nyone who has followed Adventist archaeology is familiar with Siegfried Horn’s work at the site of Hesban in Jordan. Horn was attracted to the site because of the possibility that the Arabic site of Hesban preserved the Old Testament name of Heshbon, the city of the Amorite king Sihon mentioned in Numbers 21:21-35. Sihon of Heshbon was defeated by the Israelites just prior to their crossing of the Jordan River and the conquest of Jericho. Since the archaeological results of Jericho had proved inconclusive with regard to the story of Israelite conquest, Horn hoped that Heshbon would yield such positive evidence. Specifically, Horn hoped to find evidence of occupation and destruction at Hesban that would date to around 1400 B.C., the time of the Israelite conquest.
The Search for Sihon’s Heshbon
While Horn did find evidence in ?the form of coins that Hesban was known as Heshbon in later periods (e.g., Byzantine), he did not find any significant remains of a 1400 B.C. Late Bronze Age (LBA) city at Hesban. This led him and his team (which included Horn’s eventual successor, Lawrence Geraty) to consider the possibility that Old Testament Heshbon was located at a different site. The movement of site names from one location to another is not unknown in ancient Palestine. Consequently, Horn’s team looked for alternate candidates for Sihon’s Heshbon. One promising site was found only 4 miles (7 kilometers) southeast of Hesban—a large, ancient tell, known locally as Jalul. Tall Jalul (as it is known in Arabic) seemed a good possibility for several reasons. It was the largest tell site in the entire Madaba Plains region (located south of Amman)—fitting for a capital city. It is also centrally located at the highest point of the Madaba Plains with ancient roads from all directions running right up to it. The site had abundant resources in its immediate vicinity—large fields for grain crops and plenty of springs that yielded considerable amounts of water to sustain crops, livestock, and people. Finally, and perhaps most important, broken potsherds found at the site showed that it was indeed occupied during the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400 B.C.)—around the time the Israelites would have encountered Sihon’s Amorites.
Andrews University at Jalul
The possibility that Jalul was Old Testament Heshbon was one of several reasons why Andrews University started excavating the site in 1992.1 Several seasons of work at Jalul have confirmed evidence for Late Bronze occupation at Jalul. While actual buildings have not yet been uncovered from that period, a considerable amount of LBA pottery has been found, strongly indicating a significant occupation at Jalul at the time of Sihon. Of course, several sites in the area have revealed occupation at this time—and LBA pottery by itself would not be overwhelming evidence for the site being ancient Heshbon. However, the past two seasons at Jalul have revealed a unique and important feature that might provide a clue to the site’s ancient identity.
The Discovery of Jalul’s Water System
Specifically, part of our Andrews University team, led by Paul Gregor, found a large and sophisticated water system at Jalul that may have been the key to the city’s importance in antiquity. The central feature of the Jalul water system was a large, circular spring-fed reservoir located in the southeast quadrant of the ancient city. While we have not yet excavated this large reservoir, a number of similar structures are known at other biblical period sites in Israel, such as Gibeon and Hazor. Typically, this reservoir would have stairs running around its perimeter, descending to a spring that would provide a continuous flow of fresh water. The strength of the spring, combined with the needs of the ancient inhabitants, would determine the water level in the reservoir. Usually, the water level achieved a seasonal equilibrium—higher in winter and lower in summer. However, it would be rare for the spring to completely fill and overflow the reservoir.
This does not seem to be the case, however, at ancient Jalul. As it currently appears, the Jalul reservoir is larger than most of its parallels in Israel. Yet even this larger capacity does not seem to have been enough. Last season, while excavating a stretch of Jalul’s ancient Iron Age city wall just south of the reservoir, the team was surprised to find a well-constructed, plastered water channel, running from the interior of the city right up and through the city wall! Water channels are not, in and of themselves, unusual, even in the Iron Age. However, they typically channel water into a reservoir—not away from it. Our team considered the possibility that this was a sewage channel—but it does not drain from streets or other places. Rather, it runs directly from the water reservoir. The likely conclusion is that the channel facilitated the overflow from the spring-fed reservoir. This would indicate that the spring yielded a copious amount of water—on occasion more than the capacity of the reservoir! So the ancient inhabitants of Jalul drained the excess water out this channel through the city wall. (The abundance of water in the Jalul area is supported by the fact that our team has found at least 25 cisterns in the immediate vicinity of the ancient city.)
