Basement Discoveries at the PEF

By Christine Spenuk (PEF Volunteer)

“The original mission statement of the PEF was to promote research into the archaeology and history, manners and customs and culture, topography, geology and natural sciences of biblical Palestine and the Levant.” (PEF website/History)

This is a mission statement that I believe to still be true today. The Palestine Exploration Fund, as I have come to know it, is a space that is welcoming to scholars, students, and individuals wishing to learn more about the history of Palestine by looking through the vast and varied collections stored on site. In the time I have been volunteering at the PEF I have seen archaeologists, students, teachers and visitors to London come seeking certain materials to learn more about a specific subject, from 19th century PEF explorer Charles Warren’s Jerusalem maps, to photographs taken at excavations from a certain site to locating a specific book stored in the library.

PEF/AO/2359: A ceramic jug, likely made in the early Roman period (c. 1st Century BC – 1st Century BCE), discovered during John and Molly Crowfoot’s Samaria excavations in the 1930s. Photo. C. S.

I became aware of the Palestine Exploration Fund through one of my university professors. After mentioning to her that I was going to be spending the next 2 years living and working in London, she told me about the PEF’s 150th Anniversary Conference taking place in June 2015. I was intrigued; I had just finished university and hadn’t had much of a chance to explore many archaeological organizations other than the ones around my school and home (both in Canada). I attended the day-long conference and the following summer sent an email to the curator, Felicity Cobbing, asking about volunteer opportunities within the organization. That fall (September 2016) I began volunteering at the PEF.

PEF/AO/100: A ceramic juggler; dating to the Middle Bronze IIA (currently thought to be c.1950 BCE) from Charles Warren’s excavations in Jerusalem in the late 1860s. Photo: C. S.

At first I was unsure of what I would be doing, but having both experience in photographing artefacts and working with a collection of artefacts from a previous job in Canada, I was hopeful my role would be one I was familiar with (and it is). I am busy photographing the PEF’s extensive collection of archaeological artefacts.

There are over 6,000 artefacts in the archive and so far I have photographed just over 2,000, mainly from three excavations: Charles Warren’s Jerusalem excavations (1867-1870), Flinders Petrie and Frederick Bliss’s Tell el Hesi excavations (1890-92), and British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem/Harvard University excavations at Samaria (led by John and Molly Crowfoot in the 1930s). Included in these artefacts are beautifully intact pieces of pottery, potsherds, glass pieces, tiny beads, charred ivory fragments (a lot of these), tiny pieces of gold leaf (which stick to everything you don’t want them to making photographing challenging), and small scarabs. Many of these artefacts are so tiny I am worried my camera won’t be able to zoom in close enough to capture the stunning details, but so far my sturdy Sony hasn’t let me down. The size of some of the fragments means it is not always possible to determine what the shard once was.

PEF/AO/2273: Fragments from John and Molly Crowfoot’s excavations at Samaria in the 1930s; ivory fragments (black). Photo: C. S.

PEF/AO/1973: Glass rim fragment (c. 4th – 6th centuries CE) discovered during the Samaria excavations. Photo: C. S.

PEF/AO/68: A medieval Islamic hand-made pottery lamp with painted decoration and glaze, discovered during Warren’s excavations in Jerusalem. Photo: C. S.

The full collection is housed in the basement of the PEF; a cramped cluttered space with every inch of available space used for storage. Even the furniture holds historical significance. While the space is small, and the storage of the artefacts is less than ideal, I go to basement happily; every day I am there I discover another piece of the past that I would not have seen otherwise. I can definitely say that I much prefer to be working in a basement getting covered in 1,000 year old dirt to sitting in an office typing on a computer all day!

Author at work photographing objects at the PEF.

Touring Palestine

By Felicity Cobbing

“You’re going where? – Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” is a common response when I tell people I am off to Palestine, taking a holiday tour to the West Bank. Of course the region isn’t known for its peace and tranquillity, especially this year, which has seen some all-too familiar scenes of violence erupting once more. But tourists and other visitors are very safe here. The region’s reputation for hospitality is deservedly legendary, and Palestine is no exception. And the country is about so much more than the ongoing conflict and the headlines this generates.

Every year, I lead an archaeological and historical tour to Palestine on behalf of Martin Randall Travel in London, and Laila Tours in Bethlehem. Together with the tour manager, who this year was the utterly fabulous Heather Millican, we introduce a collection of complete strangers to this complex and fascinating corner of the world in a way that is hopefully a lot of fun as well as thought-provoking. The itinerary takes in archaeological and religious sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and Samaria, and gives those on the tour an opportunity to see a part of the world usually only experienced by many of us in the West through dismal news reports.

The Dome of the Rock reflected in al Aksa

This year, a group of ten of us arrived in Palestine in the midst of the worst trouble the region has seen for a while, and though we were always perfectly safe and enjoyed the best of Palestinian hospitality, we were all very aware of the events unfolding around us. We were accompanied as always by our local guide, Dr. Hisham Khatib, and our coach driver George. I have got to know Hisham over several tours now, and I am always glad to have him with us. He is a friend, a gentleman and a scholar, and impresses everyone with his courtesy and knowledge. George was a new friend, but I was very glad to have him negotiating our path around the roads of Palestine, avoiding the worst of the road-blocks and finding alternative routes to our destinations. We also had the benefit of several local experts, who brought their unique knowledge to our visits of their sites.

Our guide, Hisham, and his mother in their home in the Old City, Jerusalem.

Our guide, Hisham, and his mother in their home in the Old City, Jerusalem.

Shimon Gibson and Hamdan Taha introduced us to the fabulous archaeology and history of sites in Jerusalem and at Tell as-Sultan (ancient Jericho) respectively, whilst the ever-enthusiastic Silvia Krapikow showed us round the Rockefeller Museum and archives, and Rachel Lev introduced us to the wonderful archival collections of the American Colony, a gem of a collection that surprised us all. Laila Slemiah who runs the women’s cooperative in Hebron impressed us all with her courage and determination to make a life for herself, her children and to support other women and their families through her work.

Rachel Lev, America Colony archives

Priest Hosni Cohen, the little brother of the High Priest and elder of the Samaritan community on Mount Gerizim very graciously introduced us to the unique perspective of the Samaritans, helped brilliantly by Ghalia Cohen and Marwa Mohammed who translated some of the more existential concepts into English. With one phone for Israel and another for Palestine, and three – yes three – passports (Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian), Priest Cohen transcends political barriers to go where he pleases, taking the teachings of Samaritan scripture with him. Organised tour holidays are not to everyone’s taste, but there is no doubt in my mind that they provide more of an opportunity to get under the skin of a country than is possible for an independent traveller, at least for a first relatively short visit. It’s also a wonderful way to make new friends, and I am sure I will be seeing quite a lot of some of those I got to know round at the PEF – something I anticipate with great pleasure!

Priest Hosni Cohen at the Samaritan Museum, Mount Gerizim.

Priest Hosni Cohen at the Samaritan Museum, Mount Gerizim.

Palestine is a part of the world of which I am very fond. I love the people, the history, the culture and the landscape: for such a tiny part of the world it packs a seriously powerful punch. It has been the theatre for some of the most important milestones of human history from the Neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago which saw the development of farming to the invention of the alphabet, and the emergence of the three great Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hopefully, when I take the tour again this time next year, the political situation will have improved, and the next group of travellers will see a region full of hope and talent getting the chance to fulfil some of its potential.