Milestones: Burton MacDonald (1939–2022)

Leading archaeologist of Jordan’s biblical past

Burton MacDonald
Courtesy American Center of Research

“Peace.” That was the trademark conversation sign off and genuine wish of well-known Canadian archaeologist Burton MacDonald, who passed away on October 20, 2022, at the age of 83. MacDonald was a giant in the field of Near Eastern archaeology, who contributed significantly to our understanding of the ancient sites and peoples east of the Jordan River. Having known and worked with him for several decades, we came to appreciate his eternal optimism, limitless generosity, cheerful spirit, inquiring mind, boundless energy, endearing politeness, mischievous nudging, and indefatigable sense of adventure and curiosity.

Burton enjoyed a 62-year relationship with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1960, returning to teach there in 1966 and staying on for more than 40 years. After his bachelor’s, he earned a master’s degree in religious education from St. Paul’s Seminary (University of Ottawa), and in 1974, received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and literature from Catholic University in Washington D.C., with additional graduate studies at the École Biblique et Archéologique Francais in Jerusalem.

Burton was best known for his archaeological research in Jordan, but he also excavated in Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt. In Jordan, he spent 40 years carrying out five major survey projects, contributing significantly to our knowledge of the vast rural hinterlands in the southern parts of the country, especially the lands of biblical Edom. He published 12 volumes and more than a hundred articles, including several popular works on Jordan’s biblical past, especially “East of the Jordan”: Territories and Sites of the Hebrew Scriptures (ASOR, 2005) and Pilgrimage in Early Christian Jordan (Oxbow, 2011). In addition, he was awarded fellowships at the University of Cambridge, the University of Toronto, Dumbarton Oaks, and the American Center of Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan. Longtime supporters of Jordan’s archaeology, he and his wife Dr. Rosemarie Sampson also funded an annual ACOR fellowship to support Canadian students participating on excavations in Jordan.

Larry Geraty remembers Burton as a friend and colleague for the last 50 years, mostly associated with the archaeology of Jordan, but also for an article they co-authored on the southern location of biblical Sodom, soon to appear in the Lexham Geographical Commentary. “Burton had already done most of the research, going back into the classical sources, so I wanted to share with him the honorarium we received, but generous to a fault, he insisted on my keeping it. To him, friendship was more important than income.”

Larry Herr, who spent a good deal of time studying the pottery recovered from Burton’s Edomite surveys, remembers him as “Mr. Archaeological Survey.” They looked together at thousands of broken pieces of pottery, assessing their types and periods. “Burton was a vivid personality that will always remain clear in my mind. His energy was boundless. I still remember him opening every bag of pottery and dumping them on the table for reading. We would keep at it all morning and afternoon … with proper times for breaks.”

Douglas Clark recalls that whenever they would meet over the years—at international conferences or at ACOR—“Burton would come sauntering up to me, flashing a mischievous Cheshire Cat grin, with a comment or question about the archaeology of Jordan, often baiting me to offer an opinion about how recent finds related to the Bible, something Burton knew extremely well. Few people were as engaging and engaged as Burton.”

With deep appreciation, sincere admiration, and warm affection, we wish for Burton, Rosemarie, and their family “Peace.”

Douglas Clark is Director of the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology at La Sierra University. He excavated at the site of Tall Hisban and served as co-director and then director of the Madaba Plains Project excavation at Tall al-Umayri in Jordan. He currently co-directs the Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project.

Larry Herr is retired Professor of Religious Studies at Burman University in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada. He excavated at Tall Hisban, Jordan, and co-directed the Madaba Plains Project excavation at Tall al-Umayri from 1984 to 2008. He specializes in ceramics and inscriptions.

Larry Geraty is President Emeritus of La Sierra University and Associate Director of the Center for Near Eastern Archaeology. He directed excavations at Tall Hisban (1973–1976) and co-directed the Madaba Plains Project excavation at Tall al-Umayri from 1984 to 1992. He was also President of the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) from 2002 to 2006.

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