Archaeology, Dogs and Gin: Dame Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up the Holy Land

Dame Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up the Holy Land

Dame Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up the Holy Land

by Miriam C. Davis

Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008, 280 pp.
$65 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Magen Broshi

Israel and the West Bank are, archaeologically speaking, the most researched piece of land in the world. The number of excavations and surveys carried out in this tiny area is by far greater than in much larger lands (the number is more than a thousand), and Kathleen Kenyon is surely one of the most important archaeologists to have dug here. She is undoubtedly, except for British prehistorian Dorothy Garrod, the most important female archaeologist to have worked here.

Kenyon was the daughter of Sir Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum and a celebrated classical and Biblical scholar. Like her father, she also wanted to study the past-not through ancient books and manuscripts as he did, but as an archaeologist. She began as an assistant in an excavation in Zimbabwe, in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Next she went to Verulamium, in St. Albans, north of London. Here she acquired the theoretical principles that characterized her work thereafter and which became known by the name of her mentor and her own, the [Mortimer] Wheeler-Kenyon method.

Most of her work, however, was carried out in Palestine, in three important sites: Samaria, Jericho and Jerusalem. Her incredible energy enabled her to work on an unprecedented scale. Between 1930 and 1935 she divided her time between digs in Palestine and England. Remember that airplane transportation had not yet developed. Flying by hydroplanes from Britain to the Holy Land took three days.

In Samaria, Kenyon was part of the so-called Joint Expedition, made up of American, British and Israeli archaeologists, operating between 1931 and 1934. The site had already been excavated by an American expedition in 1908-1910, which had uncovered such important finds as the palace ivories and the famous Samaria ostraca. Kenyon’s contribution was principally a finer distinction of the site’s stratigraphy.

Kenyon’s next expedition was in Jericho, this time as director. Jericho was one of the most archaeologically coveted sites in Palestine because it might provide a solution to the problem of the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua. Already in 1867, the pioneer British archaeologist Charles Warren conducted the first dig of a Biblical tell here. But he could not understand the tell that comprised the site and soon left. In 1890 W.M. Flinders Petrie, the father of modern archaeology, also a Brit, solved the riddle of the tell. He demonstrated that it is an accumulation of one settlement upon another. The task of the digger is to distinguish between the different layers or strata. The date of the various strata is determined mostly by the potsherds embedded in it. As is well known, pottery is well preserved even after thousands of years. It does not dissolve in water, and fire only improves it. Petrie’s observations that look so elementary today were a stunning insight at the time.

Jericho would be excavated by an Austrian-German expedition (1907-1909) and later by a British one (1931-1934), both achieving important results, but they were not able to solve the question of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. Kenyon started her work in Jericho in 1952 and intended to work there for two seasons. Based on her finds, she prolonged her work; instead of two seasons, she lasted seven, to 1958. The expedition’s accomplishments were many, but I will mention only two here. It became apparent that during the Late Bronze Age, the time at which Joshua’s conquest was supposed to have taken place, Jericho was not settled at all. Jericho thus joins other cities mentioned in the Biblical conquest story, like Ai and Arad west of the Jordan, and Hesbon to the east, for which no evidence of occupation or destruction has been found in this period. Thus it is well-nigh the current consensus that the story of the conquest lacks factual proof. The Israelites initially entered the land peacefully and settled unhindered in the uninhabited central mountainous regions.

Of special importance at Jericho is Kenyon’s excavation of the Neolithic strata. She was successful in distinguishing two strata that had been occupied by people who had not yet learned to produce pottery (so-called prepottery Neolithic) and two other strata (pottery Neolithic) inhabited by people who enjoyed the invention of pottery. These four strata covered a period of some 3,000 years (c. 9500-6400 B.C.E.). Her discoveries, later confirmed by excavations at other sites, are the foundation of what we know regarding a formative period that preceded and led to the historical periods.

The mighty spring of Jericho, a rare thing in Palestine, is the reason why this site was settled almost continuously and why the remains of so many settlements produce an artificial mound more than 75 feet high.

Kenyon’s excavation at Jericho also produced other rare finds, such as the plastered and painted skulls-realistic sculpture 10,000 years old-and some extremely well-preserved pieces of wooden furniture-tables, beds, stools and even pieces of reed mats-that were recovered from Middle Bronze II tombs.

The last site Kenyon excavated was Jerusalem. Here, however, she was not so lucky. Jerusalem may even be described as her anticlimax. Despite great expenditure (seven seasons between 1961 and 1967), hundreds of laborers (sometimes simultaneously excavating in half a dozen areas), the outcome was poor, sometimes even erroneous. The dig’s shortcomings were mainly the result of two factors. Kenyon was not allowed to excavate in areas where, after 1967, Israeli expeditions would dig. For example, Benjamin Mazar’s excavation south and southwest of the Temple Mount and Nahman Avigad’s excavation of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City achieved very important results. The second, perhaps more critical, reason for her failure relates to the limitations of her method (the Wheeler-Kenyon method). This method relies on a detailed examination of a limited area in depth rather than the horizontal exposure of vast areas. One is reminded of the Indian fable about the three blind men who stumbled on a sleeping elephant. The first one fell on the tail and cried, “Ropes.” The second fell on the legs and shouted, “Beams.” And the third hit the tusks; he was sure he was touching swords.

Only digs with sufficient horizontal exposure areas can see that an elephant lies before them.

For example, in the area of the Armenian Garden, Kenyon and her associate A.D. Tushingham failed to recognize that they were actually standing on the palace of Herod the Great, as well as the palace of the Crusader rulers of Jerusalem.a

Kenyon was a model of industriousness. She never married, and some of her friends described her world as consisting of three loves-archaeology, dogs and gin. This book also discusses her other activities. She was quite successful late in life as head of a girls college at Oxford.

She was also an ardent anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli and wrote profuse articles and letters to the editor expressing her political views.b

The author of this biography deserves all praise. It is based on thorough research including both oral and written sources. It is quite readable and avoids many of the pitfalls common in such monographs.




a. See Magen Broshi, “Digging Up Jerusalem-a Critique,” BAR 01:03.

b. See Hershel Shanks, “Kathleen Kenyon’s Anti-Zionist Politics-Does It Affect Her Work?” BAR 01:03; Hershel Shanks, “The Mistress of Stratigraphy Had Clay Feet,” BAR 29:03.



Magen Broshi served as curator of the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book that houses the intact Dead Sea Scrolls from 1965 to 1995.

Magen Broshi’s review of Dame Kathleen Kenoyon: Digging Up the Holy Land originally appeared as “ReViews: Archaeology, Dogs and Gin,” in Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 2009.

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