Faculty Reflection: St. Bernard's in the Holy Land

Sep 6, 2022

Charles Huges Huff, Ph.D.

Over the summer, St. Bernard's sponsored a six-week trip to Jordan for faculty member, Dr. Charles Hughes-Huff, and one of our students to experience an archaeological dig in the Holy Land. Below is Dr. Hughes Huff’s reflection on his time there.


Jordan is a beautiful country that takes its name from the Jordan River — it was, for many centuries, known as "Transjordan," or “the other side of the Jordan.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims have for millennia called western Jordan, along with Israel, Palestine, and parts of Syria and Lebanon, the Holy Land. The oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land, a beautiful, 6th century, early Byzantine mosaic, is the Madaba Map, which can be seen at St. George’s Church in Madaba, Jordan, a Christian town near Mt. Nebo where Moses looked over the Promised Land and was buried. Franciscan archeologists excavated a 4th-century Byzantine church and monastery on Mt. Nebo, founded to support early pilgrims to the site, and Franciscan monks still maintain archeological excavation, presentation, and all visitation to Mt. Nebo today.

Madaba Map - the oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land
Madaba Map - the oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land


Archeology in Jordan goes beyond ancient Christianity. The region saw early Islamic architecture as well, and before that had Roman and Greek-style cities like the city of Jerash, “the Pompeii of the Middle East,” Nabatean Petra, “the Rose City” — one of the New 7 Wonders of the World — ancient cities of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, Israel’s ancient neighbors, and many Bronze Age and even earlier sites as well. St. Bernard’s sponsors the Balu‘a Regional Archeological Project (BRAP), which digs at Khirbat al-Balu‘a, the ruins of an ancient Iron Age Moabite city.

Nabatean Petra
Nabatean Petra

The ancient Moabites were sometimes enemies (see for example 2 Kings 3), sometimes friends (for example, Ruth) of ancient Israel, just across the Jordan River. They spoke a language almost identical to ancient Hebrew. The longest inscription from Iron Age Moab is the Mesha Stele, in which King Mesha of Dhiban describes the relationship between his father and King Omri of Israel, and the back-and-forth victories for YHWH and the Moabite god, Chemosh. The Moabites were thus intimately familiar with Israel and shared many ancient Israelite cultural practices and ideas about the world.

Balu‘a sits on the Wadi Baluʿa, a tertiary tributary to the Wadi Mujib. The Wadi Mujib, also known as the River Arnon, empties into the Dead Sea, a border between Israel and Jordan. In this location, about 20 miles north of Karak, Baluʿa was able to control a major north-south route and guard access from the north to the Karak Plateau. The city was about 20 hectares (= about 49 acres) and was surrounded by large casemate walls built from the abundant basalt boulders in the area. The ruins of a large Qasr (pictured below) — an Arabic term meaning “castle” or “palace” or merely “large important building” — overlooks the Wadi Bal ‘a. The city was thus a major Moabite city — perhaps the capital of Moab in an era after King Mesha, who ruled further north in Dhiban. Much about the ancient Moabites could be learned from a full excavation of Baluʿa.

Wadi Baluʿa, a tertiary tributary to the Wadi Mujib
Wadi Baluʿa, a tertiary tributary to the Wadi Mujib
Ruins of a large Qasr - an Arabic term meaning “castle” or “palace” or merely “large important building”
Ruins of a large Qasr - an Arabic term meaning “castle” or “palace” or merely “large important building”

In 2022, BRAP excavated a section of the city walls, a very large complex structure that seemed to have served more than just one household, a medieval Islamic “khan” or inn built later on the site, and the area just north of the Qasr’s massive stone walls. I worked with the Qasr Team.

BRAP set a goal of establishing the date of the Qasr’s construction. This goal was initially met in 2019 when the team found evidence that narrowed the Qasr’s date to Early Iron II/Iron IIB. That excavation also revealed an Iron Age (1200–539 BC) domestic structure north of the Qasr wall with walls, floors, and two additional phases of Iron Age walls and floors. The relationship between three structures required further clarification. These three structures are:

  1. The Qasr itself
  2. The Pataikos House, an Early Iron II house named for the Egyptian figurine found in it (2019)
  3. The Pithos House, named for the (2019) pithos found buried in its surface

This season’s excavation aimed to clarify these structures and better understand their stratigraphy and relationship to the Qasr, which would more substantively prove the Qasr’s date. We succeeded at these goals and discovered new ones - the constant cycle of archeological research. Under a Nabatean (Classical-era) pavement, but above the Iron IIC (6th century) Pithos House, we found walls unrelated to either, suggesting a Persian-era phase of this structure. An inscription found at this level with Aramaic-style script seems to confirm such a phase. The inscription — an inscribed bowl, likely for liturgical use — is but a single word, but will be important evidence for the development of Moabite script. Since Persia-era evidence of Moabites is fairly scant, we were very pleased to find evidence for it at the Qasr this year.

The Pithos House’s beaten earth surface, true to the Pithos House name, yielded three pithoi in the new square. A pithos is a large jar used for storage. In the Iron Age Levant, these pithoi were sometimes buried in the floors of houses, only their mouths open, and used to store oil, grain, or wine with more temperature control. Two of this season’s three pithoi, both repeatedly mended, were buried in this floor upside-down, their bottoms intentionally broken. One was filled with ash and may have been used as a makeshift oven. The third was buried in the traditional fashion, top-up. Both the ware of the pithoi and the pottery of the beaten earth surface confirm a date of Iron IIC for the Pithos House.

Three pithoi (large jars used for storage) discovered in the Pithos House’s newly excavated square
Three pithoi (large jars used for storage) discovered in the Pithos House’s newly excavated square

At the level of the Pataikos House, we discovered two important walls and a doorway with an intact lintel. The two walls form a broad-room at the south end of the house with a doorway opening at the northeast corner. All these finds confirmed our previous work and gave us a better understanding of domestic life in ancient Moab.

Dr. Charles Hughes Huff examining the Pataikos House's walls and doorway with an intact lintel
Dr. Charles Hughes Huff examining the Pataikos House's walls and doorway with an intact lintel

In an archeological season, you do more than dig. Every afternoon we returned to the lab to record all the data we’d discovered, read pottery, conduct chemical analyses, take photographs, and so on. The season also served as a field school for many students: we had 35 archeologists and students from the US, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. Most evenings concluded with lectures about various aspects of archeology and the archeology of Jordan. Each weekend we visited important archeological sites in Jordan for lectures and tours with experienced archeologists.

Visiting archeological sites in Jordan for lectures and tours with experienced archeologists
Visiting archeological sites in Jordan for lectures and tours with experienced archeologists


I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to get to know a vibrant Catholic community at Our Lady of the Rosary in Karak. Abuna Faras, a priest of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, gave us the most hospitable welcome possible and even hosted a special night with his college students and ours. His community in Karak is a close-knit group of families bonded by decades of shared life, and they welcomed me and others into their communion throughout our trip.

Dr. Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 2019 and studies how ancient authors portray social practices in narratives and language to covey ritual authority. He also investigates how scholars use modern ethical stances to evaluate ancient Middle Eastern social practices. Hughes Huff teaches courses in Bible, ethics and social justice, and archeology. He's an Area Supervisor and Historian for the Baluʿa Regional Archaeological Project with excavations in Khirbat al-Baluʿa, Jordan. Outside the classroom, he enjoys hiking, cooking, and digging up old dirt.