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September 17, 2014

(Apologies in advance for the stream-of-consciousness that follows.  Thoughts are flowing thanks to a project I’m working on.)

Many of us, as historians of archaeology, have various points of interest but we usually tend to narrow down our fields into time periods, practical field methods, areas of study, institutions, collections, people, and more.  I, for example, am interested in British Egyptology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  There are loads of characters in that period and field.

Don't these guys look like a barrel of laughs? (Image from

Don’t these guys look like a barrel of laughs? (Image from

No, really.  As I read through the biographies of many of these people–men and women alike–their lives really are full of adventure (unlike Margaret Murray famously claimed).  Amelia Edwards decided to escape rainy Europe and found herself taking a journey up the Nile River, pretty much on a whim.  The Petrie camp was shot at during the 1904-05 season.  Visitors and tourists came to sites and caused all kinds of trouble for archaeologists.  Howard Carter constantly complained about the demands of tourists and the Department of Antiquities after he found King Tut’s tomb.  He even caused a huge uproar by closing the tomb until everyone left him alone (it didn’t work…).

I’m working on a project right now of monologues of female scientists for a possible play that might be done at my university.  I’ve been tasked with choosing some women, learning about their lives, and coming up with some good stories to dramatize on stage.  I’m finding myself making lists of all the amazing things these women have done, both personally and professionally.  But, I also find myself thinking about the problem of biography and autobiography–unlike our lives, the stories of our lives are constructed.  They are made to seem like a unified whole, when really, they are a bunch of strands that may or may not intersect with other parts of our lives.  This makes writing monologues for these women very difficult.

Many of them were “firsts”: first woman to earn a degree in a subject, first woman to be on this or that field site, first woman to publish a book about a certain topic, and more.  Do those firsts matter?  Well, yes.  But do the firsts, in and of themselves, make that woman important enough to include in the drama?  Maybe not.  So, what is important enough to include?

I’m finding myself wondering if I would have the same trouble if I had to choose men and their stories.  Is it just that men were more in the field and less in the classroom or museum that makes their stories more adventurous from the start?  There were plenty of amazing women in the field (see Trowelblazers), that much we know.  These women did a lot of important things both in the field and out of it.  I suppose my main question is: how do we choose what to include in short biographies of people who had long, productive, and sometimes very adventurous careers?  Any advice would be welcome!  What do you do?  How do you choose?


Conference Season

September 10, 2014

It’s autumn!  Well, it’s turning autumn here in the middle of the Midwestern US tomorrow, supposedly.  That means: cooler weather, leaves changing, wearing jackets, and fewer bugs.  It also means conference time is quickly approaching all of us in and out of academia. 

Sure, there are conferences year-round and all over the planet, but the autumn is the time when summer prep of papers and projects are presented to hotel ballrooms full of eager listeners who will not fall asleep, but will ask excellent and insightful questions to help you further direct your already amazing research.  Or, it’s the time you get to rush to finish that paper and hope that more than 10 people show up to hear the nervously delivered theory about post-processualism that you aren’t sure of in the first place.  Then, the room is full of crickets and silence, until one person raises their hand to tell you what they know about their own topic and then ask you what you think about what they know.  (“Yes, thank you for that comment…”)

Ahem, yes, a question in the back?  Please?

Ahem, yes, a question in the back? Please?

Actually, in reality, it will likely be a mix of both.  We all have projects we are working on in various stages of completion, and in need of various comments, questions, helps along the way. 

Here I am presenting a partial list of the many conferences happening all over Europe and the US this autumn and next spring.  Are you presenting at one of these?  Let us know about your paper!  Send us your abstract so we can include it on the website.  Help us get some HARN people together for a meet-up or drinks.  Also, see below for possible CFP and put together a panel with other HARN members so HARN can sponsor your panel (see links to the left and above for finding other members).  Did we miss any?  Post them in the comments or email us at with information and we’ll post it!

EAA: European Association of Archaeologists, Istanbul, Turkey.  10-14 September 2014.  It starts today, so if you didn’t have plans to go you may be out of luck.  But here’s the program, and watch for next year’s CFP for Glasgow.

