Dorothea Bate and a workman in the pit at Bethlehem (?1937). An elephant tooth can be seen just behind the man’s right arm. Copyright Natural History Museum, London, used with kind permission of the NHM Library & Archives. With thanks to Karolyn Shindler for providing the digital image.

This is a story that begins with a chance discovery, and ends with murder.

In 1934, while en-route to dig at Dorothy Garrod’s Mount Carmel excavations, the Natural History Museum’s fossil mammal curator Dorothea Bate (1878-1951) was asked to assist the Palestinian Department of Antiquities with an urgent enquiry. A Bethlehem doctor had brought them some fragments of fossil bone, and they wanted her expert opinion.

She immediately recognized them as elephant – this was the first ever discovery of an extinct elephant in the Palestine region! Delaying her departure for Mount Carmel, Bate went to Bethlehem to investigate further. A climb 12 feet down into a partly dug well resulted in mud from head to foot, but also the identification of a piece of tusk. This was, indeed, the site of Palestine’s first elephant – now identified as one of the earliest true elephants outside of Africa, Elephas planifrons (although debate continues…).

For Dorothea Bate, the request from the Department of Antiquities in Jerusalem to work up the material and look into future work options seemed to seal this new and exciting site as hers. But unknown to her, the archaeologist James Starkey (director of the Wellcome-funded excavations at Tell ed-Duweir – or Biblical Lachish – near to Bethlehem) had heard about the elephant discovery and had persuaded the antiquities department to give the site to him.

When Bate found out, she was furious. To add insult to injury, Starkey had even contacted her about the elephant – and she had blithely shared information with him, without any idea he was making a land-grab.

As it stood, it was checkmate – Starkey had taken control, and the only way Dorothea Bate could keep her stake in the research was to collaborate. For the next 3 field seasons (1935-7), against a backdrop of increasing political unrest in the Middle East, Bate would excavate at Bethlehem, working alongside geologist Elinor Gardner. These two women were the intellectual forces behind the project, but Starkey was its official head.

In January 1938, as he was being driven to the opening of the Palestinian Museum of Archaeology, James Starkey’s car was stopped by an armed mob. Ignoring the protests of his driver, the men called Starkey a Jew, forced him out of the car and shot him. His death marked the end of the Bethlehem excavations: the region was becoming too unstable, the NHM would not grant Dorothea Bate permission to travel, and Elinor Gardner – perhaps in recognition of Bate’s ‘ownership’ of the site – refused to work alongside anyone else. And, of course, the Second World War was brewing.

To this day, as conflict in the region continues, the work by Elinor Gardner and Dorothea Bate – their discoveries of ancient elephants, giant tortoises and early horses – remains our only real insight into the environment in the Bethlehem region 2.5 million years ago*.

* This date should proabably be taken with a pinch of salt – more work needed!


Post-Script: While Starkey’s behaviour over the Bethlehem site may have rankled, he and Dorothea Bate built a good working relationship. James Starkey was well liked, his funeral attended by hundreds of mourners (Bate attended his memorial service in London). Starkey wasn’t some kind of pantomime villain – he was just your common-or-garden, über-competitive academic. Read this for more information about his achievements before his tragic death.

Read more about Dorothea Bate’s early career here.

This post was based on material in Discovering Dorothea by Karolyn Shindler. This book is awesome, and if you haven’t read it already YOU MUST BUY A COPY!

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