There is so much that has been written about this incredibly stunning woman. I’m not even going to try to and repeat it all, rather I’ll just link you to one of the better posts about her which is Elizabeth Kerri Mahon‘s post over at Scandalous Women. She gives a very thorough recounting of Stanhope’s life.
Briefly though, Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope was born of a fine pedigree in 1776, one of three daughters born to Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, by his first wife, Lady Hester Pitt. She was educated and outspoken. She flaunted convention in her life, never married, but took several lovers, and traveled extensively. She made a home for herself in the middle east, obtaining the title of Queen not through marriage but through presence and guile. In her height of power she maintained an army to rival any of her male contemporaries. She was a colorful individual in life and in death, and there is one aspect of this life that I want to focus on here.
In 1815, at roughly the age of 40, Stanhope led an expedition to Ashkelon which constituted the first modern archaeological excavation in Palestine.
First let’s get the bad out-of-the-way, because, there appears to be a lot of bad in this at first glance. Stanhope’s supposed motivation for digging in Ashkelon (aka Tel Ashkelon, aka Ascalon) was to find a horde of gold coins supposedly buried there in the Middle Ages (Silberman 1984). She never found gold, and the only artifact recovered was a large marble statue, that she then had smashed into a thousand pieces and scattered into the sea (Silberman 1984).
Before we go further here, I want to make a few personal observations about this story. Stanhope’s supposed reasons for digging and subsequent treatment of the artifact she found seems abhorrent in a vacuum; assuming greed was her motivation and then the elimination of the one thing she found. However, a few things are being overlooked here and are being unfairly focused on in Stanhope’s case and ignored in others. For starts, many of the Victorian era expeditions were little more than snatch-and-grab jobs, where the European museums, especially the British and French, were funding expeditions to go find cool stuff, dig it out as fast as possible, and bring it back for display, basically for bragging rights. They didn’t care about the technique so much, or the local people, or the local governments. They often destroyed much more than they recovered and preserved, and honestly, they don’t get as much grief as they should for it. Schlieman, comes to mind when I think of this. Not only did he manage to dig a huge hole straight through Troy but he grossly misidentified the artifacts he did find, and then stole all the gold and valuable artifacts he recovered. History still calls him pioneer in Archeology, some refer to him as a Father of the field. I argue, if Schlieman gets this distinction, than Stanhope deserves it as well.
The start to Stanhope’s excavation began when she came into possession of a “curious document”, which was a supposed medieval Italian manuscript that described the location of a hidden treasure buried under mosque in Ashkelon by Christians (Silberman 1984). Apparently, the manuscript was very detailed and Ashkelon was well-known as the ruins of an ancient port city (Silberman 1984). Stanhope didn’t merely march into Ashkelon and begin ripping the place apart. She submitted a request to the Ottoman government for permission and was granted the right to excavate the area (Silberman 1984).
Keep in mind that Stanhope didn’t keep the gold a secret from the Sultan. Rather, she proposed that the gold was to become the property of the Ottoman government after its discovery (Silberman 1984). The Sultan took the prospect of this treasure seriously, and sent a representative from his household to ‘help’ in the search (Silberman 1984). However, the singular significance of this moment should not be lost. The Ottoman’s had never given permission for any westerner to excavate in Palestine (Silberman 1984). For Stanhope to be given this chance should speak volumes for her standing with the Sultan and her perceived abilities.
To really appreciate how early this excavation was occurring, the most definitive book on the history of antiquity at the time, J. J. Winckelmann’s (an advocate for the scientific study of archaeology) book, History of the Art of Antiquity, had only been published in 1764 and Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (the founder of modern archaeological methods) wouldn’t be born for another 12 years.
From the history of area given in Charles Meryon’s biography of Stanhope’s dealing with the excavation, Stanhope did some amount of research before digging at Ashkelon. Learning the history of the place and looking over older French accounts of the place from 1659 (Meryon 2012:154). Meryon keeps a daily record of the excavation, detailing the trials of getting to Ashkelon, setting up camp, hiring men to work, and surveying the site. Stanhope played the most important part in all of these steps, overseeing the men and the whole of the excavation.
Just judging from the descriptions that Meryon left behind, there was a good deal of planning to the dig. Attention was paid to the remains of the building and the observations on its construction. Conclusions were made based on these observations about the sequence of construction and time periods the different layers of the excavation belonged too (Meryon 2012:154-169). These descriptions were unusually detailed with observations that were quite accurate, certainly not the hack job Stanhope is so frequently accused of (Silberman 1984, Meryon 2012:154-169). In the end however, no gold was found, and only the mostly complete statue of a man was recovered. It’s the fate of this statute where Stanhope gets the worst wrap, but I argue her actions were for a very good reason that I think sets her above other archaeologists of her time.
