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The Immortality of Letters

August 19, 2016

Emily Dickinson once wrote: “A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”  Well, for historians, letters are immortality because we can read what someone wrote 50, 100, 500 years ago and more.

Emily Dickinson’s Writing desk, Image courtesy the Emily Dickinson Museum

Most of us, at some point in our research lives, have to use old correspondence as a source.  Letters between and among scholars, their colleagues, friends and family are indispensable for knowing their candid thoughts.  It is in letters that people reveal themselves to one another.  Many times, we can find scientific details that don’t make it into published works.  Historians of science study letters between Galileo Galilei and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste to understand more about Galileo’s personal life.

She’s got some mean side-eye.  Suor Maria Celeste

Others, like Dena Goodman, study the correspondence among multiple people to trace networks of knowledge transfer or the development of a particular way of thinking. Correspondence is invaluable to historians, as are diaries and a number of other private forms of record-keeping.

There are a number of correspondence projects underway right now.  I know of three in the history of science—the Darwin Correspondence Project, the Tyndall Correspondence Project, and the Kingsley Correspondence Project.  All of these projects comprise large networks of people at multiple universities working on transcribing, notating, and publishing hundreds, if not thousands, of letters.  Darwin, Tyndall, and Kingsley were all giants in their fields and their scientific networks were massive.

Charles Kingsley, 1862  Image Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, UK

So, now that we know the academic reasons for studying correspondence, letters are also just really fun to work with!  Within letters, we can find juicy tidbits of century-old gossip that turn our present-day scholarship into a tabloid-like piece for revealing such information.  I once found a letter from one professor to her student and friend complaining about a Great Man’s wife.  It was pretty funny commentary, and confirmed all rumors that had swirled about the two women in the early 20th century.  But see, even now I’d feel guilty revealing it!

So what about smaller collections of letters?  What about people who maybe only have a few hundred letters to their extant collection?  People like Margaret Murray, whose sent letters survive in archives around the world (such as at the Egypt Exploration Society, the American Philosophical Society, the Oriental Institute at Chicago, and more) and whose received letters largely survive at UCL.  She was famous for purging things so to find any of her personal records is always a treat.  Well, what about them?  Right now, I’m trying to figure out just that.

Currently, I’m working on a small correspondence collection between two of the earliest university-trained American Egyptologists: James Henry Breasted and Caroline Ransom Williams. (There is no English wikipedia article for her.)  I found this small collection of about 250 letters while I was in the archives at the Oriental Institute in Chicago.

Caroline Ransom Williams

Ransom Williams is another one of those women in archaeology whose life and career has been footnoted—literally—in the historical record.  I had heard of her before but I didn’t really know much about her until I started reading the letters between her and her mentor.  There are a number of similarities between Ransom Williams and Murray: they were both the earliest women in their fields trained by the first professional male Egyptologists in their respective countries.  Each woman had to deal with the issues that being a woman in academia brought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—low pay, overwhelming administrative duties, and domestic concerns.  However, where Ransom Williams had family support, and later her husband’s support, she finished her coursework, earned her PhD, and went on to have a productive career outside of the University of Chicago.  On the other hand, Murray had little family support and did not get married, she never finished her coursework and worked at UCL for over 40 years in the Egyptology department that her mentor is credited with creating.

Back to the letters—while there are relatively few in this existing collection and they are all in the OI’s archives (I haven’t yet been able to track down any remaining from Ransom Williams’ own records–if those even exist), they weave an interesting and involved professional and personal narrative between a mentor and student, then later between colleagues and friends.  After she finished her PhD in 1905, she moved to Bryn Mawr to be a professor of Art History, then in 1910 to New York to become the Assistant Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Egyptian Art Department under Albert M. Lythgoe.  As per usual, Lythgoe went to dig in the winters while Ransom Williams was left running the department (see also: Margaret Murray’s whole career).  She published a number of exhibit volumes and original research.  She later moved home to Toledo to marry her long-time suitor, Grant Williams.  She remained employed by the New York Historical Society and regularly commuted to New York from Toledo to keep the position.  She also held positions at the Toledo Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was able to visit Chicago regularly to use the library at the Oriental Institute.

