Joseph G. Doherty and the Dig at Ksâr ‘Akil

Map showing the location of Ksâr ‘Akil, dated 1937.  Louis J. Gallagher, SJ, President's Office Records, BC.2004.020, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Map showing the location of Ksâr ‘Akil, dated 1937, Box 1, Folder 34, Louis J. Gallagher, SJ, President’s Office Records, BC.2004.020, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Imagine yourself deep in the heart of the Middle East.  The sun is sweltering, and you are moving from section to section at an archaeological site, watching other workers as they trowel and sift their way through sand and dirt.  You hope that you will find the prize, that item that will make all of your time and hard work worthwhile and will fill the display cases of the university museum.  In the meantime, you are trying to keep the artifacts you’ve discovered out of the clutches of your enemy.  Sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, doesn’t it?

Photographs of the Ksâr ‘Akil site. Louis J. Gallagher, SJ, President's Office Records, BC.2004.020, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Photographs of the Ksâr ‘Akil site, Box 1, Folder 32, Louis J. Gallagher, SJ, President’s Office Records, BC.2004.020, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Actually, this is the true story of Joseph G. Doherty, SJ, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, England, who secured funding from Boston College and Fordham University to excavate at the prehistoric site of Ksâr ’Akil in Lebanon near Beyrouth (Beirut).  In exchange for the funding, he promised to send most of the excavated material back to Boston College and Fordham and to circumvent the local museums, which wanted all of the archaeological evidence.  Although Boston College was hesitant at first, Doherty was undeterred.  In 1936, he excavated Ksâr ‘Akil along with two Jesuit scholars from Boston College, George Mahan and Joseph Murphy, who both postponed taking orders to participate in the excavation.  During the first season, the team set up the site by building several temporary shelters that would hopefully last longer than one season (July to September).  The three found themselves constantly busy training and overseeing the workers, who dug and sifted through the various layers of earth.  They also cleaned and cataloged the finds, which were mainly flint and fauna (animal bones).  This was all while still carrying out their religious duties and entertaining the various visitors who wanted to view the site. On April 25, 1938, Doherty sent a long letter to Father William McGarry, SJ, the new President of Boston College, describing a visitor who happened to be a Nazi museum official from Hamburg interested in Ksâr ‘Akil.  A number of individuals were interested in the site and wanted the artifacts for themselves, including the Nazi official.  However, Doherty, Mahan, and Murphy were intent on sticking to the task at hand with only the aid of Boston College.

A photograph postcard with some of the expedition team, dated1937. William James McGarry, SJ, President’s Office Records, BC.2004.007, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

A photograph postcard with some of the expedition team, dated 1937, Box 2, Folder 7, William James McGarry, SJ, President’s Office Records, BC.2004.007, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

During that first season, Doherty, Mahan, and Murphy were unable to finish excavating because more work was required than they had anticipated. They were going to have to dig at the site for at least one more season.  Despite initial hesitation and pressure from the board, Father McGarry, then president of Boston College, chose to follow Father Gallagher, the former president of Boston College, and fund the dig.  Thus, Doherty returned for a second season in 1937 accompanied by a fellow doctoral student from a different university, J. Franklin Ewing.  Mahan and Murphy were unable to return, but they remained connected to the archaeological dig by keeping in constant correspondence and serving as advocates for the dig in the United States.

Telegram from Father Doherty to Father McGarry, dated August 27, 1938. William James McGarry, SJ, President’s Office Records, BC.2004.007, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Telegram from Father Doherty to Father McGarry, dated August 27, 1938, Box 2, Folder 9, William James McGarry, SJ, President’s Office Records, BC.2004.007, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Ksâr ‘Akil was further excavated in the hopes of producing more material than flint and fauna.  At first, this was all that they found, but one day, Father Ewing in The Treasures of Ksâr ‘Akil comments, “We had come upon the grave of an individual whom at first thought and somewhat irreverently we named ‘Egbert.’”  Excited, Doherty immediately sent a telegram to Father McGarry on August 27, 1938.  Click on the image to the right to read the full telegram.

The archaeologists were enthusiastic to find the prehistoric skeleton (who was later determined to have died at age 7 and had been buried for 30,000-70,000 years).  Soon, they found a problem with removing Egbert from being in situ.  The problem with the skeleton was that Egbert was deeply imbedded in breccia, which is a conglomerate of fragmented minerals and rocks.  The breccia acted like extremely hard cement.  If the archaeologists were not too careful, they would more likely end up breaking Egbert’s bones than the breccia.  This situation added to already numerous, unforeseen problems that the archaeologists had encountered in the second season.

"Jesuits Return from  Syria", <i>The Heights</i>, v. 15, no. 1, October 1, 1937.

