Frederick Jones Bliss
After the PEF’s first field excavator Sir Flinders Petrie left Palestine to return to in Egypt in 1890, the Fund hired Frederick Jones Bliss to continue the work at the site of Tell el-Hesy (Tell el Hesi).
Frederick Bliss was the second oldest child of the well-known American missionary Daniel Bliss, the founding president of Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (now American University of Beirut.) Frederick’s mother, Abby Wood Bliss, came from a prominent Massachusetts family and was a close childhood friend of Emily Dickinson. Although raised in Beirut, Bliss and all his siblings were sent back to America for their educations. Bliss attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and then Union Theological Seminary in New York, as did his brothers. His younger brother, Howard Sweetser Bliss, succeeded their father as the next president of Syrian Protestant College but Frederick took a different path.
While in the America, health problems that plagued Bliss throughout his life led him to recuperate in Beirut in the late 1880’s. It was then that he became interested in archaeological remains, researching and ultimately publishing about the ruins of Tadmor. He also published two ethnographic articles on Ma‘lula and on the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.
When Petrie left Palestine, the Fund needed to replace him immediately while the firman for excavation at Tell el-Hesy was still valid. They hired Bliss quickly, even though he had no excavation experience. To remedy this, they sent him to Giza to apprentice with Petrie and learn field methods. After a few months Petrie declared him ready to take over the Hesy excavations.
Bliss worked at Tell el-Hesy for four separate seasons throughout 1891 and 1892, making multiple trial trenches on the lower city, and also excavating on the north -eastern side of the acropolis. A fluent Arabic speaker thanks to his upbringing in Beirut, Bliss had a good rapport with the workmen the he hired from the nearby village of Bureir, and also cultivated a working relationship with the Turkish inspector. His managed to manoeuvre through a variety of obstacles, such as the need to recompense the landowners for the cost of the crops growing on the tell that were destroyed by the excavation. He also built a tramway to carry away the excavation debris.
Bliss was a meticulous excavator with an astute understanding of stratigraphy that allowed him to refine Petrie’s eight-city scheme of Hesy by adding in several subphases. He also realized the importance of pottery sherds, as opposed to whole vessels. But both Bliss and the Fund’s board were frustrated by the site, as no great treasures were coming out of the ground. The most exciting find was an Amarna style clay tablet. Ultimately the board chose to close the Hesy excavations.
Bliss was next sent to Jerusalem in 1893, where after some difficulty he procured a firman to excavate near Zion Gate, to determine the course of the Roman Period walls of the city. He excavated there from 1894 to 1897. Although not a trained engineer, Bliss had to resort to tunnelling in the area. Among his discoveries was an aqueduct. During the Jerusalem years, Bliss was assigned an assistant, the architect Archibald Dickie, who drew the plans.
Bliss’s third and final project for the PEF was the excavation of several interrelated tell sites located in the southern Shephelah, with Tell es-Safi (biblical Gath) as the centerpiece. The project ran from 1898-1900. During its course, Bliss excavated Tell Zakariyah, Tell es-Safi and finally Tell Judeideh, now with the assistance of R. A. S. Macalister.
Bliss’s poor health interrupted his fieldwork several times. During the third Hesy season, he caught typhoid fever, which caused him to put off his report-writing in London for a year. Later, he interrupted the 1895 Jerusalem season because of another illness which sent him home to Beirut for several months, leaving Dickie in charge.
Bliss resigned from the PEF in 1900, due to his ill health combined with disagreements with PEF leadership over finances. His assistant R. A. S. Macalister took over as the Fund’s primary excavator.
PEF-P-4976 – A mosaic pavement excavated by Bliss on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, 1894 – 1897. Photo by Bliss.