The Secrets Between the Old Pages

By Dr. David Gurevich

“You are like Indiana Jones!”, a random visitor to the PEF archives commented on hearing the purpose of my work. I was standing behind a tripod that fixed my camera above a thick open file (Fig. 1). The well-aged pieces of paper contained the text of a manuscript written over 130 years ago. It was composed in Jerusalem and submitted as a report to the PEF office in London. “It’s so interesting. Perhaps you’ll find something!”, she continued.

The author examining plans at the PEF archives.

Figure 1. The author examining plans at the PEF archives.

Normally I would object at being compared to that iconic Hollywood character. The “treasure hunters” reputation of archaeologists was denounced in my eyes long ago. It happened during my first year of undergraduate studies. In the first introductory lecture it was explained that archaeologists do not hunt for treasures, causing a serious disappointment amongst the somewhat-naive audience. Having said that, today, after becoming a Fulbright post-doc research fellow at Harvard University, I do find myself in some way looking for a “treasure”, but of a different type – information and means that would help us to understand better ancient Jerusalem. This time I came after them to London.

About a year ago I visited the PEF for the first time. The modest entrance to its 2 Hinde Mews establishment hardly prepares the visitor for what he is about to discover behind the doors. Being a scholar in the field of Jerusalem studies, I had encountered the PEF’s pioneering work from the very beginning of my scientific career in archaeology. Actually, a significant amount of data that I analyzed in my doctoral dissertation came from the reports of Charles Wilson, Charles Warren and Conrad Schick who all explored Jerusalem on behalf of the PEF in the 19th century. As surprising it might be, several sites in Jerusalem have not been visited by any scholar since then. Such is the case, for instance, of Birket Israil, a huge ancient pool that abuts the northern wall of the Temple Mount. Warren conducted probe excavations inside the pool between 1867 and 1870, but in the 1930s the pool was filled with soil and a modern parking lot was created on top. Nowadays, this site of antiquity is buried deep below the surface, and keeping in mind all the political sensitivities there is no a chance to conduct new excavations. Warren’s data, therefore, was the primary source for my research.

Back to my first visit in the PEF archive. For the first time in my life I was examining the original letters sent from Jerusalem to London in the 19th century (Fig. 2): plans with signatures of Warren, notes written in old-style handwriting of Schick, yellowish pieces of paper with editorial remarks in red ink… I indentified a portion as unpublished material. How many secrets might these records still reveal? But it was also evident that I would need much more than a day to work on these precious materials. Thanks to the PEF grant program I was provided with an opportunity to come again recently, this time for over a week. My goal was to systematically review all the materials concerning the water systems of ancient Jerusalem. “Digging” for “mysteries” in the archives. In some way, similar to Indiana Jones.

Figure 2. Old letters are carefully arranged in archival files, titled by subjects. For instance, "PEF/JER/WIL" stands for materials related to the work of Sir C. Wilson on Jerusalem.

Figure 2. Old letters are carefully arranged in archival files, titled by subjects. For instance, “PEF/JER/WIL” stands for materials related to the work of Sir C. Wilson on Jerusalem.

The first thing you notice spending time in the PEF offices is a unique working environment. Whenever I took a short break, I wandered around the premises just to inspire the atmosphere. Each item bears a story. Here sits an old brown suitcase storing notes sent by the expedition of the historical Survey of Eastern Palestine. The suitcase seems also to be from the same period. In the main hall one notices an exhibition of artefacts obtained by the PEF through the years. Here are exhibited a few Crusader “grenades” (aka sphero-conical vessels) that were retrieved by Warren’s excavations. Nearby, one finds a few of the famous Shapira’s Moabite figurines (Fig. 3. Wilhelm M. Shapira was a controversial character in 19th century Jerusalem. He was an antiquities dealer, who is most known for his proposition to provide to the British Museum an “authentic scroll of Deuteronomy written by Moses”. The fragments of scrolls were, by the way, offered on “sale” – just one million pounds. And the Museum almost bought it.

Figure 3. Shapira's Moabite items exhibited in the PEF office.

Figure 3. Shapira’s Moabite items exhibited in the PEF office.

“Whenever you finish working with a plan, just put it please on the Temple!”, Ms. Felicity Cobbing, the Curator of the PEF, instructed me. “The Temple” refers to the model of Herod’s Temple constructed by Johann Martin Tenz which is kept inside a big glass case. Tenz was one of the gifted students in the handcraft workshop organized by the Jerusalem’s Anglican Missionary in the 19th century. And as my week in the PEF office went on, the pile accumulated on “the Temple” raised up higher and higher. Even when using the PEF’s loo, one encounters the archaeology: while sitting in-a-process, you notice a photograph on the wall. This depicts the Iron Age toilet from Jerusalem that is provided with a kind explanation of its function. Know your ancestors!

Perhaps the most exciting moment for me was when I came across a single short letter from 1901 (Fig. 4). It was written by Conrad Schick in Jerusalem, where he had resided permanently since 1846. In the last years I have studied his works systematically. The PEF has in possession probably hundreds of his letters, but this particular letter was different. “I am now about to prepare Plan and Section of the Jeremia’s Grotto for Sir Wilson, as my health in thanks to God, still good”, wrote Schick with his impressive cursive handwriting. Not so long after, he passed away at the age of 79. I was holding one of his very last letters. Definitely, a touching moment.

Eventually, my task in London was completed. I departed with a flash drive holding copies of many old documents taken for more careful examination. My goal is to discover what kind of answers these may bear. After “digging”, now comes the stage of processing the data. I’m looking for fragments of information that back in the 19th century were considered irrelevant and therefore were omitted from the published reports. Today these fragments may reveal shed new light on the archaeology of Jerusalem. Stay tuned!

C. Schick's letter to the PEF from July 22, 1901.

Figure 4. Conrad Schick’s letter to the PEF from July 22, 1901.



3 thoughts on “The Secrets Between the Old Pages”

  1. Hello David,
    interesting stuff. Three questions:
    1. Did you work systematically through everything and copy everything, or were you focused on a specific topic and copied only what was relevant to the topic?
    2. Are the images going online for everyone to view?
    3. If yes to 2., when and where will we eventually see these?

    1. Hello Matthew. I looked only on the material which are relevant to my topic. PEF has in its possession huge amount of materials. Most of these materials are available only in hard copies.

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