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The curse is come upon me!

April 24, 2015

Sadly of the non-archaeological kind. My son has had some sort of virus which he has kindly passed on to me. This post is coming to you from my settee where I’m reclining gracefully and artistically

The Invalid by Louis Lang

The Invalid by Louis Lang

Not an entirely accurate depiction, in reality there’s a toddler bouncing up and down on my midriff suggesting we go and play outside. The toddler may also have the lurgy but if so she’s not letting it slow her down!

I shall return next week, hopefully well and hopefully with final details of the HARN conference.

In the meantime, have a great weekend



April 17, 2015


Curse tablets from Roman Britain. Copyright

Curse tablets from Roman Britain. Copyright

I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s article about the eerie allure of the English landscape in The Guardian this weekend, early on Macfarlane discusses an M.R. James short story revolving around a pair of binoculars that had belonged to a local antiquary (who had died in a mysterious manner) and showed disturbing visions of hanged men. It turns out the antiquary had ‘filled their barrels with a fluid derived by boiling the bones of hanged men, whose bodies he had plundered from the graves on Gallows Hill, formerly a site of execution. In looking through the field-glasses, Fanshawe was “looking through dead men’s eyes”, and summoning violent pasts into visible being. Prospect was a form of retrospect’. I’m going to have to read the story now in the hope of finding out why anyone would do that. What could he have hoped it would achieve? Obviously this isn’t the main point of the story but I’m notorious for fastening on inessentials, But why? Why would anyone do such a gruesome thing? Initially I began thinking how often antiquarians and archaeologists are portrayed as macabre, unscrupulous or foolhardy meddlers in things best left alone.

A common fictional trope is the reawakening of an ancient being or curse. From Cheops to Allan Quartermain to Lara Croft via Lord Carnarvon and countless others, artefacts or tombs, usually, but not invariably, Egyptian have brought death and/or suffering to those unwise enough to investigate them. Despite warnings – for example, Howard Carter’s canary being eaten by a cobra – the investigator persists in meddling and is then pursued by monsters/aliens/mummies/bad things.

Obviously this trope makes good fiction and enjoyable adventure and horror films*, in Consuming Ancient Egypt Sally MacDonald suggests curses are so popular in western popular fiction because they revolve around the excitement of discovery and trespass. And, it’s true that news agencies seem to delight in the possibility of curses existing, even while they’re supposedly debunking the idea – witness the stories invoking curses while discussing Manchester Museum’s revolving statue. However, I began wondering if there was more to the cursed artefact/foolhardy archaeologist  cliché than I’d originally thought. If we broaden the genre to include narratives where a particular site is perilous there are many examples which seem to suggest it’s the past itself which is dangerous. Think of all those films and books where evil lurks in the ground and any disturbance can set off an unearthly chain of events; Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is a prime example of the Native American burial ground being the loci of supernatural horror. Although Native American burial ground is the most used trope it could be the burial ground of Vikings, Romans, plague victims, you name it there’ll be a curse upon it.

So, is it that death is the last taboo in the West and archaeologists, as notorious disturbers of the dead, are seen as unpredictable and unsafe. Or is it that the past itself is dangerous, not just a different country with different customs, but a precarious/supernatural place operating under different and potentially lethal rules? And, because archaeologists and antiquarians spend so much time in the past they become tainted by association. Or, am I reading too much into all of this and simply need to get out more?

Discuss – while having a great weekend.


*I say ‘enjoyable’ horror films but I’m lying. While I’m well aware there’s a lot of mummy/Egyptian artefact horror films out there, Jasmine Day’s books and papers reference many such films, there’s no chance of me watching them even in the interests of research for this blog. I have a notoriously low squeem threshold, the 70s Hammer films are my limit and some of them are too scary for me. If I tell you that Men in Black gave me nightmares it’ll give you an idea of just how wimpy I am.

** Another one that gave me the fear, foolishly I took the line ‘how scary can it be? It stars Herman Munster!’



April 13, 2015



Emilie Dotte-Sarout ( Australian National University

I am a part of the Australian Research Council Laureate Project “The Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific – a Hidden History”, through which I am investigating the development of Francophone literature and traditions in Pacific scholarship.This project seeks to better understand the distinct historiography and epistemology of the Francophone tradition of archaeology in the Pacific. It also aims at investigating the relations between the over-represented Anglophone research and the more discrete Francophone one, from co-ignorance to co-influences and the creation of particular partnerships between researchers; to examine their role in the development of current narratives, practices and concepts in Pacific Archaeology.

