Projects Retrospective

The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman has since its inception in 1968 conducted excavations and cultural resource management projects in Jordan, many of which have had considerable support from USAID. These have included the restoration of the Roman Temple of Hercules on the Amman Citadel; the Madaba Archaeological Park which protects Byzantine mosaics found in the region; and the discovery and preservation of three churches in Petra. ACOR has also assisted hundreds of other projects. A huge number of American archaeologists from a wide variety of colleges and universities have worked in Jordan on a multiplicity of research agendas during recent times. This brief essay is intended to highlight some of the projects and goals of American archaeological work in Jordan.

Temple of Hercules 340
Temple of Hercules (photo Firoze Edassery)

ACOR was founded by scholars affiliated with the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), which was itself established in 1900. The first ASOR sponsored project in Jordan was the 1924 survey in the Southern Ghor (Jordan Valley) by W. F. Albright (the center in Jerusalem is now the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research).From 1932 Nelson Glueck conducted surveys in Transjordan and documented some 1500 sites. He also led excavations at a site in sourthern Jordan, Khirbet et-Tannur, which revealed significant Nabataean sculptural remains. Some of this material is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum, which organized a major traveling exhibit on Petra called “Lost City of Stone.” It opened in New York at the American Museum of Natural History in 2003 and continued to other places in the United States and Canada before the objects were returned to Jordan in February 2008. This ground-breaking exhibit was a major collaboration with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, which is ultimately responsible for all the sites and gives permissions to foreign excavators to conduct their archaeological projects in the Kingdom. Indeed all the projects mentioned below were undertaken in conjunction with the Department of Antiquities.

The oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land
The Madaba Map in St. George Church (Photo Eu-Jin Goh)

In Jordan, there are more than 100,000 sites and they range in nature from small clusters of standing stones to the large Petra Archaeological Park. American archaeologists have focused on a variety of sites, which can be one period or cover millennia and are often tell sites (i.e., Tall Hisban, first excavated in 1968, and currently part of the larger program known as the Madaba Plains Project).

One example of American collaborative work that revealed extraordinary discoveries is the site of ‘Ain Ghazal in northeastern Amman. Gary Rollefson (now Whitman College in Washington State) and Zeidan Kafafi (now Yarmouk University in Irbid) were principal investigators but like any project many archaeologists and specialists are involved in the actual excavations and subsequent study and analysis for publication.

Ain Ghazal statue made sometime 6000-8000 B.C
‘Ain Ghazal statue circa 6750 B.C. (photo Eu-Jin Goh)

‘Ain Ghazal was first occupied around 7200 BC in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic and is one of the largest Neolithic sites in the Levant. The two thousand years of its occupation have been studied in terms of many aspects, including the plant and animal remains which provide information on the social and economic relationships between farming and herding populations. Many animal and human figurines were recovered, but what remains the most extraordinary discovery there are the human statues and busts found in two caches: twenty-five in a group found in 1983 and dated to around 6750 B.C. and at least another ten from a slightly later cache discovered in 1985; this one contained three busts with two heads. Laborious and difficult conservation work on these lime plaster sculptures was undertaken at University College London and at the Smithsonian Institute where an exhibit featuring this work took place in 1996-97.

American projects have also covered virtually all of Jordan geographically and encompassed important surveys to find and document sites. In northeastern Jordan, Umm al Jimal, a basalt-hewn Late Antique settlement, has been the focus of work directed by Bert de Vries (Calvin College) starting in 1972 over many field seasons (including while he was director (ACOR) ). In 2009, he plans to continue site preservation efforts at Umm al Jimal.

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Ayla Aqaba (photo Jeff Rozwadowski)

Parker’s previous work in Jordan was confirmed with the Arabian frontier in Roman and Byzantine periods as part of the Limes Arabicus Project, which after a survey in 1976 had five excavation campaigns during 1980-89. A monumental final publication was produced, namely The Roman Frontier in Central Jordan: Final Report on the Limes Arabicus Project, 1980-1989 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2006). Comprehensive publication of excavations is imperative. Most projects are first published in preliminary form in the Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, but the final reports stand as the main statement of what was accomplished and its importance.In the south at the port city of Aqaba the early Islamic City of Ayla was uncovered by Don Whitcomb of the University of Chicago from 1986 to 1993. Tom Parker of North Carolina State University initiated the Roman Aqaba Project that focused on Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine Ayla and took place during the years 1994 to 2002. The area excavated is just northwest of the Early Islamic City. One of the structures uncovered by Parker’s team is a mudbrick building, which may be the first purpose-built church. This project also undertook a regional survey to answer economic questions about ancient times, particular with regard to trade.  The first volume of this project’s final report is now published as The Roman Aqaba Project Final Report. Volume I: The Regional Environment and the Regional Survey. Boston: American Schools Of Oriental Research, 2013.

The most renowned site in Jordan is undoubtedly Petra. American archaeologists were already active there in the late 1950s. In the city center, Brown University under Martha Joukowsky has been excavating and restoring the Great Temple since 1993. Adjacent to the temple is the Petra Garden and Pool Complex which Leigh-Ann Bedal of Pennsylvania State University at Erie has been examining since 1998. On the opposite hillside, north of the street, is the Temple of the Winged Lions, which Philip Hammond of the University of Utah, started clearing in 1974.

Also on this northern hillside, the visitor to Petra can now see three Byzantine Churches. The largest one, the so-called Petra Church, has beautiful and well preserved floor mosaics that are protected by a shelter. In the process of building the shelter, 140 burnt papyrus scrolls were found in a back room in December 1993 during the excavations conducted under the aegis of ACOR with support from USAID while Pierre Bikai was ACOR Director.

The papyrus scrolls have been conserved and study as part of the Petra Scrolls Project undertaken by Jaako Frösén of the University of Helsinki and has involved many scholars, including Ludwig Koenen and Traianos Gagos of the University of Michigan. The scrolls were part of a sixth century family archive of a man named Theodoros, son of Obodianos, who was a deacon and archdeacon of the church. These texts deal with land issues and inheritance and provide insights into Byzantine Petra. Careful excavation is the reason these fragile artifacts have survived and the ensuing meticulous restoration and study are a major contribution to the history of Jordan. The so-called Blue Chapel and North Ridge Church excavated above the Petra Church by ACOR’s associate director Patricia Bikai have provided further important evidence of Petra’s past as has her more recent work in Beidha (so-called “Little Petra”), where her team discovered in 2005 a Nabataean monumental royal pavilion with an elaborate sculptural program and in May 2008 evidence for two mosques, the first found so far in the Petra Archaeological Park.

In 2007, ACOR with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan organized the 10th International Conference on the History and Archaeology of Jordan which took place at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. (  For this event, a book was compiled that includes 54 chapters with multiple authors and editors, including Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego, whose work in the Wadi Faynan incorporates pioneering technology in archaeological documentation.  This volume summarizes the North American contributions and stands as a testament to the efforts made by the hundreds of American-led archaeological teams over many decades in the Hashemite Kingdome of Jordan that have led to friendships, both professional and personal.

Barbara A. Porter

Former ACOR Director
Amman, September 2008


ACOR: The First 25 Years—The American Center of Oriental Research1968-1993 (Amman, 1993).
Adams, Russell B. (ed.) Jordan: An Archaeological Reader, (London, 2008).
Levy, Thomas E., P.M. Michèle Daviau, Randall W. Younker, and May Shaer (eds.).
Crossing Jordan: North American Contributions to the Archaeology of Jordan, (London, 2007).
Seeger, Joe D. (ed.). An ASOR Mosaic: A Centennial History of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1900-2000.
(Boston, 2001).

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