The archaeological site of Khirbat Ataruz is situated on the ridge of Jabal Hamidah, in central Jordan, between the Wadi Zarqa Main on the north and the Sayl Haydan on the south. The ruin is near the modern town of Jabal Hamidah, about 10 km west of Libb and 3 km east of the Hellenistic and Roman ruin at Machaerus.
The vicinity of Khirbat Ataruz was surveyed by Schottroff (1966) some decades ago. This survey showed that it was one of the few permanently settled sites from the Iron Age in the Jabal Hamidah region. Niemann (1985) also examined the site and found Iron Age pottery as well as a portion of a terracotta figurine. This earlier effort notwithstanding, much of the Ataruz region has not yet been properly researched for archaeological remains, since no excavations had previously occurred specifically at Khirbat Ataruz.
The La Sierra University team has long been interested in Khirbat Ataruz and its vicinity for archaeological research since 1996 when the Dhiban Plateau Survey Project was launched by Chang-Ho Ji, given that the Ataruz area is just north of the survey area across the Sayl Haydan. Both the Dhiban and Ataruz areas are closely connected in terms of geography and archaeological history. Accordingly, it was deemed essential to study the two regions together in order to understand the occupational history of central Jordan as a whole.
In 1998, as an extension to the Dhiban Plateau Survey Project, Chang-Ho Ji arrived at Khirbat Ataruz for a brief reconnaissance surface survey of the site, which produced a collection of diverse pottery dated to the Iron Age as well as some belonging to the Hellenistic, Roman, and Islamic periods. In particular, at the acropolis of the site were several ancient wall lines clearly visible and traceable above the ground. It was apparent from this visitation that Khirbat Ataruz was rich in archaeological materials and evidence for the study of the Iron Age, classical era, and Islamic period. The ceramic evidence of Khirbat Ataruz was also assessed to be compatible in shape and style with those from the Iron Age, Hellenistic, Roman, and Islamic sites in the Dhiban Plateau.
In 2000, Chang-Ho Ji and his research team began with two 6 m x 6 m squares at the acropolis area in hopes of engendering a preliminary stratigraphy for future full-blown excavations. Thereafter, seven seasons of excavation took place between 2000 and 2014 under the auspices of the Versacare Foundation and the Ataruz Regional Research Project, centering on five areas: the acropolis (Fields A and E), the southwestern slope (Field B), the northeastern slope (Field C), the western defense wall (Field D), and the eastern gate system (Field F).
Ataruzis mentioned in both biblical and historical sources. It has been associated with the ancient city of Ataroth in the Hebrew Bible. According to Numbers 34:32, “The children of Gad built Dibon, and Ataroth, and Aroer...” The Hebrew Bible mentions that the tribe of Gad was assigned its territory in Transjordan and built Ataroth as well.
Ataruz is also mentioned in the Moabite stele. According to the Moabite stele, the Gadites had lived in the area around Ataroth from ancient times and Omri the king of Israel had built a city and a cult center there. As the power of the Omride dynasty began to wane, Mesha saw an opportunity to “throw off the yoke” of the house of Omri. He sought to unify the region under his leadership by attacking the cities of Nebo and Jahaz. He also launched a campaign against the city of Ataroth and killed its inhabitants as an offering to the his god, Chemosh. He destroyed the temple and dragged its sacred object called the “ariel of David” to the Qarioth or city near Ataruz where he set it up as a memorial of his victory. Later he repopulated the city with two unknown groups called the Sharonites and the Maharatites.
The archaeological remains associated with the temple show at least three phases of cultic activity at Ataruz took place in the early Iron IIA-early Iron IIB periods, roughly dated to the late 10th –early 8th centuries BCE. At that time, the site was a major cultic center that was probably built and maintained by national or at least regional political entity. The temple complex was well laid out, centrally located and built at the highest point of the site. In the Main Sanctuary next to the offering table, a standing stone represented the principle deity. Further excavations suggest that a bull motif was also used to symbolize this god.
During the Iron IIB-IIC periods (8th-7th centuries BCE), Ataruz was rebuilt and reused. Kitchen remains, storage facilities, and water channels suggest that the area was primarily adapted for domestic purposes. However, the eastern side of the earlier Iron IIA courtyard and its nearby building remains were continued to be used for cultic purposes. By the end of the Iron IIC period, the site had been abandoned.
The Hellenistic occupants of the tell reused the earlier Iron II structures and added two long walls inside the Hearth and Double Platform Rooms. Also several walls and rooms in the southwestern part of Field A were also built during the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods (ca. 200 BCE-100 CE). In addition, excavations in Field C revealed late Hellenistic-early Roman structures including bath installation with plastered steps and walls. During this era, Ataruz was most likely engaged in cereal farming as well as oil or wine production. By the end of the 1st century CE, a decline agricultural prosperity together with increased political turmoil in the region contributed to the site's abandonment.
Ataruz remained unoccupied for nearly 800 years before it was resettled in the Middle Islamic period (ca. 1000-1400 CE). Residents re-established Ataruz as a medium-sized village but the exact size and plan of the settlement is difficult to determine. Although there are a number of walls associated with this period, many of the domestic rooms and buildings reused earlier walls rather than erecting new ones. Indeed, much of the building stone used in the contruction of the early-mid Iron IIA temple complex was dismantled during the Middle Islamic period. This practice was particularly extensive in the area to the north of the acropolis. Nevertheless Ataruz was a populous and thriving village during the Middle Islamic period.