In my on-going series, Discussions with the Diggers, I have been interviewing archaeologists in order to understand how their work in the field impacts biblical studies. I was privileged to be able to interview Dr. Gary Byers, who serves as the Assistant Dig Director both at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan and Tel Shiloh in Israel.
Dr. Byers serves as the serves as the Dean of the College of Archaeology & Biblical History at Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is also an archaeologist with the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) and has over 30 years of excavation experience in the Middle East. In addition, he has published articles in numerous archaeological journals and magazines, such as Bible and Spade. Welcome Dr. Byers!
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Where did your journey in archaeology begin?
DR. GARY BYERS: Growing up on the east coast of the US, my father got me engaged in visiting 18th century sites (Williamsburg, Virginia was a favorite) and I really got interested in the period around the American Revolution. While growing up in church, I didn’t have any kind of spiritual awakening until my first year of college and, under the tutelage of my pastor, my historical interests quickly transferred to the bible lands.
My interest in the Bible grew and led me into ministry – actually starting a new church in 1974, even before graduating from college. Desiring to be a better Bible teacher motivated me to think about archaeology, to understand the people of the Bible and their world better. I went back to graduate school for a degree in archaeological studies, ultimately participating in my first archaeological dig. I was hooked!
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: What excavations have you been involved in? Where do you currently dig?
DR. GARY BYERS: My first dig, in 1984, was as a graduate student at my thesis advisor’s site – ancient Ekron (modern Tel Miqne) one of the cities of the Philistine pentapolis. Nine years later, Dr. Bryant Wood gave me the opportunity to be a square supervisor with him for two seasons at Khirbet Nisya, eight miles north of Jerusalem. We also did a site survey in that region (tribe of Benjamin territory) which led to ten excavation seasons together at nearby Khirbet el-Maqatir, where I served as the dig’s administrative director. Both sites are considered candidates for ancient Ai, the second Canaanite city captured by Joshua. We believe Maqatir is the most likely.
In 2005, Dr. Steve Collins, who dug with us at Maqatir, invited me to cross the Jordan River with him to start another new excavation – at Tall el-Hammam in the lower Jordan River valley. We’ve just completed our 15th season working there together, serving as assistant director…and we’re not done yet!
Although still working at Hammam, in 2017, I crossed back over the river to also serve as assistant director at the new Shiloh excavation – long-time site of the Tabernacle and Israel’s first religious and political center in Canaan. It is directed by long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Scott Stripling, who I first met during his six seasons at Hammam, and then we dug four more seasons together at Maqatir.
It’s been over thirty-five years of wonderful privileges from God and great relationships with His people!
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Tall el-Hammam is a significant archaeological site in Jordan. Can you summarize for us the history of the site?
DR. GARY BYERS: After 15 seasons of excavation at Tall el-Hammam (Jordanian Arabic uses tall instead of tell), there is evidence to suggest it may be identified with Livias (New Testament capital of Perea); the major store city of Solomon’s twelfth administrative district; the location of both Abel Shittim and Beth Jeshimoth from the time of Moses and Joshua; but even earlier – and the focus of the excavation – the ancient city of Sodom.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Why is Tall el-Hammam an important site to excavate?
DR. GARY BYERS: If correctly identified throughout all these periods, Tall el-Hammam represents the earliest days of the post-Flood world – first mentioned as Sodom in Genesis 10 (the Table of Nations) and destroyed by fire from heaven (Genesis 13, 19); the last camping site of the Israelites (Abel Shittim and Beth Jeshimoth; Numbers 33:49 – not inhabited cities at the time, just adjacent locations) before crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land; the likely central storage city of Solomon’s twelfth administrative district (I Kings 4:19) directly east of Jerusalem and within sight of signal fires from the Mount of Olives; and Livias in Perea – while not mentioned in the New Testament is was a city rebuilt, fortified and renamed (in honor of Livia, wife of Roman emperor Augustus) by Herod Antipas. These Biblical connections go from even before the Patriarchal period through the entire New Testament period – virtually from Genesis to Revelation!
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: How does archaeology inform biblical studies?
DR. GARY BYERS: For me, the most exciting aspect of archaeology is how it illuminates the Bible. We can see the kind of houses in which Bible people lived as well as the pottery, coins, jewelry, tools and weapons they knew and used. Often we can even visit a site mentioned in the Bible, viewing structures and objects from the very time Bible characters were there.
I guess I would sum up the value of archaeology for biblical studies this way: archaeology helps us trust the Bible for the past (history); and, if we can trust the Bible for the past (history), we can also trust it for the future (eternity); and, if we can trust the Bible for the past (history) and the future (eternity), we should also trust it for the present – learning to practice its principles one day at a time.
I’d like to thank Dr. Byers for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing with us about Tall el-Hammam.
Here are some articles that Dr. Byers has written:
Disclaimer: I allow each archaeologist to answer in his or her own words and may or may not agree with his or her interpretation of their work.
Title Photo: Courtesy of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project – https://tallelhammam.com/