KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee, Knoxville, archaeologist who excavates ancient villages in the Near East has received a grant to reshape the modern understanding of the region’s political, economic and social structure by studying its smallest rural settlements.
J.P. Dessel, a UT Knoxville historian who specializes in Bronze and Iron Age villages of ancient Israel, has received a $50,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that will allow him to integrate his own research with other studies to show how rural villages affected the social landscape of ancient Israel, otherwise dominated by major cities like Jerusalem and Megiddo.
“I hope to rebuild our understanding of the biblical region from the village up,” Dessel said. “Most of what we know about the ancient Near East in the Bronze and Iron ages is the result of studying major urban areas, cities that represent the social and economic elites of the time.
“By looking at small settlements, I expect to show that rural villages were just as vibrant and dynamic as some of the city-states in their midst.”
Dessel’s research award marks the 10th in a string of NEH grants to UT faculty since 2004, putting UT Knoxville among the top seven institutions nationwide in the number of NEH grants during that period. Nationally only 7 percent of applicants received an NEH fellowship in 2010.
Dessel’s own excavations have focused on two tiny village sites near Nazareth — Tell el-Wawiat and Tell ‘Ein Zippori — that were occupied between 1550 and 1000 B.C.E., but his yearlong study will include a review of other archaeological data from village sites. His focus on a rural heartland will offer a contrast to urban-focused archaeology that emphasizes ancient texts and elite culture.
“This project will show that these villages were diverse and culturally complex entities rather than simple sites focused on agricultural production,” he said. “We’ll be able to understand the culture of the region against a backdrop of an extensive rural settlement that spanned both the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age.”
Dessel, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, joined the UT Knoxville faculty in 1999 as an assistant professor of Jewish and ancient Near Eastern history. In 2005 he was named Steinfeld Associate Professor of ancient Near Eastern archaeology and history. He serves jointly in the history department and the Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies.
The success of UT Knoxville faculty in winning NEH research fellowships is part of an ongoing initiative to make the university one of the top 25 public institutions in the nation in both scientific research and humanities scholarship. Only Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Princeton, Harvard and Texas have won more NEH fellowships in the past seven years. The University of California, Irvine, and Washington University share the seventh ranking with UT Knoxville.