Overlooked Archaeologists of Palestine

By Loay Abu Alsaud.

Our endeavour was to bring to light early contributions made to archaeology in Palestine by key Palestinians who have been overlooked by researchers. The first foreign scientific excavations took place in Palestine in the late 19th century and by the 1920s, European and American teams were arriving in Palestine, attempting to link archaeological sites to Biblical passages. They needed support personnel and recruited Palestinian men and women. Of note were three Palestinians, who became proficient at complex, skilled work and were given key onsite responsibilities, influencing the progress of archaeology in Palestine. They were Yusra (Turn 20th C–Unknown) whose surname is unknown (Al-Ḥefaweyeh or Al-Karmelyeh may be seen). Naṣr Dyab Dwekat (1917–2011) and Ibrahim Amin Asa’d Al-Fanni (1924–2020). Each of their lives provided inspiring stories, but due to major political upheavals in Palestine – in particular, Al-Nakbeh (the Catastrophe) of 1948 – their stories were forgotten. These exceptional archaeological field workers did not have opportunities to write scientific papers and were marginalised. We wanted to redress this situation, by undertaking a study on their contributions to archaeology. Due to Ottoman control, British Mandate, Al-Nakbeh and Israeli control, Palestinians were unable to carry out archaeological excavations and research. However, since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994 over certain areas, Palestinians have taken control of their historical narrative by excavating at archaeological sites in Areas A and B in the West Bank and in Gaza.

For our research, we searched online for excavation reports, photographs or other information. Oral history interviews with family members provided additional information. The families of Nasr Dwekat and Ibrahim Al-Fanni were living locally and it was possible to arrange interviews. The families provided new insights and photographs. Al-Fanni and Dwekat both carried out their long archaeological careers under consecutive governments in Palestine – the British (1917-1948), Jordanian (1948-1967), and Israeli (1967-1994) and from 1994 onward, the Palestinian National Authority. In the case of Yusra, however, it was impossible to contact family members or former acquaintances, as there was no trace of her after Al-Nakba and British Mandate. Her exact birthplace is unknown and unlikely to be discovered, as the villages in the area where she lived were partially destroyed by Israeli forces and depopulated and some villages were converted into Israeli settlements.

Yusra was among the local villagers to work with British pioneering archaeologist, Dorothy Garrod, in at Mount Carmel Caves from 1928 to 1935. Appointed as a supervisor, Yusra made the remarkable discovery of Tabun 1, finding a Neanderthal tooth that led to the discovery of the skull of an adult Neanderthal female. Her story was discovered by Pamela Jane Smith in 1997, when she found a lost file of Dorothy Garrod’s in France. Yusra’s dream of studying at Cambridge – communicated to her British colleague, Jacquetta Hawkes – was never fulfilled, but her remarkable find in et-Tabun Cave has been given a place in the history of archaeology. The story of Yusra and Dorothy is being made into a documentary by filmmaker, Salim Abu Jubal.

Dwekat gained renown as a highly skilled expert in archaeological excavation during foreign excavations under British Mandate, and in the 1950s and 1960s, he worked on excavations supervised by Ernest Wright and later played a significant role, working with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities (1956–1967). Throughout his career he was sought after for his expertise and experience at foreign excavations, and in 2010, acted as consultant archaeological field specialist at joint Dutch-Palestinian excavations. He passed away in 2011, aged c. 94.

Al-Fanni also became an expert fieldwork specialist, gaining experience at early Western excavations. His tasks included the organisation and supervision of workers at the sites. Later, under Israeli occupation, he spoke out against Israeli attempts to politicise archaeology, demonstrating that Israeli archaeological activities were to control historical and archaeological narratives in Palestine. His daughter told of the dangers he faced. He authored studies on the history of Jerusalem and its antiquities in order to disprove Torah narratives. He passed away in 2020.

In addition to our research, we are preparing a complete record, in the form of biographies, of all past and present Palestinian archaeologists for publication.