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Gertrude Rachel Levy in Mandate Palestine

Written by Amara Thornton (Co-Investigator, Beyond Notability) |

As we work our way through the “Certificates of Candidates for Election” of women at the Society of Antiquaries, I am starting to explore the careers of a few of them in more detail to begin charting the specifics of their work in archaeology, history and heritage. As Librarian of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, Gertrude Rachel Levy was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1947. The Combined Hellenic and Roman Societies Library at the ICS holds a collection of items relating to her – including a photograph, a postcard and copies of some of her works (Fig. 1).


Fig 1. A copy of Gertrude Rachel Levy’s book The Phoenix Rest, a photograph of Levy, and a postcard she sent from excavations in Iraq in 1935. Courtesy of the Hellenic and Roman Library.


Beyond her Hellenic/Roman Society position, another reason given to justify her admission to the Fellowship was her work for the Department of Antiquities of Palestine.  Having focused for quite a few years on the networks of British archaeologists in Mandate Palestine, among other places, this statement on Levy’s blue paper intrigued me, because over the course of my years of research I had not come across her name. The only woman known to me at that time connected to the Department during the Mandate period was Catherine Dixon, the Department’s Secretary in the early 1920s (Dixon is briefly referenced in the letters of Eunice Holliday, an architect whose husband Clifford, also an architect, was working the Palestine Department of Public Works at the time).

In her book The Phoenix Nest, Levy provided a chapter’s worth of autobiography. In this chapter, she briefly outlines her work Jerusalem which she states was, in part, cataloguing the library of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), sometime in the early 1920s. So, off I went to the PEF’s archive in Greenwich to find her. The PEF’s administrative archive is currently being sorted, and I hoped it might prove a fruitful resource.

My first port of call was the PEF’s Visitors Book. This is a rich resource for network analysis, with the signatures of visitors to the Fund listed by date, often with some reference to place of residence or institutional affiliation. As I flipped the pages I could see many names of other women active in archaeology at the time – Mary Brodrick and Gertrude Caton Thompson among them (Fig. 2a, b). Unfortunately, Levy’s name was nowhere to be found.


M Brodrick signature

G Caton-Thompson signature
Fig. 2a, b. Mary Brodrick and Gertrude Caton’s signatures in the PEF Visitors book, from 10 July 1913 and 15 May 1925 respectively. 


I turned to the PEF Minute Books for the relevant period. As Levy claimed to have catalogued the PEF’s library, I was hoping to find a note on this in one of the Committee meetings. The woman whose name appeared most frequently here is Estelle Blyth, who was the Fund’s paid Secretary from WW1 through the early 1920s. Born in India, Blyth had lived for many years in Jerusalem while her father was the Anglican Bishop there. She wrote several books, including a memoir, When We Lived in Jerusalem (1927). Her salary of £12 per month was regularly recorded in the PEF’s Minute Book (Fig. 3).


E Blyth salary
Fig 3. Detail from the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Minute Book in April 1925 showing Estelle Blyth’s salary. Courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.


Flipping through the pages of the Fund’s minute book for the early 1920s, again, several women’s names appear. These include Miriam Tildesley, an anthropologist cataloguing skulls in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Genevieve (Cook), Lady Watson, a long-time supporter of the PEF, resident in Jerusalem, who was appointed the PEF’s Local Honorary Secretary there in 1924.

In 1925, the Fund’s minutes record that Estelle Blyth was paid £5 for cataloguing the PEF’s library. Clearly, Gertrude Levy didn’t do that work. So, what exactly was she doing in Mandate Palestine?

The answer was the Minute Book of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ, now part of the Council for British Research in the Levant), an institution closely affiliated to the PEF. The School had been founded in 1919, just at the end of the war. Its first Director, John Garstang, was also the Director of the Department of Antiquities of Palestine. I’d published a list of BSAJ students as recorded in the BSAJ Minute Book some years ago, and I knew from that research that she was not a student. But the School’s Minute Book does record that in 1925, she was employed to catalogue the School’s Library as its Secretary-Librarian, at a salary of £5 per month (Fig. 4). This post had previously been offered to Estelle Blyth for a rather more generous salary. Blyth declined.


G Levy appointment
Fig 4. Detail from the BSAJ Minute Book showing confirmation of Gertrude Rachel Levy’s appointment as Librarian of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in April 1925. Courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.


Levy’s post began in March 1926. This was a month before a large-scale archaeological Congress (the post-war continuation of a series of Archaeological Congresses) was to be held in Syria and Palestine, the moment for the French and British Mandate Governments to show off their administration of these regions after the war, and encourage archaeological teams to excavate the lands of the Bible. The main feature of this Congress was to be a scholarly tour.

