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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:2, Spring 2020

Strata: Who Did It?

Who conducted the first officially sanctioned excavation in Palestine?

Answer: Lady Hester Stanhope

In 1815, Lady Hester Stanhope received permission from the Ottoman Empire to conduct excavations at the site of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. This made her expedition the first officially sanctioned exaction in Palestine. Although Stanhope was more of a treasure hunter and adventurer than an archaeologist, she nevertheless paved the way for future expeditions.

In 1776, Hester Lucy Stanhope was born in England into a wealthy, aristocratic family. Her bachelor uncle, William Pitt the Younger, served as the prime minister of Great Britain. In 1803–1806, Lady Hester acted as hostess of his house, both managing his household and charming politicians and diplomats from all over the world. In 1810, she left Great Britain and traveled extensively around the Middle East, eventually settling in Lebanon. While overseas, she came into possession of an old Italian manuscript that described the location of a large treasure—3 million gold coins—reputedly buried under the ruins of a mosque at Ashkelon.

With this evidence in hand, Stanhope appealed to the Ottoman government to let her excavate at Ashkelon with the understanding that they would receive the treasure. She would keep none of it for herself. Sultan Mahmud authorized Stanhope’s expedition to the site and even sent his official Capugi Bashi along with her.

With the help of her physician Dr. Charles Meryon, Lady Hester Stanhope excavated for two weeks at Ashkelon. Although they did not find any gold of the buried treasure, they uncovered some interesting stratigraphy and artifacts, including a large marble statue. At the end of their expedition, Stanhope ordered that the statue be destroyed. Her apparent motive was to prove that she had no intention of appropriating cultural property for her home country; she was digging for the benefit of the Ottoman government alone.a