I also bear a personal interest on the history of environmental archaeology, especially in the tropics and the Pacific

Alexander Geurds ( Leiden University

I am currently working on the pre-Hispanic archaeology of Central America, specifically by directing an archaeological field project in central Nicaragua. In part due to the relatively early archaeological activities in Central American republics, I have maintained an interest in the history of European and North American early scholars travelling this region between the 1850s and 1930s. Amassing substantial or smaller ethnological museum collections in Europe and the US, these scholars have a significant imprint on later scholarship and the representation of Central American prehistory in the Western world.

Lucila Mallart ( University of Nottingham

My thesis explores the making of a cultural and political imagination of Catalonia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in order to re-think the nature of nationalism in modern Europe. Although in some respects the Catalan story follows some well-known patterns of national identity construction, it is distinctive in others. Its spatial dynamics were rather particular, because they traverse traditional divides between regionalism and nationalism. The three main sections of the thesis are devoted to three spatial tiers of identity construction – the city, the state, and Europe – and draw on the projects of Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956), famous Catalan politician, man of letters, architect, art historian, and president of the proto-autonomous Catalan government between 1917 and 1923. Puig’s personal archive, made available to researchers for the first time in 2006, allows me to cast fresh light on the interplay between culture and politics in this seminal historical moment.


Member of the Month – Will Carruthers

April 6, 2015

As promised, Will Carruthers is this month’s Member of the Month. Having studied at UCL and Cambridge, Will is now a Max Weber postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute. He blogs here and you can also find him on Twitter, but you’ll have to go and look him up there because I don’t have a clue how to do link to that! Do make the effort though because he always has something interesting to say. And now, over to Will:

It’s a pretty hackneyed statement, but I like to think that my work exists somewhere in-between disciplines. I research the history of archaeology, the field sciences and the making of postcolonial states. Yet it’s not helpful to think about my work in terms of any one field. I wouldn’t categorise myself as doing, say, the ‘history of archaeology’, because ultimately that definition doesn’t help me (or anyone else) to think about how people have constructed the discipline in relation to many other things. The history of archaeology doesn’t exist by itself.

Having said that, you have to start somewhere, and I started off as an archaeologist. I have a BA in Egyptian Archaeology (2006) and an MA in Research Methods for Archaeology (2009) from University College London. In-between (and during some of) these two degrees, I lived and worked in Cairo, spent quite a lot of time studying Arabic, and got increasingly concerned with how the archaeological world operated in Egypt. In many cases, the work that was taking place there struck me as entirely (and damagingly) extractive, even as legislation meant that the objects being excavated stayed in the country. There seemed to be little recognition that here was an activity happening in a particular place with a particular history, let alone an activity that involved lots of people who were not archaeologists. And there seemed to be little thought that there might be any obligation of dealing with the (personal, political, material) consequences of this situation.

So I (along with some others) became increasingly concerned with the history of archaeology as a way of dealing with this issue. My MA became an attempt to work out how, in Egypt, this situation had developed, and also how to research and write about it. It wasn’t ‘archaeological’ per se. And a year afterwards, I co-organised a conference (with UCL, SOAS and the Egypt Exploration Society) that tried to deal with the issue further. Last summer, Routledge published the edited volume that is (partially) based on the event: it’s called Histories of Egyptology: Interdisciplinary Measures. Somehow I submitted the manuscript two weeks before I submitted my doctoral dissertation.

I did my PhD (2014) in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, where I was funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. My dissertation is called “Archaeology, Egyptology and the Making of Revolutionary Egypt, c. 1925–1958”; the piece is basically a cultural history/historical anthropology of how archaeology was part of the process that led to the proclamation of a revolutionary Egyptian state under Nasser in the 1950s. It’s also about how the field is an interesting part of that process: discussing archaeological work can give the sort of bottom-up understanding of these events that otherwise might not exist. Meanwhile, researching and writing the dissertation in a history of science department made me realise that archaeology doesn’t exist by itself. Archaeologists are just a small proportion of any number of people making claims to scientific status. In addition, archaeology is a part of society: not only what ‘society’ might be, but also what helps to define it. Trying to understand the history of the discipline, these realisations were vital.

I’m currently a Max Weber postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute, where I’m starting to develop a book project that takes what I learned during my PhD and develops it much further: I’m working on the UNESCO-backed archaeological salvage campaign that took place in Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia during the 1960s (and beyond), and that also gave us the World Heritage Convention. I’m interested in questions relating to how and why different sorts of postcolonial pasts developed in these two countries during the campaign, and how ways of defining and governing heritage developed alongside the archaeological (and other field) work that took place. I think that answering these questions can give us new insights about how the post-war world has worked. I also think that these are important questions to ask: as I write this piece, looting, illicit antiquities, and the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq are getting saturation media coverage. The history of archaeological work (in the Middle East and elsewhere) can, I hope, help us to understand these events and the wider issues that surround them. But it is going to take thinking beyond archaeology as an isolated discipline to gain that understanding.

