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Excavations at Khirbat ‘Ataruz, Jordan: BYU Students Make Major Contributions

Aaron P. Schade

Aaron P. Schade ( is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU and codirector of the Ataruz Project.

In the mountaintops overlooking the Dead Sea, the West Bank, and Israel (Jerusalem on the mountain peaks at the top of the photo taken facing west), excavators were uncovering clues to ancient secrets buried beneath Ataruz (biblical Ataroth). The 2017 excavators at Ataruz hoped to unearth details about the history, culture, religious practices, and identities of the diverse populations that anciently occupied the site. These groups included Israelites and Moabites, and their stories can be found within the pages of the Bible (2 Kings 3) and on the Moabite Mesha Inscription (housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris). Each day was filled with excitement as participants worked diligently to unearth architecture and artifacts that could help shed light on this important, but enigmatic, site in the mountains of Jordan.

Ataruz has been equated with the biblical city of Ataroth, built by the tribe of Gad (Numbers 32:34) and famously mentioned and described as an Israelite, and later Moabite, cultic center in the Moabite Mesha Inscription. The team, along with numerous Muslim Arab workers from the local beni-Hamidah tribe, worked together to uncover the ancient workings of the past and how this city looked and operated with its giant Iron Age temple.

BYU participants, funded by generous grants from BYU’s Mentoring Environment Grants (MEG), University Experiential Learning funds, and support from the BYU Department of Ancient Scripture, contributed to a successful field season in Jordan. Students learned archaeological techniques and applied them in a multicultural environment, and, with all of their talents and willingness to work, the students have become a vital part of the success of the dig. Student contributions are making a positive impact. Thanks to their labors, the team made significant progress on the dig this season and gained a clearer picture of what was happening anciently at the site.

The students are taught and learn skills in archaeological methodologies and are responsible for duties such as supervising designated 6 x 6 meter squares that are being excavated; taking and reading soil samples; and drawing artifacts, architectural features, and objects. Students participate in excavating, looking for clues and indications that describe the context of their work. Some of these clues include surface changes (such as coming upon compact floors and beaten earth); foundation trenches; installations; varying soil colors or consistencies; architectural features, pottery and stone objects; their functions and locations, and other artifacts that provide a historical context. The students help document information that will help us better understand what is happening at the site. Looking at stratigraphy and layers of occupation, along with piecing together a pottery typology, helps paint a picture of the stages of occupation (by whom and when) at the site.

BYU students also assisted in taking elevations, using survey equipment, and collecting, washing, and cataloging pottery and objects. They additionally helped draw and photograph archaeological loci, the objects found therein, and the architecture used to construct the site (all in preparation for future publications that will come forth from this season’s dig). In essence, BYU students participated in documenting the doings and workings of ancient peoples who resided there at the site (this season focused mostly on Iron Age material from the late ninth to the early eighth centuries BC, as well as on material from the Middle Islamic and Mamluk periods (ca. fourteenth to fifteenth centuries AD).

Some students applied a photographic technology called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). This technique combines multiple stages of flash photography and runs the numerous captured images through a program to create photos that expose details of the objects or inscriptions that sometimes cannot be captured well with the human eye, or by means of other photographic techniques. Filters and other various shades of applied light help create a model of the object that affords glimpses from 360 degrees. With the generous support of the John A. Widtsoe Foundation, Jessica Smith and I were able to spend a week in training on the University of Southern California campus in the spring with the West Semitic Research Project, which then loaned the RTI equipment to complete the photographic work in Jordan and in France during the course of the excavation. With the help of Director Ji, BYU students Jessica Smith and Jessica Hudson and I were granted access into the Madaba Museum to photograph (RTI) objects and inscriptions from previous excavations at Ataruz in efforts of getting clear looks at the materials and helping the team prepare the materials for publication.

Additionally, I obtained permission from the Louvre Museum to take Smith and Hudson to view RTI ancient Northwest Semitic inscriptions housed in the Louvre in Paris. The students’ contribution to capturing the images, and now processing them back home, was invaluable and helps move the work forward in the study of ancient languages such as Phoenician and Aramaic.

Through this synergistic relationship of the students learning skills and engaging in opportunities that will bolster their careers and significantly add to their experiences and skill sets as they move forward in life and in their careers, the dig continues to thrive. Their contributions are invaluable in the work that they are providing in the form of excavation, drawing, and photography. Students are gaining opportunities and experience in a multicultural environment that are almost unprecedented at the undergraduate level, and their efforts are greatly appreciated by the excavators and are making a positive effect on the progress of the dig. In the process, BYU students are creating friendships and professional relationships amongst Islamic and Arab Christian cultures throughout Jordan and are developing an awareness and appreciation for cultural and religious diversity as they work alongside local Jordanians and with universities of other faiths. These relationships and professional associations are continuing to be maintained and efforts are in place to ensure that these rich opportunities are afforded to BYU students in the future.