Even if the city inhabitants had all the water they could use, the idea of draining off perfectly good water from an overflowing reservoir seems unthinkable in a desert environment—surely that water could have been put to good use for agriculture and other people living beyond the city’s walls. And, indeed, this seems to have been the case at Jalul. The water channel empties in a southeastern direction. As the Andrews team studied the downward sloping topography outside of the south stretch of the city wall, it was discovered that a series of at least four ancient pools had been constructed in stair-step fashion some time in antiquity, taking advantage of the downward slope—when each pool was filled, the overflow would drain into the next, lower pool. The largest, bottommost pool was located in a small valley south of the city. Once the water reached this large pool, there was nowhere else for the water to go—the small valley could literally fill up. This lower pool still holds water today during the rainy season and is used by local shepherds to water their flocks.
The Pools of Heshbon?
The discovery of what appears to be a large spring-filled reservoir inside Jalul, the water channel, and the large extraurban pools to the south of the city immediately brought to our minds the passage in Song of Solomon in which the author describes his beloved’s eyes as being as beautiful as the pools of Heshbon (S. of Sol. 7:4). Clearly, these pools were a significant feature of the biblical city. True, all ancient cities of necessity had a water system of some sort, and reservoirs were not uncommon. However, the pools at Heshbon somehow stood out, becoming the key physical feature by which the city would become identified.
While Siegfried Horn found a large square reservoir at Hesban and suggested that this might be the source for Solomon’s inspiration, the recent discovery of a much larger, multipool system at Jalul raises the question of whether Jalul was, indeed, the Old Testament Heshbon—an idea originally suggested by Horn himself. Certainly, the large, open-air water pools of Jalul would have been impressive—and their inviting cool waters would have attracted both locals and tired pilgrims from afar. Indeed, our study of ancient Islamic sources indicates that Jalul’s pools continued to be the city’s chief attraction down until the time of the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth century—a stretch of history spanning nearly 3,000 years!
Future Work at Jalul
The key question as to whether the pools of Jalul could be the ones to which Solomon refers depends on the dating of their original construction—do they go back to Solomon’s time (tenth century B.C.)? Our Andrews team is still working on this question. At this point it appears that different parts of the water system date to different times—possibly suggesting that various sections of the water system were reconstructed at different times, later in history when they needed to be repaired. We are fairly certain that the large spring-filled reservoir in the city was constructed at least by the ninth to eighth centuries B.C. (this is the time that similar systems in Israel were constructed). However, it is possible that it dates earlier—only future excavation can provide the answer.
The water channel, as we found it, was built in the Late Iron II/Persian period (sixth to fifth centuries B.C.)—although it may have replaced an earlier channel. The present channel cuts through many earlier buildings and walls—some sherds under these walls go back to the Iron Age I—prior to 1000 B.C. Next season we will continue to excavate and study the water channel. Finally, the pools outside the city still need to be excavated to determine their original date. These will be some of our goals for our next season in May 2010, when we will be back in the field, trying to uncover ancient and biblical history.2
1More than 50 Andrews University students, faculty, and volunteers participated in last summer’s dig (2009) at Tall Jalul, a part of the Adventist-sponsored Madaba Plains Project in Jordan. The Tall Jalul excavation was directed by Randall W. Younker, Constance E. Gane, Paul Z. Gregor, Paul Ray, and Jennifer Groves, all of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University.
2If you are interested in joining our archaeological dig in pursuing the Bible’s past, please contact the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University at 269-471-3273 or visit us at our Web site at www.andrews.edu/archaeology. More information about the Tall Jalul project within the Madaba Plains Project can be found at www.madabaplains.org/jalul.
Randall W. Younker is director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University. Constance E. Gane is the acting curator of the Horn Archaeological Museum, associated with the institute of Archaeology. Paul Z. Gregor is an associate director of the Institute of Archaeology. All three also teach in the theological seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article was published November 26, 2009.