TAG: Theoretical Archaeology Group.  There are a few regional TAG groups–TAG (UK), Nordic TAG, and North American TAG.  All have their own conferences.  TAG Manchester is coming up in December! Nordic TAG took place in April 2014, but will be in Copenhagen in 2015.  North American TAG will be in May, 2015 in New York. 

SAA: Society for American Archaeology.  The 2015 Conference will be in San Francisco, CA in April. 

HSS: History of Science Society. The 2014 Conference is in Chicago, IL in November.  The 2015 Conference will be in November in San Francisco, CA.  There is no link for 2015 yet, but stay on the HSS page for CFP.

BSHS: British Society for the History of Science. The 2014 Conference was held at St. Andrews, but 2015 will be at Swansea. 

AIA: Archaeological Institute of America.  The 2015 Conference will be in New Orleans, LA, jointly held with the Society for Classical Studies (SCS). 

Most of these are larger conferences that allow for a number of different disciplines to participate.  There are many, many more small conferences available.  We don’t have the space to list them all here.  If you’re presenting at one, or many, let us know! We would like to get larger HARN contingents at many of these larger conferences by sponsoring panels in 2015.  If you’re interested in organizing a panel or being on one, please let us know ( 

Search around the sites given above for other conference notices.  There’s a lot of great scholarship happening among us and our colleagues and we really want to know more about it.  We are a network of scholars and need to work together!  Put together panels, meet other members, speak with other scholars who know more about other things.  Where is everyone going this autumn?  What are you presenting?


Review of Brian Fagan’s _The Rape of the Nile_ (2004)

September 3, 2014

Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. Revised and updated edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press, 2004.

(Author’s note: I know this book is 10 years old.  I needed it for a course, and realized that there are still quite a few issues with the newer text.)

The most recent edition of Fagan’s (in)famous book about the history of Egyptology is an attempt to revise and update much of the information contained in the first two editions—the first, which came out in 1975, and the second, which was reprinted without updates in 1992.  As Fagan himself states, a lot has happened in the history of Egyptology since 1975.  This newer edition, albeit 10 years old at this point, does indeed correct many errors Fagan had made in the first edition but it still leaves out a great many people, places, and events.  His book is a self-proclaimed heroic history, so one can imagine the kinds of stories he chooses to include and exclude.  He also tells the reader that there are quite a few people left out, as there should be in a book of this type.  As a general history of Egyptology for the general reader, it is an excellent introduction and I even use chunks of it for student course readings.  However, we use those sections also to critique what is missing in these heroic exploits.
As historians of archaeology, we are all likely familiar with Fagan’s book, so I don’t have to go into too much detail of what the book does contain.  It is richly illustrated and the stories are exciting.  The narrative begins with ancient tomb-robbers, but then centers around the circus strongman, Giovanni Belzoni, and his adventures in retrieving the Memnon bust for Henry Salt and the British Museum.  It finishes with the more-scientific excavators such as Flinders Petrie and James Breasted.  But all, according to Fagan, fall into some sort of tomb-robbing exploits.  
Criticisms of Fagan’s leaving women out of the story are not new and I will not attempt a detailed criticism here.  But I will present some of my own thoughts.  Margaret Root’s introduction to Getzel and Cohen’s 2004 Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists (University of Michigan, pp1-33) discusses Fagan’s treatment of women in the 1975 edition.  Root notes that, while Fagan includes a number of women, notably stressing the importance of Sarah Belzoni and Amelia Edwards, he also notably excludes others such as Hilda Petrie and Frances Breasted.  Not only does he exclude them from the index, but he obliquely omits Hilda from the book completely by not including her name in the caption for a picture of her entering an excavation shaft (Root, 11; Fagan 1975, 354). 

Hilda entering the excavation shaft

Hilda entering the excavation shaft

(Thanks to TrowelBlazers for letting me use this photo)

It is important to note that Root wrote her introduction before Fagan’s new edition was published; and Fagan wrote the new edition before being able to read Root’s critiques.  But after almost 30 years of historians writing women’s history, one might think that Fagan would correct some of his omissions in this vein.  He doesn’t, really, except to maybe include a few more women in the story as side characters.  So, what happens in the instance of this picture of Hilda in the 2004 edition is very interesting.  It disappears.  A new picture of the Petries’ excavation camp appears in its place (fig. 15.1, p 233).  The image has Petrie sitting during a break—easily recognizable–and Hilda has been completely taken out of the story, replaced by her even less-known sister Amy Urlin, in skirt and hat, surrounded by finds.  The caption reads: The Petrie excavation camp at Abydos.  Hilda is still not included in the text (nor are many other women) but now she is completely erased from the book.

