In the Footsteps of Bliss and Dickie

By Yehiel Zelinger

The earliest excavations on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion took place between the years 1894 and 1897 by Frederick J. Bliss and Archibald C. Dickie under the auspices of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund. Due to issues in acquiring permits from the Ottoman authorities, the two excavated clandestinely by means of deep, narrow shafts interconnected via tunnels dug along the outer face of the defensive walls that enclosed the Mount from the south. The detailed and comprehensive account of their excavations is a milestone in the history of archaeological research in Jerusalem (Bliss and Dickie 1898).

Exposed walls on Mount Zion. Photo: Y. Zelinger.

On behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, since 2007 I have re-excavated a large portion of the city walls first exposed in Bliss and Dickie’s tunnels (Fig. 1). Thanks to a generous grant from the PEF, I was granted access to its rich archives and thus able to examine the two excavators’ original letters, maps and reports, and thus bring to light important details that had not been included in their original report. My first impression upon entering the archives was one of great anticipation at the wealth of information awaiting me. Even as a field archaeologist with some 25 years’ experience in excavating Jerusalem and its environs, I felt almost like a child set loose in a toy shop.

I found Bliss’ archives to contain dozens, if not hundreds, of letters, plans and pencil drawings, all pertaining to his work in Jerusalem in general and to the southern line of the city’s fortifications in particular. I was also curious as to whether he and Dickie noted certain walls or floors that did not come to light over the course of our own excavations. Although I often had difficulty deciphering his handwriting, it appears as though every week he would dispatch to the P.E.F. board a detailed report of his new findings — perhaps also as a means to recount for himself that week’s events.

Bliss’s markings on a map of Mount Zion. Photo: Y. Zelinger.

In these, the very early days of the ‘modern’ study of Jerusalem, I got a sense of just how much their activities had been carried out upon a near blank slate. Just one example has Bliss marking Mount Zion on a map as the City of David (Fig. 2). This evidently followed his discovery of the wall that enclosed Mount Zion from the south (which he originally vaguely ascribed to the First Temple period [8-7 Century BCE] but later correctly amended to the Second Temple period [1 Century BCE – 1 Century CE]); and, indeed, at this time it was not entirely clear whether the City of David was to be located on the southern slope of the Temple Mount or on Mount Zion.

Our own excavations on the southern slope of Mount Zion exposed a segment of an earlier line of fortifications, which we dated to the First Temple period (8-7 Century BCE). This came in addition to segments of the aforementioned Second Temple-period wall, as well as to those of the Byzantine Empress Eudocia’s 5th Century BCE fortifications. Bliss and Dickie did not come across segments of the early wall, even though they documented large quantities of Iron Age pottery and figurines. Likewise, Bliss made no mention of the early wall in his personal correspondence, no doubt due to the fact that it lay two meters south of Eudocia’s wall, and thus beyond the bounds of their narrow excavation tunnel – which measured on average only 70 cm in width! Some 120 years later, utilizing modern excavation methods, we were able to expose the broader picture.

With a great deal of work still ahead of me, my two weeks at the PEF archives were nevertheless immensely rewarding. There is no doubt that the multitude of documents belonging to these two pioneering scholars comprise a rare time capsule from which we can glean invaluable information on the ancient fortifications of this golden city.

Further Reading:

Bliss F. J. and Dickie A. C. 1898. Excavations at Jerusalem 1894-1897. London.