Delegates from universities, museums and learned societies in Europe, America and the Middle East came to the International Archaeological Congress. The Palestine Museum Bulletin, the only publication of the Department of Antiquities at the time, includes a list of these delegates. Gertrude Rachel Levy’s name was among them. She was representing the University of London, the institution that had awarded her a BA and MA in Classics. Among the list of 95 delegates are the names of 10 women, including, in the British section, Miss Agelasto and Alice Carthew representing the University Women’s Club, and Levy.

The travel writer Norah Hamilton managed to sneak onto the Congress’s tour at the last minute, as an unofficial delegate. It was Gertrude Levy, whom Hamilton records as “Miss L.” in Both Sides of the Jordan, her 1928 memoir of the trip with the International Congress, who smoothed the way for Hamilton to join the party.

Levy did not stay in her BSAJ post for long. The Minute Book records her resignation in 1927 to take up another post. The Palestine Museum Bulletin, of which only a few issues were published, provides a few further details, indicating Levy’s new post was as an Assistant in the Museum. Levy had attended the Royal Academy Schools for three years, and it was as an illustrator alongside archaeological cataloguing that incapsulated her work in the Department. Her illustrated catalogues of ancient pottery in the Museum were published as issues 3 and 4 of the Museum Bulletin.

From Palestine, Levy went on to Iraq, working as “Recorder” on the excavations of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute at Tel Asmar (Eshnunna)City in the Sand, the 1957 memoir of Mary Chubb (formerly a Secretary at the Egypt Exploration Society who was also on site at Eshnunna), enhances the brief, dry references to Levy in OI field reports. Levy was one of Chubb’s travelling companions on the journey from England (by airplane), and Chubb describes her knowledge and experience with great respect.  As “Recorder”, Levy’s work included coloured illustrations, some of which were reproduced to accompany Henri Frankfort‘s articles on the excavations across multiple issues.

Investigating this moment in Levy’s career pulls together a number of different strands we are seeking to reveal over the course of Beyond Notability. One is the colonial links of the women in our dataset. Levy was born in the British Cape Colony, South Africa, and Estelle Blyth in India, part of the British Empire at the time of her birth in 1881. Britain obtained a Mandate for the administration of Palestine after WW1; Levy’s work in in the Department of Antiquities of Palestine (and that of Dixon before her) reveals one area in which women were employed within Britain’s colonial administrative framework. Another theme is looking broadly at source material – just a smattering of different records at the Palestine Exploration Fund have highlighted the lives and work of various women in multiple institutions. Finally, we can see how women capture some of these wider histories (even if not quite accurately) through their memories – Levy’s, Blyth’s, Hamilton’s and Chubb’s.


Thanks are due to Paul Jackson, Felicity Cobbing and John Macdermot for their help.

References/Further Reading

Visitors Book, Palestine Exploration Fund archive.

Palestine Exploration Fund Minute Book Sept 20 1922-July 25 1925, Palestine Exploration Fund archive.

British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem Minute Book, Palestine Exploration Fund archive.

2017. Former Librarian Gertrude Rachel Levy. Joint Libraries of the Hellenic and Roman Societies blog.

Blyth, Estelle. 1927. When We Lived in Jerusalem. London: John Murray.

Chubb, Mary. 1999. City in the Sand. London: Libri Publications Limited.

The Gentlewoman, 1900. The Children’s Salon. 9 June: 761.

Levy, Gertrude Rachel, 1934. The First Sumerian Cult-Statues Ever Found: Sculpture of 3000 BC. Illustrated London News, 19 May: 777.

Levy, Gertrude Rachel, 1934. Sumerian Coloured Stone and Ivory Carving Nearly 5000 Years Ago. Illustrated London News, 19 May: 778.

Frankfort, Henry, 1936. The Oldest Stone Statuette Ever Found in Western Asia. Illustrated London News, 26 September: 524-527.

Hamilton, Norah Rowan, 1928. Both Sides of the Jordan. London: Herbert Jenkins Limited.

Holliday, Eunice (ed. John C. Holliday). Letters from Jerusalem during the Palestine Mandate. London: Radcliffe Press.

Levy, Gertrude Rachel. 1961. The Phoenix Nest: A Study in Religious Transformations. London: Rider & Company.

Melman, Billie, 2020. Empires of Antiquities: Modernity and the Rediscovery of the Ancient Near East, 1914-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palestine Museum, Jerusalem, 1926. Bulletin No 3: Selected Types of Bronze Age Pottery. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities for Palestine.

Palestine Museum, Jerusalem, 1926. Bulletin No 4: Selected Types of Iron Age and Hellenistic Pottery. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities for Palestine.

Thornton, Amara. 2012. Tents, Tours and Treks: Archaeologists, Antiquities Services and Tourism in Mandate Palestine and Transjordan. Public Archaeology 11(4): 195-216.

Thornton, Amara. 2012. Archaeologists in Training: Students of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem 1920-1936. Journal of Open Archaeology Data 1.