University takes the reins of archaeological dig in Abila, Jordan

John Brown University has offered students the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Abila, Jordan since 2006. Through a non-profit organization loosely connected with Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, groups of students traveled with Dave Vila, professor of religion and philosophy, to northern Jordan.

Now, however, the University plans to take charge of the dig site on its own.

“The board in St. Louis was getting older and wanted to settle things down,” explained Vila. “One option was to move things to JBU.”

Vila proceeded to discuss the potential with both David Brisben, chair of the division of biblical studies, and President Chip Pollard who both approved of the idea.

Vila made a presentation at the University’s board retreat this past week, and the official handing off will happen this coming Saturday.

“The official transfer doesn’t mean a whole lot, though,” Vila explained. “It’s just a formality. Some random, odd bits will become JBU property.”

One of the main obstacles Vila encountered was funding. However, earlier this year, an anonymous donor came forward, offering an up to half a million dollar endowment—part to be given this year, and the rest during next year.

Half of this money will fund the actual excavation site and the other half will be put towards the Jordan Studies Program associated with the dig, even helping to provide scholarships for prospective students.

Vila is hopeful that this extra money set aside specifically for students will help spark even more interest in the program. During the summers of even-dated years, around 30-40 people work alongside local Jordanians at the site. The number of students has varied in past trips, but he said there is currently no actual limit on the number of students that can take part.

Faculty who are interested will also have the opportunity to apply for funding to come participate in academic research at the site.

A city during the Byzantine Period with an estimated population of around 20,000, the dig site is now all underground due to a past natural disaster.

Students, professionals and others work in many different capacities at Abila such as working as a member of the registry or reassembling pieces. With the size of the site, Vila expects the dig to continue on for another few hundred years; potentially providing countless opportunities for University students in the future.

The next scheduled trip is for summer 2014. Vila encouraged anyone interested to email him at