Muhammad Aga, the governor of Jaffa and the one overseeing Stanhope’s excavation, suspected her from the beginning of being just another English antiquarian out on a relic finding mission (Silberman 1984). He expected her to take off with any relics she found and rush them back to Britain without concern for the Turks or the Sultan (Silberman 1984). When the statute first emerged he began to act suspiciously and it was deduced that he was planning on using the discovery of the statute as a way of blackmailing Stanhope and ruining her reputation with the Sultan (Meryon 2012:154-169). So as a way of showing him otherwise, Stanhope ordered the whole thing destroyed and thrown into the sea (Meryon 2012:154-169).
It’s interesting that the slander against Stanhope can be traced back to the apparently jealous Muhammad Aga, who resented Stanhope for her gender, her authority over him, and her interruption of his own plundering of the ruins of Ashkelon for stone and granite (Meryon 2012:154-169). After Stanhope ordered the statue destroyed, Muhammad Aga became so enraged at this loss of a tool against her that he turned around and started spreading the rumor that she had broken the statue to get the gold inside it, and then split the gold with his other superior, the Pasha of Acre (Silberman 1984). None of which was true however.
Stanhope, in her own words and the recounting of Meryon destroyed the statue to prove that she was not one of these antiquarian relic seekers, and that her only intention had always been to recover the treasure for the Sultan and Turkish people (Meryon 2012:154-169).
An extreme measure? Sure. Effective? Quite.
After the excavation Stanhold enjoyed a great deal of fame and respect from the people Syria and the Sultan (Silberman 1984, Meryon 2012:154-169), even if she received condemnation from her home country of Britain. One has to wonder though, if she had sent the statue back, if her reception at home would have been a bit warmer? Would history have treated her a little kinder if she had secured her place in the archaeological record by pillaging an excavation in the name of Britain ?
What is truly so interesting about Stanhope’s excavation at Ashkelon is how accurate she was in her observations. She and Meryon correctly analyzed the history of the structure in Ashkelon before methods of modern archaeological analyses were known or used. Silberman points out:
“In 1921, the British School of Archaeology at Jerusalem, beginning its own excavations at Ashkelon, was drawn by the very same columns and semi-circular wall that had attracted Lady Hester’s attention 106 years before.27 They likewise discovered “traces of a temple or other public building”28 which they, with the benefit of more modern archaeological techniques, began to dig.
The earliest structure, containing Corinthian columns and a row of pedestals, was dated to the time of Herod, and in this level, the foot and arm of a huge marble statue were found. By 1921, there was a much greater fund of archaeological knowledge than in Lady Hester’s time, and through comparisons with similar Roman structures at Samaria and Gerasa, the British excavators identified it as the “Bouleuterion” or municipal council hall.29 A Late Roman rebuilding above it was noted, and as for the structure’s subsequent history, “a close study of the floor levels and constructive changes over the whole area seems to indicate that the last stage saw one of the famous mosques of Askalon rising upon this historic position.”30
So Lady Hester Stanhope and Dr. Meryon were not so far wrong. They had correctly analyzed the history of the structure at a time when pure archaeological analyses were unknown. Unfortunately, the later excavators did not recognize Lady Hester’s achievements, which Dr. Meryon’s detailed yet overlooked description could have supplied. Professor John Garstang, the director of the later Ashkelon dig, ascribed to Lady Hester only “a number of stout granite columns,” calling her excavation “cursory” and not recognizing that the structure that he himself had excavated was actually hers.31”
So what can we learn from Lady Stanhope’s excavation of Ashkelon in 1815? Well, unlike what so many sources would have us believe, Stanhope was not digging the ruins in Ashkelon for her own personal greed and gain. She appeared to be doing so in order to elevate the region of the world she had come to call home, looking to return the gold to the Ottoman Sultan. Also, the destruction of the statue was done in order to prove her devotion and disprove the idea that she was just trying to pillage Palestine for Britain. Likewise, her excavations were quite methodical, well recorded for the time, and the statue was documented before it’s destruction. All of these things were unusual techniques for the time, and thus makes Stanhope’s excavation unique and valuable to history. I quite agree with Silberman’s conclusion that Stanhope’s excavation “might be rightfully called the first modern excavation in the history of archaeological exploration of the Holy Land.”
Honestly, a great deal of damage has been done to Stanhope’s reputation, especially in the area of her archeological contributions. It’s painful to me to see her work and her efforts be dismissed on the rumors that surrounded her work, and not judged on the strength of the records left behind. If we insist on calling someone like Schlieman a pioneer in the field of archaeology, and continue to teach him as a founder in our classes, then why are we ignoring someone like Stanhope, whose methods were far advanced of her time, and her reasons for digging far more noble than Schlieman’s will ever be.
Meryon, Charles Lewis
2012 Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope: Forming the Completion of Her Memoirs Volume 3. Cambridge University Press. Digital Edition. http://books.google.com/books?id=4X90oSz0H40C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false Retrieved 1/5/14
Silberman, Neil Asher
1984 Restoring the Reputation of Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, BAR 10:04, Jul/Aug 1984. http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Restoring_the_Reputation_of_Lady_Hester_Lucy_Stanhope,_Neil_Asher_Silberman,_BAR_10:04,_Jul/Aug_1984. Retrieved 1/5/14