This information can all be found in her short biography for the Breaking Ground Project.  What makes these letters useful and unique for looking into Ransom Williams’ life is the candor with which she writes to Breasted about mutual friends of theirs, like the Adolf Erman family during the First World War.  Also, the way in which they exchange barbs about certain scholars not being of sound mind, the care they show each other during times of loss or personal stress, or their own curiosity at being studied by later historians.  These letters and more will be revealed in the print version of these transcribed letters, which I’m working on right now.  But don’t these little tastes make you want to read more?  Me too–so I’m off to read more of them.  These letters make Ransom Williams, a scholar whom history has pushed to the margins, an immortal being with words and feelings and a life to share.  I’ll let you know soon how the story unfolds.

How do you use correspondence in your work?  Let me know!


Tea with the Sphinx

August 17, 2016

Registration is now open –

New Publication

August 11, 2016

HARN member, Alessandro Guidi, has sent us notification of this publication about the origins of Italian prehistoric archaeology


More information can be found here.

Book Review: On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel

August 5, 2016

Andrew Humphreys, On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel. Cairo: AUC Press, 2015. 184 pages, index, bibl.

“The Tour up the Nile has become so popular that very soon no American out on a ‘European Tour’ will dare to return home and face his friends if he has not done the Orient.”  This quote by Robert Etzensberger (a Cook & Son employee) from his 1872 Up the Nile by Steam begins a chapter of Andrew Humphreys’ book On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel.  From the early 19th century to the 1970s, from dahabiyas to steamers, from Cairo to Sudan and back again, Humphreys tells the stories of tourists, authors, and armies travelling on the Nile.


On the Nile is sort of like a sequel to Humphreys excellent first book Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, and is every bit as visually stunning and informative.  If you haven’t read Grand Hotels, you might want to.  Neither book is strictly history of archaeology, but they are histories of people in Egypt and there is some coverage of archaeologists and, of course, archaeological sites.  You will definitely want to see Humphreys’ website, Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel.  There are more stories there as he updates pretty regularly.  There are also amazing images; by the way, unless I note otherwise, all images for this post come from his site.


On the Nile is a history of tourism, tourist activities, and travel in Egypt.  While there is a chapter about dahabiyas (houseboats), much of the book focuses on Thomas Cook & Son, their fleet of steamers, and their rise to near monopoly on the river.  There are discussions of other companies, such as the Anglo-American Nile Company, the Tewfikiya Nile Navigation Company, and Express Nile Navigation Company.  The book is chronological in its treatment largely of Cook & Son’s building its fleet, and Egypt and other company’s responses to it.  Humphreys includes a helpful appendix of the boats that made up the fleets of Cook and Anglo-American, and of course the beautiful images that accompany almost every page.



The book is mostly about Cook, because, as Humphreys notes, “History may be written by the victors, but it is also slanted toward those who maintain the best archives” (176).  And he clearly spent time in the vast, well-organized Cook archives.  Honestly, I’m really jealous of the time he got to spend there and hope to do something similar with archives I need to visit.  Cook not only has the best archives, but also ruled the waves (?) of the Nile for almost a century.  Some of the steamers were large, with up to 80 cabins meant to speed up and down the Nile for the budget traveller. Some were private steamers with berths for 8 passengers (like the Nicrotis, the one Arthur Conan Doyle sailed on in 1896).  Some of Cook’s boats were houseboats, meant to be rented for a season by a private group.  These usually had 4 berths and a small crew and meant for leisurely rather than quick travel.

Thomas_Cook-Thebes at Aswan

Cook’s larger steamer Thebes moored at Aswan in 1899

Humphreys details some of the standard itineraries.  Many of these were available in Cook’s own guide books to Egypt—some lasting as long as a winter, some as quick as 7 days if you took the train down and the steamer back up.  Each of these itineraries allowed for seeing the main sites, with the longer itineraries having more stops for more sites, obviously.  He is able to go so far as to detail why it is good to be the first back to the boat after a long day in the sand: “the lead rider escaped the dust of the twenty riders behind, and they were first into a hot bath back on board.  However…the water out of the taps was Nile water, which tended to look like liquid chocolate” (107).  For me, these are the parts that really draw me into any book.  Sure, I want to know how many beds there were, when they ate and what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what people packed in their suitcases, how much the trip cost, and what souvenirs they brought back home with them (yep, that’s all in there!).  But I want you to tell me someone’s personal story from their journal about worrying that with all that “fertilizing mud” on their body they worried about crops of “sugar cane, with here and there, perhaps, a stray mushroom” growing on them.  If you’ve been to Egypt and swam in the river, you sometimes wonder what you’ll end up with, too.


