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First Person: LaBianca’s Four Different Kinds of “Past”
By Hershel Shanks
Some months ago I received my regular copy of the Newsletter of the Siegfried H. Horn Archaeological Museum of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with the latest report on its longstanding dig at Tall Hisban, an archaeological mound in the Central Jordanian Highlands. As I wrote to the current head of the Hisban publication project, Øystein LaBianca, I was surprised to see that the report contained “not a word about the Bible. Not a citation. Not a mention of ancient Israel.”
The man who led the Hisban expedition from its inception in 1968 through 1976 and the man for whom the museum is named, Siegfried Horn, was my friend, a remarkable human being (while serving as a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary in the Dutch East Indies, he was interned by the Japanese for more than six years before and during World War II), a great archaeologist, a member of BAR’s editorial advisory board, a contributor to this magazine and author of a chapter in our Ancient Israel text. “I wonder,” I said in my e-mail to LaBianca, “what Siegfried would have thought.”
The reply from Sten, as he is known, was prompt and very thoughtful.
A site of essentially the same name (Hisban/Heshbon) is well known from the Bible. According to the Bible, it is a city in Moab whose Amorite king, Sihon, refused Moses permission for passage through his territory as the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt; as a result, the Israelites attacked and defeated Sihon (Numbers 21:21–31; Deuteronomy 2:24; Joshua 12:1–2; Judges 11:19–26). Heshbon was then rebuilt by the Israelite tribe of Reuben (Numbers 32:37–38).
While still a graduate student, LaBianca dug at Hisban under Siegfried Horn’s direction. Siegfried died in 1993 and was succeeded by Lawrence Geraty. Today the publication of the results continues under the direction of Sten LaBianca.
Is the site of Tall Hisban Biblical Heshbon?
In his e-mail reply to me, LaBianca outlines four different kinds of history, different takes on the past: (1) the desired past, (2) the contested past, (3) the forbidden past and (4) the propaganda past. “I believe,” he wrote me, “that you and your readers are devotees of a particular ‘desired past’—the Biblical past.” And so was Siegfried Horn. According to LaBianca, Horn was “consumed by a desire to find a Biblical past at Tall Hisban.” Alas, he found a city there dating to the beginning of the Israelite monarchy but nothing earlier. “Hence, the sense of disappointment when so little compelling proof of this desired past was uncovered at the site.” LaBianca’s own judgment is that the evidence is “inconclusive: We can neither positively confirm nor with certainty disconfirm these Biblical connections. In my personal view, Tall Hisban still remains the most viable candidate for the location of Biblical Heshbon, but this is an intuition, not an irrefutable finding based on archaeological data from the site.”
This leads LaBianca to the second kind of past that he identifies: the contested past. “It is a past for which the most flimsy piece of evidence is held up as proof of a desired past.” This, LaBianca notes, is how his friends and colleagues in the Jordanian Department of Antiquities regard the Biblical past at Tall Hisban.
The third kind of past is the forbidden past. In my e-mail to LaBianca that started this exchange, I referred to a Jordanian Embassy event I attended in Washington that displayed a large poster headlined “Jordan—Land of the Bible.” LaBianca responded by telling me that after he persuaded the Jordanians to post a sign near Tall Hisban directing visitors to “Tall Hisban—famous biblical, classical and Islamic archaeological site,” the word “biblical” was soon obliterated. Here was an example, LaBianca noted, of a forbidden past. This led LaBianca in his e-mail to me to an assessment of the poster I saw reading “Jordan—Land of the Bible.” This, he wrote me, was a “marketing scheme endorsed by the Ministry of Tourism—but not a scheme that the majority of Jordanians are comfortable with.” So much for a forbidden past.
The propaganda past is represented by that same poster, displayed at the Jordanian embassy event.
Once it became clear that there was little, if any, evidence of a Biblical past at Tall Hisban, Horn and his successors had to decide whether to continue their exploration, LaBianca explained, “despite the disappointing results with regard to the past for which they most desired ... We desperately needed to rethink our reason for continuing our work at the site. We had to reinvent our project from one concerned primarily with the site’s Biblical connections to one concerned with the site as a multimillennial whole. For [chief archaeologist] Roger Boraas the opportunity to dig the site well stratigraphically sufficed as rationale for going on. For [chief ceramicist and former president of the American Schools of Oriental Research] James Sauer the opportunity the site provided to advance understanding of classical and especially Islamic ceramic seriation in Jordan provided ample rationale. For me, a graduate student in anthropological archaeology who specialized in the study of animal remains, the site became a laboratory for introducing ‘new archaeology’ methods to our project. More precisely, my efforts to make sense out of the thousands of animal bones from the site’s 21 layers led to formulation of the ‘food systems perspective’ as a theoretical framework for use in deciphering the messages embedded in each of Tall Hisban’s layers. In this endeavor I was greatly supported by Lawrence Geraty, who succeeded Dr. Horn as director of the Heshbon Expedition.” So they have gone on—with new parameters.
LaBianca refers to the overall layering of the 21 strata of the site as a palimpsest. A palimpsest usually refers to a document that has overlays of writing, one atop the other. Often the earlier writing is partially erased; the later writing is much clearer. Tall Hisban, he says, is a palimpsest spanning more than three millennia. “But as is often the case with a palimpsest—the earliest messages tend to be the least legible. As successive layers of text are added, the messages tend to be better preserved and more accessible. Thus, in the case of Tall Hisban, in many ways its most extensive and best-preserved past are its Islamic layers, less so its classical layers, and least of all its Iron Age layers, the latter having been extensively erased or corrupted by the later classical and Islamic residents of the site. Anything that is thus claimed in regards to Tall Hisban’s being Biblical Heshbon or not being Biblical Heshbon must thus be regarded as conjectural—a desired past perhaps; a propaganda past for some; but surely a contested past.”
“More recently,” LaBianca goes on, “I have come to see that the food system perspective which animated much of my thinking about Hisban during the 1980s and 1990s is not, on its own, sufficient as a framework for deciphering the palimpsest which is Tall Hisban. Thanks especially to engagement with recent work by social anthropologists, sociologists and historians on globalization, I have come to the conviction that the archaeological record of Tall Hisban is in part the product of the march of empires through the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean and in part a product of the survival strategies of the local population in trying to cope with these successive waves of foreign interventions.”
LaBianca concludes with this observation: “I believe that, too often, Biblical archaeology has been pursued from the perspective of a zealously desired past. This has led too often to spurious claims—indeed to claims that are better understood as propaganda for a particular desired past than as claims based on well-founded theory and method in archaeology. In my view, the Bible is one of the most important texts dealing with global history that we have as archaeologists working in the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, and it surely is a great place to find evidence of the struggle of a local people, especially the Israelites, to maintain their identity and way of life under the domination of foreign powers and propaganda. I think as Biblical archaeologists make more of an effort to engage with global history and other big-picture theories and discourses, the widely held perception that Biblical archaeology is a biased quest for a desired past will begin to evaporate and the day may even come when Biblical archaeology will become one of the major players in advancing understanding of the history of humankind in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Well, Hershel, I hope this will suffice to assure you that we have not lost interest in the Bible, the Israelites, or Biblical archaeology here at Andrews University. To the contrary, ours is an endeavor to find a sustainable future for Biblical archaeology in all the lands of the Bible and within the wider world of scholarship.”