Though often maligned as an eccentric, Lady Hester Stanhope was, arguably, the first modern archaeological excavator in Palestine. Her brief sounding at Ashkelon in 1815 may have revealed only one significant structure, but her implicit understanding of architectural stratigraphy represented a significant advance over the previous attempts of European travelers and pilgrims to uncover isolated artifacts and monuments.
Born in Chevening, Kent, the granddaughter of the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt the Elder, Stanhope was educated at home and spent three years (1803–1806) as the official hostess and confidante of her uncle, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. With Pitt's death, she set off for a life of travel and adventure in the Mediterranean region. In the era of the Grand Tour, Lady Hester's entourage was among the grandest. Accompanied by her personal physician Charles Meryon and a coterie of friends and protégés, she and her companions survived a shipwreck off the island of Rhodes to reach Jerusalem and eventually travel to the isolated ruins of Palmyra, where she was received with great ceremony by the sheikhs of the local bedouin tribes. In 1814, she established residence in the Lebanese village of Junieh, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Stanhope's archaeological career began mysteriously with her acquisition of a medieval document that reportedly described the location of a great treasure in the ruins of an ancient mosque at Ashkelon. Believing the document's description to be authentic, Stanhope contacted the Ottoman authorities and, together with Meryon and an Ottoman official dispatched from Istanbul, proceeded southward at the head of an expedition to retrieve the treasure. The site of ancient Ashkelon, Tell el-Khadra, had been severely disturbed since medieval times by stone robbing, yet Stanhope and Meryon identified a ruined building on the summit as a mosque—basing their identification on the apsidal miḥrab, or prayer niche, on its southern end.
In their subsequent excavations of this structure, Stanhope and Meryon distinguished several stratigraphic levels. While European excavators in other parts of the Mediterranean were, in this period, principally concerned with the quantity and artistic quality of the statuary and architectural elements they uncovered, Stanhope and Meryon noted the apparent transformation of the structure from pagan, to Christian, to Muslim use.
In the course of her excavations, Stanhope's workers uncovered a larger-than-life-sized Roman imperial statue. Yet, she insisted that they destroy it, lest they be accused by the accompanying Ottoman official of merely seeking the treasure or works of art for themselves. It was this apparent act of archaeological destruction that has traditionally (and negatively) colored the scholarly estimation of Stanhope's activities at Ashkelon.
With no sign of the reported treasure, Stanhope returned with her expedition northward along the Mediterranean coast. Stopping briefly at the Yarkon River (where Meryon noted the antiquarian importance of the site of Tell Qasile), Stanhope returned to Junieh. In later years, she was frequently visited by European explorers, but it would be decades before the precocious stratigraphic insights of the 1815 expedition to Ashkelon would be applied at other sites.
[See also Ashkelon.]
- Hamel, Frank. Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope: A New Light on Her Life and Love Affairs. London, 1913.
- Silberman, Neil Asher. “Restoring the Reputation of Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope.” Biblical Archaeology Review 10.4 (1984): 68–75.
- Stanhope, Hester Lucy, and Charles Lewis Meryon. The Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope. London, 1846.
Neil Asher Silberman