“Jesuits Return from Syria”, The Heights, v. 15, no. 1, October 1, 1937.

 Excavation at the site could once again not be completed as hoped.  Due to the unanticipated problems, the budding archaeologists had once more gone over budget, and they were forced to leave the site and many of the artifacts, including Egbert who was still stuck in the breccia, at the site.  Doherty and Ewing pleaded for more funds for another season, but Father McGarry and the Board of Trustees refused to give any more aid to the archaeological expedition.  As Father McGarry explained in a letter to Father Robert Gannon, “I continued to aid him financially, though Archaeology is caviar here, and we need steak and potatoes. […] I believe that they have something quite wonderful, and I am sorry that I am not millionaire enough to see it through.”  Doherty and Ewing then resorted to petitioning various members of the Jesuit community at Boston College and throughout New England and New York for aid.  Before they could succeed, a larger event occurred that brought any hope of excavation in 1939 to a standstill, World War II.

Doherty and Ewing returned to Ksâr ‘Akil after the war hoping to find the site intact.  They excavated during the entire 1947 season with the aid of Murphy (who had already taken orders), and Professor Herbert E. Wright, Jr. of the University of Minnesota.  The archaeological expedition was sponsored by Boston College and Fordham University, but a large portion of the cost was paid by Viking Fund, Inc. of New York, according to Ewing.  They removed Egbert (who was not damaged) and discovered that long ago Ksâr ‘Akil had experienced a pluvial period, or a period of time of intense rainfall.  They also found more human skeletons and faunal remains.  In a letter to Father Rector, Doherty mentions that the Peabody Museum at Harvard University had decided to give funds and make room for some of these artifacts from Ksâr ‘Akil. The other artifacts from the dig were given to the National Museum in Beirut both as a diplomatic measure, but also in the event that the other materials were destroyed during transport.  Although Ewing in a letter to Father Keleher from February 28, 1949 admits no major finds were discovered, he did concede that the season was not a waste, as slow study is the key to scientific work.  Overall, their hard work paid off.  They returned to the United States, arriving in New York on June 5th, 1948, ready to begin work on their finds at the Peabody Museum and the long process of cleaning, preserving, analyzing, and cataloguing the human and animal bones.

The expedition had finally reached its end after years of hard work after years of scientific and financial problems, but throughout it all, as Father Ewing stated in his Second Interim Report,

We have not slackened in our evaluation of the importance of this project to its own field, that of the study of Ancient Man — a study which furnishes a background for the appraisal of the present history … Ksâr ‘Akil is located in a critical area for the pursuit of pre-historic studies, being in an area for the pursuit of pre-historic studies, being in an area which has always been a traffic center for Europe, Asia and Africa.

Ksâr ‘Akil remains an important site even today, largely due to the perseverance of those involved in this expedition.

"Excavators in the Far East", <i>The Heights</i>, v. 15, no. 2, October 8, 1937.

“Excavators in the Far East”, The Heights, v. 15, no. 2, October 8, 1937.

After a number of years, the anthropology museum at Boston College closed its doors, and its materials were dispersed.  Doherty and Ewing then decided that the artifacts from Ksâr ‘Akil that would have gone to Boston College should be sent to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, where they currently reside today.  Doherty never did finish his doctorate at Cambridge (due to unknown reasons).  However, he returned to the United States to teach at various institutions, including Weston College, Loyola University in New Orleans, Boston College, and then Boston College High School.  Both Mahan and Murphy did eventually take orders, and each went on to teach at the university level.  Eventually, J. Franklin Ewing obtained his doctorate and then returned to the United States where he taught at Fordham for about twenty years.  As for Egbert, he is currently living at the National Museum of Beirut and is glad to reside there peacefully as scientists have finished their scientific examination decades after he was unearthed.

For more information about Ksâr ‘Akil and Boston College, please explore the records of Boston College Presidents Louis J. Gallagher, SJ; William James McGarry, SJ; William L. Keleher, S.J. and Michael P. Walsh, SJ in the Burns Library Reading Room.  The Heights is also a good source of information regarding the expedition and has been digitized. The Heights, along with many other sources about the history of Boston College, is available in the Digital Library section of the University Archives Research Guide.  For more information about the importance of Ksâr ‘Akil, read Dr. Chris Bergman’s fascinating article in Saudi-Aramco World.  For  actual artifacts from the original collection, please visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the archives at the Pusey Library.  Special thanks to Patrice Kane, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Fordham University, for information regarding Father Ewing and to Louise Clarke, Deputy Superintendent, Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University, England for information regarding Father Doherty.

  • Danica Ramsey-Brimberg, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & BC Class of 2014

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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