Prof. Davies was gracious and generous and granted an interview about his work with the PEF
What exactly is the PEF, and when was it founded?
The Palestine Exploration Fund was set up 150 years ago ‘for the purpose of investigation the Archaeology, Geography, Geology and Natural History of the Holy Land’. The word ‘Fund’ appropriately designated its primary activity of raising money by subscription and donation in order to finance this ambitious undertaking.
After a meeting on May 12th 1865 in the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster, London, chaired by the Archbishop of York, the Fund, with the patronage of Queen Victoria, held its first meeting on June 22nd. Here the Archbishop declared three principles: whatever done must be on scientific principles; the Society should abstain from controversy; and it should not be started, nor conducted, as a religious society.
The meeting resolved further ‘that the exploration of Jerusalem and many other places in the Holy Land by means of excavations would probably throw much light upon the Archaeology of the Jewish people’. Accordingly, although there was obviously a focus of interest on biblical antiquity, the meeting called for a systematic survey, including the collection of plants and minerals, of the ‘Holy Land’, and recommended that ‘facts requisite for a systematic history be noted by competent observers on the spot’. So geography, geology and ecology were also part of its remit. In addition, it was noted ‘that the Biblical scholar may yet receive assistance in illustrating the sacred text from careful observers of the manners and habits of the people of the Holy Land’. This last comment reflects a view that might be criticized as an aspect of colonial mentality and ‘orientalism’—that life in nineteenth century Palestine very closely resembled that in the biblical period. But it was born, I think, less of an imperialist mindset and more from a mixture of naivety, curiosity and enthusiasm. Nor was it totally untrue in every respect, although many of those sent out on the Fund’s behalf to carry out research quickly came to realize that it was far from being entirely the case.
Among those who have explored Palestine under the Fund’s patronage are Charles Wilson, Charles Warren, Claude Conder, Horatio Kitchener, Gottlieb Schumacher, William Flinders Petrie, Frederick Bliss, Robert Macalister, Leonard Woolley, T.E. Lawrence, John Garstang, John Crowfoot, Kathleen Kenyon and Olga Tufnell.
What is its mission?
We still maintain the original aims of the Fund: to promote knowledge and understanding of every aspect of the land of Palestine at all periods, though archaeology, ethnology, anthropology, geology and any scientific means. In keeping with the founding principle of non-controversy, too, we continue to disclaim any political or religious ideology, though our membership obviously embraces a wide range of interests. The Fund initially published a Quarterly Statement of its activities, which became the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, and this we continue to produce, along with the PEF Annuals and other books. We have accumulated a great deal of material from our activities—written records, an extensive repertoire of pictures and photographs, and some artifacts—and these need curating, preservation, editing and digitizing. We also maintain a large library, to which our members and visitors have access. In addition, we provide grants for research and, in conjunction with the British Museum, we organize monthly lectures. We also lend materials to exhibitions and hope to continue to be able to organize touring exhibitions of our own.
How did you become involved with the organization?
Like many scholars, I have long known of, and used, the Fund’s facilities, and when I was asked whether I would like to join the Committee, I had little hesitation in agreeing because I have been so often to Palestine and developed a great affection for it, and a concern for its past, present and future. Having been elected as the Chair of the Committee I shall, I hope, remain actively involved with it for five more years. Biblical scholars have always contributed to the work of the PEF but our interest in the entire history and culture of Palestine means that a very wide range of people and of expertise is represented at every level. This makes us a bit different from societies interested mainly in biblical antiquity.
How might others become involved?
First of all, by joining: there are no restrictions on membership; the subscription is modest and includes the PEQ. There is still a wealth of material in our possession that requires analysis and we are keen to encourage new members to participate in our ongoing work to make the material more accessible through publication and digitization. We are also in the process of increasing our international profile by establishing a North American presence, which, under current plans, will be centred in Chicago. Although a lot of information is already accessible on our website (www.pef.org.uk), we are also planning to provide a members’ area which will afford restricted access to further materials, including videocasts of our lectures.
What do you see as the most important aspect of its work?
Different people will give different answers, because we cover so much ground and from so many different angles. But we would all accept that Palestine’s history and culture are nowadays strongly contested and subject to a great deal of popular misunderstanding. Much of its heritage is disappearing, and the PEF is an important, neutral promoter of all aspects of that heritage. As a biblical scholar, I naturally have a professional interest in just one small part of that history, though I was trained also as a student of Islam and I have an interest in Palestine especially as a place in which both imperial powers (from Egypt to Britain) as well as major religions, have settled, fought and sometimes come to some accommodation. As a bridge between three continents, it is also in its own right a very special part of our planet. I think the PEF’s dedication to the whole of its history (and prehistory) makes us special.
How does the PEF refrain from the trap of the politicization of archaeology?
Politicians always seek to control our understanding of the past, and the PEF’s own efforts were from the outset subject to attempts at political influence, especially in the years before the war of 1914-18. It is also, I think, well known that archaeology in modern Israel is part of a national effort not only to neutrally explore the past but to promote knowledge of Jewish connections with it. We are often approached from many sides by those interested in what we regard as political agendas, and we take care not to be seen to lend support to these aims. We encourage scholars and non-scholars of all persuasions to make full use of our resources but also to share our own aims and principles.
What are the perils involved in even using the name ‘Palestine’ in the organization’s title?
We have always used Palestine as a geographical designation, including Israel, part of Jordan and some of Syria, and it has been used continuously for the region for 2000 years. There really is no sound reason to abandon this usage. I am aware that ‘Land of Israel’ is the Jewish name for Palestine, and there is of course an Israel Exploration Society that covers the same geographical area as the PEF and publishes a corresponding Journal. But ‘Israel’ belongs to only a part of Palestine’s history and geography, and the same would be true of any territory occupied by a State of Palestine.
What are the future aims and goals of the PEF?
We need, most of all, to continue the digitizing of our collections, and with that our use of social media and digital communication, in order to offer members from outside the UK the tangible benefits they should enjoy of having access to news and material online as well as visiting our offices when in London. So in the last few years we have created in addition to a Facebook page, our own blog and Twitter feed, and we plan to create a members’ area on our website through which they can freely access some of our archives and download podcasts of our monthly lectures at the British Museum.
How can those interested in archaeology in the Levant help the PEF achieve its goals?
First of all by helping to finance our work. This can be through becoming members, but we are also most grateful for any other contributions in the form of bequests or endowments or donations of books to our library. We are a charity and while our income matches our expenditure there is much more we would love to be able to do to display our collections more fully and to develop them further. Second, by contributing to our publications, and participating in our online activity. For those living in London or nearby, we also have work to offer to volunteers. The Fund was not established as a learned society, and its membership is by no means dominated by scholars. We want to attract anyone with a genuine interest in any aspect of the land of Palestine.
Thank you, Philip!