Petrie and Urlin at Abydos Camp

Petrie and Urlin at Abydos Camp

I understand this is a story of heroic excavators, and women were largely excluded from this kind of work in the period about which Fagan writes.  They were also excluded from the histories in the 1970s.  But by the time Fagan wrote his 2004 edition, there were a number of women in the Who was Who in Egyptology editions that he could have included Hilda, May Broderick, Margaret Murray, and other Petrie excavation assistants and staple participants such as Amy Urlin.  There have been many attempts to excavate these women (and many more puns about that process), most visible lately is the website TrowelBlazers.  It is an excellent site for those looking for a starting place to find women in archaeology.  Getzel and Cohen’s book has also developed into a website, Breaking Ground, out of Brown University.  This site has short, invited, well-researched biographies of the women archaeologists in their list.
Again, Fagan’s book is a general introduction for the interested general reader.  Much like an Indiana Jones film, it is entertaining and full of adventure, but the female characters could and should be stronger.  Read it; have your students read it.  But make sure to use it as a jumping off point to decide what is missing.  Then send them to the sites above for a start.


It’s beginning to feel a lot like Autumn

August 24, 2014

Summer appears to be over, at least in this corner of Britain, and we’re heading towards autumn far too quickly for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I love autumn: the smell of blackberries and bonfires, the colours of the changing leaves, the chill in the morning and evening, the clear skies and sunshine. Because I’ve spent so much of my life in academia I don’t associate this time of year with melancholy, I see autumn as the New Year, it’s a time of beginnings as far as I’m concerned, of exciting opportunities and endless possibilities. I buy stationary and write timetables in coloured ink and make resolutions at this time of the year rather than at the beginning of January. But, at the risk of fulfilling a cultural stereotype here, I’m going to talk about the weather – it’s raining, it’s grey, windy and miserable* it should still be summer and this isn’t my idea of a decent autumn. I’m not impressed!

However, despite the sogginess, there are some exciting autumnal changes coming up. We’re launching Member of the Month in September, Sam Hardy has kindly agreed to be the first to do this and be our test monkey! Look out for his post, it will be fascinating since, as I’ve said before, his blog should be required reading for all archaeologists and politicians. And, do get involved, leave comments for him, for us, suggest other members we should approach for detailed profiles – I know I keep saying it, but this is your forum so tell us what you’d like to see here. On that note the book review went down well so we’ll be doing those as a regular feature, probably covering more recent articles and books though! Again, if there’s anything you’d particularly like to see reviewed – maybe your own article or book? – get in touch in the comments or by email.

The other – major – change is that I’m taking a month off. We’re welcoming a new family member this month and I’m taking September to settle her in, as I said, autumn is the time for new beginnings! However, the blog will continue under the expert guidance of Kate so I’m leaving you in very good hands.

Have a great September, see you in October when we’ll be in autumn proper and I’ll no doubt be wittering about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness



August 20, 2014


The Rash Adventurer, a life of John Pendlebury.

August 15, 2014


I’m on holiday this week and as part of my holiday reading I packed Imogen Grundon’s book. I’ve had it for several years on my ‘to read’ list but hadn’t realised it was published back in 2007, so this is hardly an up-to-date review! I’m sure there’s more recent work that has been written about Pendlebury, but as far as I’m aware this is the only full-scale biography. My apologies if I’m wrong about this and do let me know.

Pendlebury, as I’m sure you’re all aware, excavated Amarna, was curator of Knossos and excavated on Mount Dikti and helped organise Cretan Resistance during the 2nd World War. Imogen Grundon’s biography draws on the considerable amount of information available about Pendlebury’s life – his letters, site diaries, SOE reports and testimonies from his friends and acquaintances. As a historian of 20th century British archaeology I, inevitably, read a lot of biographies and have used a lot of archival biographical information in my writing and I was initially envious of the resources she could draw upon but after 300+ pages I’d say more selectivity would have made this a more enjoyable read.

