Contested Histories

Archaeological excavation, beginning in Palestine in 1850, was largely shaped by ‘western imperial interests… which combined scientific curiosity with the desire to establish the physical reality of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament narratives.’ (Gaylor, Finding Jerusalem 2017, p. 3)

The belief that Palestine was the ‘Holy Land’ both shaped the terms of the Mandate in recognising Palestine as the national home of the Jews, and resulted in the establishment of the new field of ‘biblical archaeology’. It also affected Iliffe’s curatorial independence. When working on the Museum’s Stone Age displays, he planned to include a diagram about the ‘evolution of man’ to show visitors how the Museum’s collection of human remains (including the important Galilee Skull) were thought by scientific experts to relate to the development and origin of the human race.

ET Richmond, Director of the Department of Antiquities and a devout Christian, in preventing Iliffe from including the diagram, argued that one of Rockefeller’s donation conditions was that the Museum not become a museum of natural sciences: Iliffe should instead focus on ‘man as a fashioner of tools.’ Officials in London eventually settled the debate. The fossils themselves were allowed only if they provided contexts for artefacts.

Untitled (Archaeological Excavation)

Untitled (Archaeological Excavation),


The Department of Antiquities of Mandatory Palestine was established in 1920. Its Director was appointed by the High Commissioners of the British, French, American and Italian Archaeological Schools in Jerusalem. In addition, two Palestinians and two Jews represented the Muslim and Jewish peoples. One of their roles was to manage holy sites with Arab, Muslim and Christian officials.

Archaeological Excavation leaders under the Mandate were still largely from Britain, Europe and the United States, but the workers were locals, as shown here. In 1921-22, the first local Jewish-led excavation took place under the direction of the independent Jewish Palestine Exploration Society. The Jewish Palestine Exploration Society was the new name given to the Society for the Reclamation of Antiquities, an organisation set up in set up in 1914 by a group of Jewish intellectuals. As Glock notes, ‘Jewish immigrants to Palestine, many of whom had received part or all of their education in Europe where archaeology had evolved, found the discipline of archaeology intellectually congenial and, from a nationalistic point of view, essential to establishing their identity with the land.’ (Archaeology as Cultural Survival 1994, p. 74) Only three Palestinians worked as antiquities inspectors, D Baramki, SAS Husseni, and N Maklouly. Baramki did not lead an excavation until 1935, at the site of Qasr Hisham.

Untitled (Restorer Fills Hole in a Vase)

Untitled (Restorer Fills Hole in a Vase),


The Mandate Period has been labelled the Golden Age of Archaeology in the Holy Land, not only because of the extraordinary number of excavations, 140 alone in Jerusalem between 1918-39, but also because the Department of Antiquities successfully regulated archaeological activity and ensured that professional standards were met. Many locals were trained as technicians to help photograph, restore and conserve the large number of artefacts resulting from the largely British, European and American-led excavations.

Untitled (Tomb of Herod's Wife (Mariamme))

Untitled (Tomb of Herod's Wife (Mariamme)), c. 1941

This unidentified rock cut family tomb, constructed during the reign of Herod the Great, was originally discovered in 1861 when workmen were digging a cistern. It is erroneously often referred to as the 'Tomb of Herod’s wife'. Iliffe assisted the Department of Antiquities in assessing the site when, in 1942 during the Second World War, the tomb underwent modifications, turning it into an air raid shelter.

Untitled (South Gallery, Palestine Archaeological Museum)


(South Gallery, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938-1948

The South Gallery, displaying material from Stone and Bronze Age Palestine to 1200 BC, was completed by Iliffe in time for the official opening of the new Palestine Archaeological Museum in 1938. Iliffe believe that it was his duty to represent ‘the culture of man’ in Palestine from the Stone Age to AD 1700, irrespective of race or religion, hence his curatorial decision to include a scientific diagram that would help visitors to understand the importance of the Galilee Skull and other human remains in the South Gallery. These remains were amongst the most important prehistoric finds in Palestine at the time.

Rockefeller’s wishes: 'That collections in the museum will include all material throwing light on the past of man in Palestine; that natural resources and materials pertaining to natural sciences would therefore be included only in so far as they concern the human career in the past: in short that the museum is to be an archaeological institution, not a museum of natural sciences,’ may have been influenced by the 1925 ‘Monkey Trial’ of JT Scopes, who was convicted in Tennessee (USA) of teaching evolution to school children. Richmond did not want Rockefeller consulted, nor the Archaeological Advisory Board. Instead, his objections were sent to the Colonial Office in London, who, in turn, asked the matter to be decided by the Directors of the Science, Geological and British Museums.

Untitled (Students Room, Palestine Archaeological Museum)


(Students Room, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938-1948

The bulk of the Museum’s collection was stored in one of two Students’ Galleries. These Galleries had both larger cabinets, and drawers and trays for the storage of what Iliffe describes as ‘reserve material.’ Iliffe noted that ‘the cases, by Sage of London, are in bronze and Turkish walnut, the drawers and trays of oak. They stand on adjustable bronze feet, which screw into the case-legs and compensate for the unevenness in the (cork) flooring.’