.”
PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University