This is very much an old style biography, it begins with John Pendlebury’s parents, there’s a paragraph or two about his grandparents, before moving back to Pendlebury himself. It is the traditional summary of a life – ancestry, birth, education, achievements, death and legacy. It’s an examination of a whole life rather than an intellectual biography, or one that concentrates solely on Pendlebury’s archaeological or military work. And, it appears to have been written with the sincere belief that lives can be traced, pinned down, explained with no ambiguity, no hesitations or lacunae. Reading the bibliography every possible source appears to have been consulted, but there are no critical/postmodern biographical approaches in that bibliography and no evidence in the writing that any have been read.

I‘d have said it would be hard to write a bad book about such a fascinating character and Imogen Grundon was ideally placed to write an exceptional biography. As an archaeologist who has worked at Tell el Amarna, Knossos, and Mycenae, she is, as Patrick Leigh Fermor says in the foreword, extremely well equipped to interpret John Pendlebury’s life. The book is around 165,000 words long, that’s a lot of information about a man who died when he was only 37– and much of it is repetitive. With this level of information overload I found my interest decreased rather than increased as I read. After school and university the chapters cover months rather than years and parts of the book turn into a slog rather than a fun read. Round about page 100 I had to take time off and read something else and I’m the type of person who will endlessly read a cereal packet or the toothpaste tube if there’s nothing else on offer.

Every part of his Pendlebury’s life is detailed and letters or diary entries quoted exhaustively, even exhaustingly. And, I began to question if I really needed to know about Pendlebury’s undergraduate drinking clubs. Was it included to illustrate his chivalry and whimsicality? If so it backfires, as a university lecturer and ex-student I found this section tedious rather than intriguing. And this is the problem, Imogen Grundon discusses every aspect of Pendlebury’s life, including archival quotes and first-hand accounts to illustrate her point, but often the information is irrelevant anyway, doing nothing to further the story. For example, Pendlebury certainly had one extramarital affair, possibly more, but what does that actually tell us about him? The information is given without any interpretation or context. Was the affair serious? Did it affect his relationship with his wife Hilda, with his volunteers, with his Cretan workforce? Were affairs commonplace amongst archaeologists of this period? In wider society? None of this is discussed, it’s seemingly enough to tell us that the affair occurred and is verified by reference to various sources.

Equally frustrating are the omissions. How did Hilda Pendlebury feel about giving up her own work to further Pendlebury’s career? It was her scholarship and interest in archaeology that attracted him initially, what happened when her interests were subsumed in his? Imogen Grundon tells us that in 1931 ‘With Hilda he had begun work on a guide to the stratigraphical museum at Knossos’ (IG 2007: 144). This came out under the sole authorship of John Pendlebury – how did Hilda feel about this? Again this isn’t discussed, Hilda is portrayed increasingly unsympathetically throughout the book and after Pendlebury’s death her life is dismissed in a single sentence.

This is a very well researched biography but, as I said, it’s too traditional and uncritical to make it an academic work, yet too wordy and detailed for a popular book. With sharper editing it and cutting out all the repetitions and irrelevancies it would have been a much more enjoyable read. It’s definitely a work that demonstrates the adage ‘less is more’.

Ok, that’s my attempt at a book review, I’m sure you can all do better, give it a go! Email your reviews to

and, as ever, have a great weekend – I’ll be reading this


William ‘Strata’ Smith

August 8, 2014

I’m on my way to Scarborough, home of the Rotunda Museum

This small, but perfectly formed, museum was built in 1829 to specifications suggested by William ‘Strata’ Smith – also known, inevitably, as the ‘Father of English Geology’.  These days it’s been beautifully refurbished and the top floors are back to how Smith envisaged them. They reflect the geological history of Yorkshire arranged stratigraphically with the youngest fossils in the topmost cases and the older ones beneath. The cases are the original 1850s ones, again refurbished

Rotunda Museum - copyright Scarborough Museums Trust

Rotunda Museum – copyright Scarborough Museums Trust

It is a lovely place to visit, gently educational and mixes old style museum presentation with fantastic hands on interactive stuff. I have to confess I have a sneaking nostalgia for how it used to be, admittedly I have a very unreliable memory* but I recall it being chaotic and incomprehensible with Pacific Island weaponry next to Amazonian shrunken heads and dinosaur bones mixed with Victorian ceramics.

