Archaeologists reveal shocking stories of their past

Secret excavations were completed by a British officer under the Temple Mount.

THE SHADOW of members of the media is cast on a mosaic floor of an ancient church found near Jerusalem in 2011. In the 19th century, Crusader mosaic floors were uncovered in the Dome of the Rock. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE SHADOW of members of the media is cast on a mosaic floor of an ancient church found near Jerusalem in 2011. In the 19th century, Crusader mosaic floors were uncovered in the Dome of the Rock.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A European archaeologist completed excavations on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. According to the preliminary announcement, his team apparently tricked the Muslim authorities to conduct the courageous operation. He describes the guards as “African or Nubian men, of the most bigoted nature, who think nothing of life or the loss of it.” However, the excavator found a creative way to deceive the custodians.
First, the archaeologist managed to win the confidence of the Muslim guards, “So that instead of coming and throwing stones at me when I entered the Temple area by myself, they would stand up and deferentially salaam.” Then, the scholar, who had some impressive military experience, employed a diversionary tactic.
“On this occasion the guards were given a hint that they might obtain a smell of grilled lizard if they went in a certain direction. This was enough for them. They are greedily fond of the large lizards and were thus out of our way.”
“They once ate a very large pet lizard of mine which I wanted to send home to Zoological Gardens in London,” he added.
The above account is not a fictional scenario from a new Indiana Jones movie. The author of this fascinating description is British archaeologist Charles Warren, one of the most important explorers of Jerusalem.
These events took place in Jerusalem in 1867. Due to political and religious obstacles today, there have been no significant surveys below the ground on the Temple Mount since the 19th century. Warren’s reports on its underground chambers constitute probably most of what we know today about the concealed parts of the Sanctuary.
However, Warren did not act on his own. Warren’s expedition was sent to Jerusalem by the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) that was established in London in 1865 – a unique cooperation between scholars, aristocrats, clergymen and military personnel that was devoted to the systematic exploration of the Holy Land.
Recently, to mark 150 years since the establishment of the PEF, scholars worldwide came together to the University of Haifa for a special conference to reassess the PEF’s achievements.
The PEF’s activities constitute a fascinating chapter in history. The founders came from the top of British society. In fact, they even managed to convince the queen to become an official patron of this extraordinary endeavor. Even more interesting is that some of the funding was provided by the famous Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. On other hand, Anglican religious leaders were also deeply involved.
According to Prof. David M. Jacobson, who serves on the PEF executive committee today and attended the Haifa conference, “The founders agreed that the new organization would conduct its activities on scientific principles, abstain from any political controversies and not operate as a religious society.” This is what enabled a unique collaboration between people of different fields, such as Arthur Stanley (the dean of Westminster), George Grove (the author of the famous Grove Dictionary of Music) and Capt. Charles Wilson (Corps of Royal Engineers).
Indeed, it seems that the Her Majesty’s army was quite glad to obtain an updated, precise map of Palestine, that was controlled at the time by the Ottoman Empire.
Perhaps this was the reason why young and ambitious officers like Charles Warren, were “stated” with the PEF and headed its first archaeological expeditions. Even more, such challenging tasks have been often regarded as a “rite of passage” in their military careers. For instance, Warren was rapidly promoted upon his return to England. He finished his military service with the rank of general, after he commanded the British garrison in Singapore and even served as police commissioner during the infamous career of Jack the Ripper.
“The military personnel contributed to archaeology new skills as well as geodetic instruments,” explained Dr. Sveta Matskevich of the Hebrew University, who presented her research on archaeological draughtsmanship at the Haifa conference.
“Biblical archaeology was considered a branch of theology, vague and descriptive. Early scholars who came to the Holy Land were usually not ‘big experts’ in drawing maps or in documenting ancient architecture. The PEF introduced the accuracy of the military cartography into this discipline, and thus established many standards that we use in modern archaeology today.”
The high quality of these reports, which were sent to London, is the reason why field notes of two centuries ago are still relevant. The archives are visited by foreign scholars on a daily basis. Making an appointment is compulsory, but the unpublished materials that are kept there often enable researchers to “dig out” new secrets from the old pages.
The Haifa conference attracted scholars who presented their new studies on these old reports. These often describe findings that are out of range for archaeologists today. Crusader mosaic floors in the Dome of the Rock is one such fascinating example. Mosaic stones were discovered in the work of Temple Mount Sifting Project recently. Nobody can even imagine digging there today. Therefore, modern scholars had to use lithographs from the old PEF albums to reconstruct how the complete floors should look.
What qualities did archaeologists need to have two centuries ago? Nothing went smoothly then. The Ottoman authorities, obviously, were not eager to cooperate, and only the international influence from the highest ranks (often combined with some hefty baksheesh) made the explorations possible. Conditions were harsh. In addition to the lack of infrastructure and permits, the explorers had to deal with malaria and sometimes a hostile population. In some cases it was fatal. Corporal Duncan, a member of Warren’s team, passed away after desperately struggling with “fever.” However, even this event did not make Warren cease his digging.
Today, we read fictional accounts or watch Hollywood movies about “treasure seeking” archaeologists.
However, back in the 19th century the dangers were part of the reality for every archaeologist, whose true “treasure” was simply understanding the past. These remarkable old works are a heritage much of which still remains to be revealed. The new studies presented at the Haifa conference seem to be only a beginning.
The authors are chairs of the PEF and the Early Exploration of the Holy Land conference under the auspices of the Gottlieb Schumacher Institute and the Zinman Institute of Archaeology.