Baalbek and Antioch, 1933

In 1933, the first season of excavations at Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), south-west of Jerusalem, came to end. The remains of a building from the late 5th-4th century BC, described as a governor’s residence, had been unearthed and the defences of the Judaean city, including part of a 900-700 BC palace-fort, had been studied. Among the team was Olga Tufnell (1905-1985), a British archaeologist who, as well as excavating, set up a clinic at the camp.

After the successful first season, Tufnell – on the invitation of Teresa Strickland Colt, also part of the expedition – travelled back to England on a long overland journey in the ‘Diabolical Strength’, the modified expedition truck. Tufnell wrote many letters home from the sites she excavated in Egypt, Cyprus, and Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s, and from her remarkable seven-week journey in the Diabolical Strength, reporting on the stops they made along the way. Among them was Baalbek (Roman Heliopolis) in Lebanon, where on 11 May, Tufnell visited the towering Temple of Jupiter (right) by moonlight. She noted in her letter the progress that had been made by the French archaeologists reconstructing the Roman temple since her previous visit.

Just a few days later, on 16 May, Tufnell and her travelling companions were approaching Antioch. She wrote: ‘Yesterday was one of the most successful days of the trip. We left Aleppo about eleven and soon found ourselves among the hills driving along an excellent road, straight as a die, which had all the marks of being Roman. The plains were full of crops and as we topped a pass we found a stretch of Roman road all paved with great square blocks. We then realised that under the smooth surface of the modern road, the old paving blocks remained which after all is the best way of preserving them.’ It is the Roman road, and the trusty Diabolical Strength, we see below.

Tufnell’s letters offer a fascinating glimpse into life in the field and on the road nearly 100 years ago. They have recently been published, along with photographs taken by Tufnell and her associates, in a new book (see box below). Many of these letters and photographs come from the collection of the Palestine Exploration Fund, which, founded in 1865, is the world’s oldest society for the study of the southern Levant. It still works to support research into and encourages interest in the material culture, geography, history, and natural history of the region, and makes its collections available to researchers at its office in Greenwich, south-east London.

Olga Tufnell’s ‘Perfect Journey’: letters and photographs of an archaeologist in the Levant and Mediterranean, edited and introduced by John D M Green and Ros Henry, is published by UCL Press. It is available in hardback (£50), paperback (£30), or as an open-access .pdf (

Images: courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.