Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister (1870–1950) -- By: Milton C. Fisher

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 05:2 (Spring 1992)
Article: Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister (1870–1950)
Author: Milton C. Fisher


Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister (1870–1950)

Milton C. Fisher

R.A.S. Macalister helps us see where we are in our “Who’s Who” series. When he wrote A Century of Excavation in Palestine (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1925), he chose to start that century with the decision of Edward Robinson in 1824 to interrupt his teaching, pursue Old Testament studies in Germany, and write a treatise on Biblical geography. That project demanded Robinson’s explorations of 1838 and 1852 (see “Who’s Who in Archaeology,” Archaeology and Biblical Research, Winter 1989). In turn, when Macalister’s obituary was written nearly one hundred years later, it was suggested that his excavation of Gezer, in the Shephelah region northwest of Jerusalem (1902–1909), might be said to mark the beginning of scientific archaeology in Palestine.

Egyptian, Palestinian, Celtic archaeologist R.A.S Macalister, with blowup of scarabs from Gezer.

By today’s standards, however, his work was seriously flawed. Largely because he attempted to work alone, assuming the combined role of supervisor, surveyor, and recorder, many gaps remain in Macalister’s records, and some errors of judgment had to be rectified later. The three large volumes he published in 1912, while adding a great number of objects to the material available for comparative study of Palestine’s history, also left some confusion. It is still hard to tell precisely where each item was found.

Perhaps the pressure of competition explains the Irish professor’s imperfections. His dig at Gezer was the hasty response of the prestigious British Palestine Exploration Fund to the inauguration of the French Dominican school of archaeology (Ecole Biblique) at the end of the 19th century and of the American Schools of Oriental Research at the turn of the century. Macalister gained valuable experience a few years prior to the Gezer expedition when he assisted Bliss in the digging of four mounds in the lower hill country of Judah. This placed him solidly in the tradition of Petrie-Bliss-Reisner in the development of the “stratigraphic method” of excavating Palestinian tells (see “Who’s Who in Archaeology,” Archaeology and Biblical Research, Winter 1992).

Though primarily an Egyptologist, and ultimately occupant of the chair of Celtic Archaeology at the University of Dublin, Macalister is best known for his seven-year dig at Gezer (interrupted only by winter rains and an outbreak of cholera). He also joined J.G. Duncan’s excavation on Mt. Ophel (the “City of David”) from October 1923 through the summer of 1925, where, among other things, they...

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