Covers of various Cook’s itineraries

The whole point of going on a Nile cruise on a Cook steamer was not just to see and be seen socially, but to see the ancient sites of Egypt.

Cook’s Tourists in Karnak, from Daily Mail’s review of On the Nile

There are some mentions of sites that tourists would visit and some mentions of pioneering Egyptologists and archaeologists such as Amelia Edwards, Theodore Davis, Wallis Budge, and Max Mallowan.  In the chapter “Life Aboard” Humphreys details the activities on the steamers as well as many of the sites they visited.  For example, one must understand the strict protocol for interacting with other boats on the river.  There were different colored flags meaning different things, and the fact that “under no circumstance, however, were Cook’s steamers to salute a steamer of a competing company unless it saluted first, then the salute had to be returned but only out of respect for the Egyptian flag” (111).  When they finally arrived at Luxor, tourists were shunted to Karnak and Luxor Temples, to the Valley of the Kings, and other sites not yet totally regulated by the Antiquities Service.  There is some commentary on what archaeologists thought of Cook’s tourists crowding Egypt during their working season, and it wasn’t particularly kind.  For example, Agatha Christie (wife of archaeologist Max Mallowan, and archaeologist in her own right), used her “reliably snooty” tourists in Death on the Nile to remark on the “awful crowd” coming off of the steamers (145).  And Humphreys points out that the future founder of the EES and the Egyptology department at UCL, Amelia Edwards “noted how at dinner at Shepheard’s it was possible to distinguish at first sight between a Cook’s tourist and an independent traveler” (55).


Throughout, Humphreys also includes detail about the political and economic history of Egypt that allowed Cook & Son to flourish or flounder, given the situation.  I learned a lot about political issues happening throughout Egypt while they were under the British, into the World Wars, and through nationalization after the 1952 revolution.

If you want an engaging history of tourism on the Nile, this is an excellent book.  It was written more for the interested general reader, but as an Egyptologist I really enjoyed it and appreciate the list of selected sources and further reading.  If you need it for research about this topic, it is a good first stop for you and will give you good sources to guide your future research.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have written back and forth with Humphreys about this book, after I read Grand Hotels.  I didn’t contribute anything of substance, but was pretty excited for the book to be published.

New Publication

August 2, 2016

Géraldine Delley has sent us notice of this publication


It’s published by Archaeopress who say: The present volume gathers the communications of the three sessions organized under the auspices of the Commission ‘History of Archaeology’ at the XVII UISPP World Congress, Burgos 2014. The first part deals precisely with ‘International relations in the history of archaeology’. The eleven contributions tackle a particularly productive topic in the field today. In actual fact, this seminal research field currently echoes in a way the strong trend of scholarship about the influence of nationalism on the discipline, which since the end of the 1980s, has greatly contributed to the takeoff and overall recognition of the history of archaeology. The second part, entitled ‘The Revolution of the Sixties in prehistory and protohistory’, is the outcome of a partnership with the Commission ‘Archaeological Methods and Theory’. The seven contributions strive to document and analyse a recent past, which is still often burdened with the weight of teleological and presentist appraisals. The inclusion in this volume of this session significantly dedicated to the genealogy of schools of thought and to the study of complex methodological and technical issues illustrates the editors’ commitment to tackling historical issues as well, which are closely linked to current theoretical debates within archaeology. Such is also the aim of the third part, which addresses ‘Lobbying for Archaeology’. As shown by the five contributions of this session, archaeology has not only been instrumentalised by political powers and ideological interests. It has also found fruitful alliances with economic agents or bodies, where mutual advantages were gained on practical, technical bases. This volume suggests a reflexive, critical approach to these various forms of lobbying should ensure a useful awareness regarding the structural problems archaeology faces today, regarding its funding methods. 

More information can be found here on the Archaeopress website.

Personal Histories film

August 1, 2016

We’ve had this notification from the Cambridge Personal Histories Project:

We have our first clip from our April “Personal Histories from People of Colour in Cambridge”.
It was a great pleasure to work on this; we hope you enjoy it and we send congratulations especially to Lola who is amazing.

Richelle George, Gabrielle Zemzky, James Bull (from Goldsmiths) and Pamela Jane Smith

Women and Education in the Long 18th Century

July 26, 2016

WELEC poster

Registration is now open for the event Women and Education in the Long 18th Century, which is taking place on 8th September 2016 at the Glasgow Women’s Library. This will be a free ticketed event, so please sign up for a space via Eventbrite:



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