John Garstang began his academic career in mathematics at Jesus College, Oxford, but while still an undergraduate turned his attention to archaeology. His first fieldwork was done in Egypt, where, at the age of twenty-three, he joined Flinders Petrie. He then worked in Anatolia (1904-1909), returning for a final season of excavations at Sakçagözü in 1911. His influential work, The Land of the Hittites, was published in 1910. At the age of 26, he was appointed honorary reader in Egyptian archaeology at Liverpool University. Five years later (in 1907) he beacame professor of the methods and practice of archaeology, a post he held until his retirement in 1941. From 1909 until 1914 he excavated in the Sudan, at Meroë, capital of an ancient Nubian kingdom.
Garstang was the founding Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (now the Kenyon Institute) in 1920. In that same year, he made what is probably his most lasting contribution to archaeology by becoming the founding Director of the British Mandatory Department of Antiquities of Palestine, a post he held until 1926. In that capacity he drafted the country's antiquities laws, which were notably liberal, enlightened, and practical. Garstang used the material belonging to the Ottoman Palestine Museum as the basis of the collection for the Palestine Museum in Jerusalem, now the Rockefeller Museum.
He carried out the first post-World War I excavations in Palestine at Ashkelon, followed by a series of soundings at sites across the country. In 1922, at a historic meeting with W. F. Albright of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem and L-H Vincent of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française, Garstang formulated the terminology still used for the classification of the archaeological material of the southern Levant. From 1930 to 1936 he carried out a major excavation at Jericho, funded by Sir Charles Marston. Although this excavation was poorly published, and although Garstang's views of Jericho regarding the accounts in Exodus and regarding the Israelite conquest are no longer accepted, his work there provided the first information about the existence of an aceramic Neolithic culture.
Following World War II, Garstang returned to Anatolia, where he became the founding Director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara (1947). His final excavation was at the site of Mersin, in Cilicia, where he discovered important remains of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Two days before his death, though very ill and weak, he was able to realise his wish to revisit this site, coming ashore from the boat on which he was enjoying a last cruise.
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