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REVIEWS: Visit to the Palestine Exploration Fund

The doors of the Palestine Exploration Fund, at no 2 Hinde Mews, were opened on Wednesday 12th January at 6pm. For those who could find it. No brown Heritage roadsign pointed the way, no cabbie had heard of it - while even the A-Z kept a discreet silence. Somehow it was deeply appropriate that the Palestine Exploration Fund, such a store house of knowledge about the Holy Land should be so reclusive. Aside from a spacious library, its high walls packed with towering shelves that are lit by a long skylight, it is a rather cramped institute.

The basement, filled with heating pipes and display cases, held the real treasures: stuffed birds, bits from archaeological digs (including two magnificent Canaanite fakes), a neglected model of Herod's temple, cases of rare books and draw upon draw of late 19th century photographs, watercolours and meticulous field surveys. It was these surveys, published in 1880 as a set of 26 sheets (at a scale of one inch to one mile), that are the great glory of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

The survey was created from a fusion of disinterested scholarship, national self-interest and such talented Royal Engineer officers as Kitchener, Wilson and Conder, all then at the start of their careers. It was the first such survey and remains a lodestone of dispassionate information in a still all too passionate landscape. This quiet and very British achievement was discussed over wine and sandwhiches laid out in the library. Curators, scholars, bronze-age archaeologists, travellers, writers and committee members dug into the rich layers of history and biography preserved by the Palestine Exploration Fund until the wine ran dry. If anybody found my silk scarf, brought in Cairo a fortnight before, will they please keep it.

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