By: Amara Thornton
The middle decades of the 20th century are often considered a ‘romantic’ era in archaeology. The romance is debatable, but without doubt those excavating during this period have acquired a mystique that continues to fascinate. Gerald William Lankester Harding is one of these figures.
Harding’s life is a mosaic of different histories. His archive in the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UCL), comprises a diverse assortment of material. It is now being researched as part of Filming Antiquity, a collaborative project funded through UCL’s Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects that will be digitising Harding’s films from the early 1930s and presenting them in a social, political and cultural context. What follows expands initial research into Harding.
Shifting politics characterised much of Harding’s life, which began in Tientsin, China, in 1901 just after the end of the Boxer Rising against ‘foreign’ influence. Tientsin housed a significant European community in concessions allocated to different countries. Harding’s parents, William and Florence, lived on Rue de France in the French concession, sandwiched between the Japanese and British concessions, it was bordered on one side by the Pei Ho River. The family photograph album captures the prosaic moments of daily existence in Tientsin through British eyes: a Victorian interior complete with St George cross flags, scenes of “native” life, and baby Gerald in a pram with his amah (nanny).
The Hardings did not remain in Tientsin for long after Gerald’s birth. They moved to Singapore, returning ‘home’ to England in 1913. There young Harding took employment in business. The commercial experience he gained, including just over a year working for the printers Eyre and Spottiswoode, was exceptionally valuable. It gave him as much a foothold in archaeology as the Egyptology courses he took at UCL under “the Grand Old Woman of Egyptology” Margaret Murray’s tutelage.
The year 1926 was another significant milestone for Harding and one of social conflict in Britain. A general strike to support miners seeking better wages brought London’s public services to a standstill that May. Harding volunteered alongside other UCL students during the strike – a fact that did not go unnoticed later in his career. But by November 1926 Harding was on a boat heading east to Palestine and Flinders Petrie’s excavation at Tell Jemmeh, south of Gaza.
In Harding, Petrie saw a young man with business sense, which he appreciated more than “academic training”. Despite Petrie’s pronouncement that there was “no permanency in employment on excavating”, Harding managed to remain so, first under Petrie and then as a member of the Wellcome Expedition at Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish) for the next decade.
In spring 1936, one of a few coveted professional posts in archaeology became vacant. George Horsfield, the Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Mandate Transjordan, was to retire. With a steady salary attached, it was a chance for the “permanency” that Petrie believed so elusive. Harding applied. Documents relating to this application in Harding’s archive highlight the experience he gained in Palestine. Petrie noted Harding’s “steady improvement” – his abilities in drawing, planning and photography on site, object dating and publication, and his general physical fitness, fluency in Arabic, friendliness with “peasants” (without being “susceptible to native influence in any way”). His affinity for the Bedouin population, largely employed as diggers on site, and his familiarity with their language and customs, was noted in these documents. For the Colonial Office officials in London overseeing the appointment process this affinity was particularly relevant and politically significant.
By this period the situation in Palestine was becoming increasingly fraught. Palestine had been under British administration through a League of Nations Mandate since 1920. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 facilitated Jewish immigration to Palestine, and tensions between Jewish and Arab communities in the country escalated following the Mandate agreement. Transjordan, also under a British Mandate but with a separate agreement and with the Hashemite King Abdullah at its head, did not remain unaffected.
On becoming Chief Inspector of Antiquities in summer 1936, Harding was one of the few British officials in Transjordan, working for a Department with a shoestring budget. His role was as much political and diplomatic as it was archaeological. A wartime letter from Harding highlights his role as facilitator for international expeditions bringing money and attention to Transjordan’s myriad archaeological sites. Labelling Horsfield as “singularly tactless” in working with international teams, Harding expressed his hope that his efforts to repair these damaged relationships would mean increased excavation in Transjordan in the future.
Barring a brief moment of visibility when he took over supervision of the Duweir (Lachish) excavation after J. L. Starkey’s murder in January 1938, it appears that Harding remained relatively under the public radar in Britain until the late 1940s. While he made critical contributions to the interpretation and publication of the famous Lachish letters, inscribed ostraca from the 6th century BCE, he did so in relative obscurity beyond scholarly circles, and was permanently based in Transjordan.
But the discovery of ancient Hebrew scrolls, including the earliest known Old Testament texts, in a cave near the Dead Sea’s shores in 1947 was to ignite the public imagination. But when the first scientific excavations related to the Dead Sea Scrolls were made under Harding’s leadership two years later, his position as Chief Inspector of Antiquities in an independent Jordan no longer under a British Mandate was crucial.
The Palestine Mandate had ended in May 1948, the Arab-Israeli war followed. At its conclusion Jordan’s borders covered what is now the West Bank, including the area where the first scrolls were found and East Jerusalem where Palestine’s Archaeological Museum and Antiquities Department were based. Following his own expedition to the cave in early 1949 and the subsequent discovery of more scroll fragments, Harding wrote articles detailing the discoveries for The Times and the Illustrated London News, and gave a radio broadcast on the subject for the BBC’s Third Programme. His ILN article also featured a photo, centrally placed, of two excavators at work in the cave: Ibrahim Asuli from the Palestine Archaeological Museum and Jordanian Mohammed Mustafa.
Harding was one of a few archaeologists in inspectorate positions in both Britain’s imperial (and post-imperial) zones. It is important to recognise that each inspector had his own motivations for taking on the role, and while the potential for personal research and excavation existed, the administrative and diplomatic burdens of survey and inspection, tour guiding, permits and antiquities legislation were heavy. Perhaps this is the reason that when Penguin published a popular book on the Scrolls in 1955 its author was John M. Allegro, a British philologist who worked on the international team studying the scroll fragments, not Harding.
In the early 1950s, Harding’s work surveying and documenting sites in Jordan was in full swing. His knowledge of the country and its sites came in handy in conducting archaeological tours for various notable British officers and officials. Their gratitude for his insights on the archaeology of Jordan is captured in a series of thank you letters in the Harding archive, which also indicate that Harding wrote a pamphlet on Petra for popular consumption.
British officialdom ceased to exist in Jordan after 1956 and with it ended Harding’s role there. But Harding’s archaeological work continued elsewhere. He was asked by the British government to undertake an archaeological survey in Aden and to set up an archaeological museum. From this he also produced a massive, pioneering volume on North Arabian inscriptions. He then lived and worked in Lebanon where he published additional collections of texts, as well as an important guidebook to the site of Baalbek. Harding died in 1979 and his ashes were later buried in Jordan at the site of Jerash.
There is more to discover about Harding, so how to conclude? What sums him up? A gifted archaeologist and linguist, ex-officio diplomat par excellence, amateur composer and actor. Perhaps the words of J. L. Starkey will do:
“… his is the type of genius that is born and not made.”
Amara Thornton is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Archaeology. Filming Antiquity is available on Twitter @FilmAntiquity.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.