A unique find: Harding creates Museum of Biblical Archeology

Story and photos
by Megan Ledbetter

Few universities have a resident archeologist who has been equated to Indiana Jones, and, according to Dr. Dale Manor, even fewer have the resources to display archeological findings on rotation as a resource on campus for students, faculty and the community. 

Two years after a donation was made and after seven months of renovation, the Linda Byrd Smith Museum of Biblical Archeology opened at Harding University on April 13 in the McInteer Bible building to display Manor’s artifacts. 


From display case to museum 

Since Manor, resident archeologist and professor of Bible and archeology, came to Harding in 1996, the idea of displaying his artifacts has been an ongoing process. 

“I recognized the value of archeology, not as an apologetic, but an illustration clarifying what is going on in the biblical text, making things more real to people,” Manor said. “We have a tendency to read something as if it is fictional until we actually encounter it.”

The process started with a display case in the lobby of McInteer that was on display for several months before it was broken into. The idea of a more secure case was at the top of the wish list, but Manor never dreamed of having the capability to renovate a classroom into a museum, which is exactly what became reality when alumna Linda Byrd Smith became the donor. She is a Bible class teacher in Arkansas jails and prisons, her home congregation and other religious organizations.

Manor had formed a relationship with Smith after she expressed her interest in visual teaching using artifacts like Manor’s. He let her borrow a few things, and it inspired her to fund a way for many students to see the artifacts up close. 

“One day, I was with Dr. Manor in his tiny office and saw so many artifacts virtually hidden to so many people who are interested in Bible history,” Smith said. “I mentioned to Harding’s ‘Indiana Jones’ that I thought there should be a place to display them to benefit others.”

Although Manor did not know she was considering funding the project, Smith’s interest led to conversations with Harding President Dr. Bruce McLarty, architect Mike Steelman and Dr. Monte Cox, dean of Harding’s College of Bible, but, according to Smith, Manor is the one that made it a reality. 

David and Linda Smith have been generous donors in many projects within the College of Bible, including the Center for World Missions and Harding University at Tahkodah (HUT, a missions training village) in Independence County, and pioneered the Center for Bioethics.

Renovating a classroom 

Manor now serves as the museum coordinator and curator. He helped to design and build the museum, with expert advice from Mike Steelman and Megan Valentine, Harding alumnus and museum curator for Egyptology Museum in Alexandria, La. 

Valentine, who was in the Archeology Club at Harding, focused on the hypothetical creation of a museum at Harding as a project in her graduate program. She created a proposal, budget, grant application and more for the hypothetical museum, and these plans were put to use when the idea became a reality financially. She provided lighting and display advice for ideal conservation, and the design developed from there as Valentine, Steelman and Manor worked together on the project. 

“I was imagining that it would still look like a classroom,” Cox said. “But as you can tell, it looks really nice. For a small little museum, it looks really nice.” 

According to Cox, Manor made every place card and artifact stand, and Harding carpenters hand-made all the display cases found in the museum. 

“The colorful timeline and signage were professionally done, but, otherwise, he did everything else. This is his baby, and it’s been very impressive,” Cox said. 

The museum, which is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment, is organized thematically. Manor plans to rotate different artifacts in and out of the museum annually, unveiling the new exhibit every year at Harding’s annual Lectureship. New rotations will still consist of the big items like the carved ossuary crucifixion display, but will rotate new displays of Manor’s artifacts or displays on loan from other archeologists as well as feature his artificial excavation class for which he built his own replica of a biblical dig site. The current exhibit features displays on the patriarchal period, religion, storage jars, writing, daily life, the new testament Hellenistic period, coins, the excavation process and dating of artifacts. More information on most of the artifacts on display can be found online as well. 

Manor’s legacy 

Manor was asked in 2000 by the directors to serve as the field director at the Tel Beth Shemesh dig site in Israel. He has been the field director for the past 17 years, spending each summer there with excavators from Israel and students from universities like the University of Tel Aviv and Lethbridge University in Canada, overseeing the excavation and synthesizing data for the directors, which will ultimately be published. Two artifacts that he was allowed to take from Tel Beth Shemesh for educational purposes are on display in the museum. 

“He is a treasure to Harding University, having been trained by some of the world’s greatest archeologists,” Smith said. “Now that Harding has a free museum for anyone to visit, so many people can understand Bible stories in their historical and cultural context, which makes it even more real to us.” 

For years to come this will be Manor’s legacy where he is able to display his love for archaeology and biblical history, and it will be there long after he retires. 

“[Manor has] dreamed for a long time about having a place to display [his artifacts], but this is beyond our wildest dreams,” Cox said. “[I’m] just proud of him, and proud that we get to claim him as one of our own.”

Value of a Biblical Museum 

Manor strongly believes in the value of a museum that focuses on biblical history, especially for a Christian university. 

“This would not have much significance at all if this was a state university; it’s the fact that we are a Christian university and we require a Bible class every semester by every student. I’m hoping it will be a tool that the Bible teachers will use,” Manor said. 

Valentine’s experiences as a student help her see the value of the museum for students across all departments on campus. 

“As a history major, I spent a fair amount of time explaining that I wasn’t pursuing teaching but instead wanted to work in a museum,” Valentine said. “The Linda Byrd Smith Museum of Biblical Archaeology can provide much more exposure and opportunity to students in the history, art history and Bible departments to actually study artifacts and learn about museum work and those opportunities.” 

Overall, the museum holds value as a unique biblical archeology museum, one of the few of its kind, that represents the work of Harding’s resident archeologist. 

“The fact that Harding University in Searcy, Ark., has an archaeologist of this kind of standing who is publishing for the University of Tel Aviv is a more prestigious thing than our students will ever know,” Cox said. “They pass by that place all the time, and they, for the most, part probably don’t realize this is the legacy of a well-regarded biblical scholar.”