Rotunda museum interiorCC BY-SA 2.0 Ken Walton - From

Rotunda museum interiorCC BY-SA 2.0
Ken Walton – From

*I’ve been informed that my memory of a stuffed giraffe at the bottom of the spiral staircase is completely false, sadly

These days it is much easier to navigate and you do get to see an entire plesiosaur as well as being able to create your own digital dinosaur, what you don’t get is much about William Smith. Even the museum’s website gives the very basics about him and directs you to the British Geology Survey (where there is considerably more information). As I said, it is a small museum, but even so one would expect a little more information about the man who discovered that the characteristics of rocks, could be identified by the fossils within them and that particular fossil successions were always found in the same layers of sedimentary rock which could be correlated across Britain. And, of course, he drew the first geological map of England and Wales.

As I’m sure you all know, Smith was born in Oxfordshire in 1769, his family were small-scale farmers – respectable but certainly not wealthy. Smith became interested in fossil collecting at a young age, he was also a skilled draughtsman and when he was eighteen he was apprenticed to a surveyor. This apprenticeship took him all over the Midlands and Southern England at the time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, canals, railways, viaducts and aqueducts were all being constructed and Smith was on the spot to observe deep excavations and learn all about the different fossil types. In 1794 Smith was supervising the construction of the Somerset Coal Canal linking the River Kennet and the Avon Canal. It was during this work – which took him all over England visiting other established and unfinished canals – that Smith realised that the rock layers were established in a predictable pattern, that these layers could be identified by the fossils they contained and that the same fossil successions occurred in different parts of the country. He developed the theory he named ‘the principle of faunal succession’ which stated that fossils of fauna and flora succeed each other vertically in a specific, reliable order and can be used to date those rock layers.

Cutting a very long story short, Smith travelled Britain looking at rock strata, corresponding with other geologists and natural historians and through Sir Joseph Banks’ sponsorship and public subscription he finally published his geological map of Britain in 1815.

In a just world Smith’s map would have been an instant best seller and the scientific establishment would have accepted and praised his hard work. Sadly, this wasn’t the case, the high cost of publishing his map meant Smith had to sell his fossil collection to the Treasury, his map was quickly plagiarised and the copies were sold far more cheaply than his original work, the newly formed Geological Society of London refused him an honorary fellowship, and in 1819 he was imprisoned for debt.

Smith became an itinerant surveyor, he continued to publish books and reports on fossil succession, geology and and produced a series of twenty one large-scale county maps that formed his Geological Atlas of England and Wales (1819-24). Between 1824 and 1826 he was living and working in Scarborough, hence his involvement with the Rotunda Museum.

Finally, in 1831, Smith’s contribution to geology was acknowledged; the Geological Society of London honoured him with the first Wollaston Medal, in 1832 he was granted a pension of £100 per annum by King William IV, in 1835 Trinity College, Dublin awarded him an honorary doctorate and in 1838 he became a member of the commission which selected the stone for the new Houses of Parliament. He died in 1839 from a chill caught on the way to a scientific meeting in Birmingham.

Whether Smith was a brilliant geologist I have no idea, I’m taking the assessment of him by other geologists on trust since I have no expertise in this area. My interest in him is as an outsider who eventually made good, someone whose class dictated how he was received in the world of academia and how similar his experiences were to those of many antiquarians and archaeologists whose backgrounds were equally modest. I also love his fossil drawings

Isn’t that beautiful? And, thanks to the University of New Hampshire and the Smith’s books and illustrations are available on the web. Go and look and enjoy.

Have a great weekend – I’ll be visiting the Rotunda, paddling in the sea and eating ice cream


For more information on William Smith see:

Simon Winchester, 2001. The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the birth of modern geology. London: Viking.



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