Baylor professor returns from Transjordan archaeological dig

Dr. Joel Burnett at the Wadi Mujib in Moab in November 2021. Photo courtesy of Dr. Joel Burnett.

By Lily Nussbaum | Staff Writer

This past month, Baylor religion professor Dr. Joel Burnett visited the Middle East for a 10-day archaeological dig.

As a biblical scholar, Burnett said he focuses on the history of religion. His specific area of expertise is the history of the Israelite religion as well as the religion and culture of its surrounding neighbors. He said traveling to Jordan and Israel has allowed him to see items directly within these areas.

“If you’re seeing something that has just come out of the ground, you are seeing something that hasn’t been viewed for at least centuries, probably millennia,” Burnett said.

While the Israelite religion has the Hebrew Bible to serve as evidence, the major Transjordan kingdoms lack a comprehensive written text. To study the Ammonites, the Moabites and the Edomites, Burnett said scholars must rely on inscriptions and archaeological evidence instead.

Burnett said the announcement of the excavation was very exciting for him. He said he knew he couldn’t miss the opportunity because Tell Dayr Alla — originally excavated in the ’60s — has been a focus in his work on the Iron Age.

Working alongside Dr. Margreet Steiner, the lead Dutch archeologist, allowed him to better understand features of the culture surrounding the religion, Burnett said.

“Understanding the cultural context as revealed in material culture, non-written archeological evidence is really important to understanding the writings and to understand how the religion worked and how society worked,” Burnett said.

Some of the best evidence of Iron Age culture, religion and history comes from features found east of the Jordan River. Many have direct connections to the Bible, specifically Jacob.

After the 10-day journey, Burnett said he returned to Texas on Oct. 18. Since returning, he has been able to share his experience and knowledge with his classes.

Texarkana freshman James Hutcheson, one of Burnett’s Christian Scriptures students, said he enjoyed learning about Burnett’s insights.

“A lot of times, when I read the Bible, obviously it’s from a long time ago, but it seems like a whole different world,” Hutcheson said. “Since he’s been there, he’s seen kind of the area that he is talking about.”

Additionally, Hutcheson said Burnett pushes students to form their own opinions. For example, every couple of weeks, Burnett hosts debates for students to give their thoughts on selected passages and concepts.

“It gets everyone in the class talking about what they think the different verses of the Bible mean and how they interpret it,” Hutcheson said. “It opens everyone’s eyes to a lot of different viewpoints you can get out of the text.”

While many may think of archaeology as dirt, rocks and sticks, Burnett said that it goes beyond ecology.

“What you find are things created by human beings — things that were used in everyday usage by people who were just like you and me in most respects,” Burnett said.

When Burnett examined something as simple as a clay pot, he said he thought about the people who made it, the people who used it and what meaning it gave their life. While the lives of the people of the past may be different from his own, there is a kinship.

“They depended on some vision of the world to help them live that everyday life that they’re usually facing, and that’s what religion tends to do for societies,” Burnett said. “It’s a special moment of connection to fellow travelers who walked the world long before we did.”

Take Burnett’s path:

  1. Oct. 8-12: During the first five days of his trip, Burnett said he visited Amman and conducted library research at the American Center of Overseas Research. Additionally, he saw part of the town called the Amman Citadel — the site of the Iron Age II Ammonite capital.
  2. Oct. 13: Burnett said he arrived at Dayr Alla with the Dutch excavation team. As mentioned, Tall Dayr Alla is often identified with biblical Succoth.
  3. Oct. 14: Burnett said he and the team visited other Jordan Valley sites north of Dayr Alla: Tall al-Mazar, Tall as-Saidiyya (Saidiyeh) and Pella (also known by its Arabic name, Tabaqat Fahl) — the site of another ancient temple.
  4. Oct 15: Burnett saw the twin sites sitting across the Wadi Zarqa (the biblical Jabbok) from each other: Tulul adh-Dhahab Gharbi in the west, usually identified with biblical Mahanaim, and Talul adh-Dhahab Sharqi in the east, usually identified with biblical Penuel.