John Garstang’s Excavations at Jericho

The site of Jericho, located near the Jordan River on the West Bank, is famous for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its importance in biblical literature. The site contains the remains of no less than twenty successive settlements, and is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world (as well as the oldest known city with a protective wall). The Hebrew name for Jericho, Yeriẖo, is likely derived from the Canaanite word reaẖ, meaning “fragrant”. This imagery evokes the natural landscape surrounding the site; Jericho is a Tell site surrounded by copious natural springs which have historically provided a compelling reason for human societies to settle around the site – in fact, the earliest structures pre-date sedentary agriculture and other early cultures around Jericho were pre-ceramic (belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase). At the foot of the Tell itself, a perennial spring provides fresh water and irrigation for the nearby soil, providing ideal conditions for early agriculture. Furthermore, the site itself is located on an important route leading into coastal Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, important centres of early settlement, trade and human migration.

The Garstang Excavation

The first excavations at the site of Jericho took place in 1868 under the auspices of Sir Charles Warren of the British Royal Engineers, who dug into the Tell but found little to interest him and moved on. John Garstang arrived in 1930 and excavated until 1936, reaching the Neolithic phase of site occupation and covering successive incarnations of the city. The aim of the excavation was to investigate the biblical history of the site, attempting to incorporate the stratigraphy of the site into the narrative of conquest portrayed in the Bible. The excavation uncovered four distinct layers of occupation, which Garstang interpreted as four separate cities built on top of each other. It also uncovered a structure, identified as a temple by John Garstang, which showed evidence of regular reconstruction with foundations stretching through multiple occupation phases, as well as a structure identified as a palace standing at the highest point within the city walls.

T-02 Image 1 Garstang at Jericho

Archive photograph from John Garstang’s excavations at Jericho.

The excavations uncovered not only Neolithic assemblages but also deeper deposits belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase. The work of the Garstang excavation cleared two levels of occupation of the Pre-Pottery Phase, uncovering highly developed settlement architecture (for the time period) consisting of hand-made mud brick walls and fine, burnished plaster on the ceilings and floors. Notably, this architectural style changes completely in the succeeding ceramic phase.

Burial Assemblages at Jericho

The majority of finds from John Garstang’s excavations were ceramic, although many proved difficult to date due to a lack of significant parallels. While the forms of the vessels were similar to material from other Near Eastern sites, consisting primarily of small juglets and open bowls, the decoration was almost entirely unique. This decorated style incorporates motifs of chevrons and triangles in a red pigment, and the decorated vessels exist alongside undecorated vessels made primarily of coarse ceramic with grit and straw inclusions. The majority of these ceramic vessels came from a necropolis west of the Tell, which provided information regarding burial customs at the site.


A selection of undecorated ceramic bowls, dipper juglets, a cylindrical vase and a pedestal vase from Tomb D13, dated c.2200-1570 BCE.

Tombs were generally small chambers or shallow, round graves containing material including ceramics, flint implements and the remains of offerings such as sheep bones. They varied greatly in size, and older remains and grave goods were often pushed aside to make room for newer series’ of burials with tombs containing anything from four to over a hundred occupants. This form of burial assemblage is typical of Near Eastern sites, but notably the concentration of pottery at Jericho far outstripped the inclusion of other material (although, of course, any potential perishables included in the burials may not have survived). Notably, objects found in these burials illustrated early links with other cultures in the Mediterranean and Egypt.


Miniature juglets, used to store perfume (J.57.7, J.57.91-92 and J.57.95).

Human Heads!

One of Garstang’s key discoveries at Jericho was a plaster head, with shells for eyes, part of a complete figure. This discovery was made from contexts approximately between the pre-pottery and pottery phases, but more evidence has been discovered relating to human heads at Jericho by later excavations under the direction of Dame Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated a collection of “portrait heads” in 1953. These heads were moulded in plaster around human skulls with inset shells replacing the eyes, identified as objects of interest for early cultic and religious practice at the site. Notably, the skulls themselves are personal and no two are alike, suggesting that they may be representative of actual individuals living at Jericho in the Neolithic period!

Conclusions – A Century of Work

The site of Jericho is a fundamentally important milestone in understanding early human development, settlement and agricultural practices. The excavation history of the site is long and storied, and the work of John Garstang is just one of many excavations that has provided information about Jericho’s rich history. The collection of material from John Garstang’s excavations illustrates the vibrant cultures developing at the site in the Neolithic, and his discovery of the aceramic culture has led to Jericho being considered a quintessential example of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase.

Chris Bebbington.