Friday, 3 July 2015

150 years of The Palestine Exploration Fund

by Adam John Fraser, Librarian at The Palestine Exploration Fund

The Palestine Exploration Fund is currently celebrating 150 years of scientific study of the geographic region of Palestine. We were founded on May 12, 1865, in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey. The location was appropriate for its historical significance but also because the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, was one of its integral founders. He had also travelled with the Prince of Wales extensively throughout Egypt and Palestine.

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley

Stanley, along with Sir George Grove (who is best known for his work on Crystal Palace) worked together on publishing books about the history of Palestine. It was of great interest to further study the country at the centre of Christianity, but it was evident to both Stanley and Grove that there was a gap in the knowledge of the region. 

In 1864, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts was involved in a philanthropic effort to provide Jerusalem with a better water supply. The existing one had been highly inadequate and disease was rife. In order for a better water supply to be constructed a survey of the geography of Jerusalem was essential.  Dean Stanley was on the committee for the Jerusalem Water Relief Fund and contacted the War Office to acquire anyone who had expertise in mapping and surveying.Charles Wilson of the Royal Engineers volunteered for the job (unpaid) and set off for Palestine with a small crew. Their work was extremely successful and was quite popular back in Britain. Because of the popularity of the survey of Jerusalem for the Water Relief Fund, Stanley and Grove felt the moment was ripe for establishing a society to specifically study Palestine.

Charles Wilson (centre)

Stanley and Grove did most of the groundwork for lobbying people to join and contributed to the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund. There was an extensive letter writing campaign in an attempt to garner as much support as possible and from people with vastly different expertise and backgrounds.

The early committee was made up of a wide selection of individuals; Dr J.D. Hooker, Professor Owen, John Murray, A.H. Layard, Rev H.D. Tristram. These are just a selection of the individuals who formed the committee were some of the leading scientists and researchers of their day and key people in Victorian society in Britain. Some of them came from the British Museum, Kew Gardens, the Natural History Museum. There were friends and enemies of Charles Darwin. Many members of Parliament were eager to join, even the Speaker of the House of Commons had joined!

Letter from Professor Owen
The Palestine Exploration Fund was established to scientifically investigate the archaeology, geography, geology, manners and customs and natural history of Palestine. It was not a religious organization though there were people of faith in the committee. It was not a political organization even though there were politicians in the organization.  The main priority, since day one, has always been the research.

Making to 150 years is a big achievement for us. Many people have devoted their extra time and energy to helping us get this far. It has been a difficult task, bringing an antiquarian society into the 21st century. We have a loyal band of volunteers who are vital to the digitizing of maps and documents, making a stack of old papers into a workable archive and carrying out important research on our archaeological collection.

The Palestine Exploration Fund HQ today

The volunteers and interns are very important to us, but we would be lost without the direction and guidance of our Executive Secretary and Curator, Felicity Cobbing. Felicity has been with the PEF since 1998. She had previously worked at the British Museum and had also spent many seasons working as a field archaeologist. Felicity is responsible for bringing the PEF to where it is today. She is the one who trains and supervises the volunteers and does hundreds of very important tasks that I cannot begin to list here. Felicity is the backbone of the Palestine Exploration Fund. I know that for my part, I have never learned more from a supervisor and I credit her for getting us to where we are today.

Related links:

Women of the PEF: Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts

Our First Hundred Years (and fifty more)*

Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey

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