John Garstang, 1876-1956

Born in 1876, John Garstang started off his academic life as a mathematician, studying the subject at Jesus College, Oxford.

Whilst there, his interest in archaeology took hold, and aged 23 he joined Flinders-Petrie at his excavations at Abydos in Egypt. From 1904 – 1909 he dug at Sakje Geuzi [pron Saché Gerzoo] in Anatolia, returning in 1911. From 1990 until the First World War, he directed excavations numerous sites in Egypt, including Abydos, Beni Hassan, and Naqada. From 1909 to 1914, he excavated the site of Meroë in the Sudan.


Garstang’s interests in Egyptian archaeology were unusual at the time. He focused on the burial practices of ordinary ancient Egyptians rather than those of the elite.


At the age of 26 he was appointed honorary reader in Egyptian Archaeology at Liverpool University, and five years later, in 1907, he became professor of the methods and practice of archaeology, a post which he held till his retirement in 1941. He was a talented fundraiser, with a gift for touching wealthy benefactors and institutions for money to fund his excavations, which was to prove both a blessing and a curse during his career.


With the demise of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, Garstang moved his focus to the Levant, a newly acquired British concern under the Mandatory Government of Palestine. In 1921 he was appointed as the first Director of both the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem – the BSAJ, and of the Mandatory Government Department of Antiquities, a job which he held for 6 years. This double role put him in an extraordinary position, and effectively made him the architect of British antiquities policy and practice, as well as putting him in direct control of the program of research. Under his directorship, the framework for antiquities policy in Palestine was designed, refined and put into practice. During his time in Palestine, with the considerable input of James Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, Garstang saw the building of a new Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, which was built on the collections acquired during the Ottoman period, many from PEF excavations like Gezer, Beth Shemesh, Tell Sandahannah, and so on. This museum is known today as the Rockefeller Museum after its major benefactor.

Rockefeller Museum
The newly built Palestine Archaeological Museum, in Jerusalem, also known as the Rockefeller Museum, shortly before its opening in January 1938
W.F. Albright (seated) of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Pere Vincent of the Ecole Biblique, and John Garstang, in the Library of the BSAJ in Jerusalem

In 1922, Garstang, together with W.F. Albright of the American Schools of Oriental Research and Pere Vincent of the Ecole Biblique, devised a way to rationalise Palestine’s complex pre-classical archaeology into the commonly used ‘Three Age System’ of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age, to create a uniform terminology which is still in use today.

 He excavated a number of sites in Palestine, including Ashkelon, Hazor, and most famously, at Tell es-Sultan, ancient Jericho. 

Excavations at Ashkelon in 1921
At Hazor in 1926

His excavations have become rather notorious due to his assignation of some of the mud-brick walls to the Joshua invasions, an identification which was proved incorrect some years later by Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the same site (for more on this topic, see the biography of Kathleen Kenyon) . However, Garstang was unhappy with this interpretation, and there is some evidence that he was pressured into this line of thinking by his wealthy benefactor, the industrialist and Christian fundamentalist Sir Charles Marston. This subject also rather overshadows Garstang’s important work in revealing some of the first evidence for the Neolithic period in Palestine at Jericho. 

Garstang recording quantities of pottery from Middle Bronze Age storage jars in the ‘Palace Store Rooms’ at Jericho

After World War II, Garstang went again to Anatolia, where he became the founding Director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara in 1947. He excavated at Mersin in Cilicia, uncovering Neolithic and Bronze Age remains. He died in 1956 in Beirut.