Spring is Sprung

April 4, 2015

At least it has in South Wales – we’re on holiday and there are lambs bouncing around the fields, it’s noticeably warmer and the daffodils are out. Finally, just in time for Easter, spring is here and I have a treat for you all – Will Carruthers is this month’s member of the month and as you’d expect his piece is both interesting and thought provoking. I’ll be posting it on Monday, wi-fi permitting.

In the meantime have a great weekend


Spring! Copyright @

Copyright @

Manchester Museum – review

March 27, 2015

Warning – this post is picture heavy so may take a while to load.

Welcome to the first, and quite possibly the only*, entry in a series which, with my usual lack of inventiveness, I’ve decided to call Museum Review. I had thought about calling it Museum of the Month, MuOM for short? Maybe not. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? I don’t think acronyms are my forté. However, given my record on Member of the Month I think we’ll leave it as a one off or occasional event (organisation isn’t my forté either, there are days when I wonder what my forté actually is**).

Anyway, Manchester Museum. It’s a Victorian neo-Gothic building

which isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it cheers me up every time I walk down Oxford Road. Look! There’s a giant spider crab in the window!

giant spider crab! [url=][img][/img][/url]

Giant Spider Crab! [url=][img][/img][/url]

Obviously this predisposes me in its favour, but it has many other fine features; they hold regular children’s events and  we still have some pom-pom spiders from a craft activity at one of their beast and bug days. As you come up the stairs the first thing you see is an elephant skeleton – he’s called Maharajah – and as you know I’m a sucker for a skeleton with a nickname (and they have a T.rex called Stan). They’ve also found a cunning way of recycling their large collection of stuffed animals – in the unironically named ‘Living Worlds’ gallery. This gallery allegedly ‘explores the connections between all living things, including us, and shows how we can all shape the future by the choices we make’. Which is a worthy sentiment, but, it’s a gallery full of dead animals

Dead Things

Dead Things in glass cases in the ‘Living Worlds’ gallery

Even more bizarrely, but less taxidermically, they have an entire case filled with beautiful origami cranes in this gallery

And, to be fair, they have live animals too in the Vivarium.

Frogs live here, supposedly.

Frogs live here, supposedly, we’ve never managed to see them.

It also has an excellent, if small – just 3 rooms – archaeology section. The majority of the collection is of Egyptian artefacts largely collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Jesse Haworth, a Manchester textile manufacturer, subsidised many of Petrie’s excavations, largely funded the Egyptology gallery  (extensively remodelled in 2012) and bequeathed his Egyptology collection.

This photo from the 1912 opening shows the gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith. This photo from the 1912 opening shows the gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith.

1912 opening – Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith. Copyright text and image

It is an impressive collection (despite the prosaic solution to the ‘moving statue mystery‘ story) and beautifully displayed.

Egyptian Worlds Gallery

Egyptian Worlds Gallery

As is the ‘Exploring Objects’ Gallery which displays dense concentrations of common museum objects – glass, lamps, pots and shabti figures

But, it’s the ‘Discovering Archaeology’ Gallery which makes the Manchester Museum stand out. WP_20150324_12_31_35_Pro

The display cases range from the mundane

Pots and more pots!

Pots and more pots!

To the dramatic



But this is more than just an average display of archaeology. This gallery – the first of the archaeology galleries – not only explains what archaeology is, but also sets it in its historical and contemporary context. So there are images of, and information about, Thomas Barritt, William Boyd Dawkins, Flinders Petrie, Barri Jones, Robert Connolly and Ian Panter alongside a film featuring Chantal Conneller, Obviously visitors don’t have to read the prominently displayed texts or listen to the voices, but they do have to pass through this initial, explanatory, gallery. And, if they do choose to read the narratives, there’s a wealth of information about how the reasons for collecting information have changed over time

Confessions of a Tomb Robber - photo by me. Text copyright The Manchester Museum.

Confessions of a Tomb Robber – photo by me. Text copyright The Manchester Museum.

and how archaeology itself has changed over time:

Thomas Barritt - photo by me. Text and image copyright The Manchester Museum

Thomas Barritt – photo by me. Text and image copyright The Manchester Museum

This isn’t confined to images that can be ignored, it’s spelt out on the walls

Wall text The Museum of Manchester

Wall text The Museum of Manchester

To prove this isn’t just words, they also have a film by Alan Garner (one of my absolute favourite writers when I was young!) and artefacts and information about the community Alderley Edge Landscape Project.

I can’t think of another museum display that says so much about the practice of archaeology and its changing nature. My only criticism is that I would have liked it if the display cases reflected the different periods, so there was a display case of the sort of material a tomb robber would have found, another with Thomas Barritt’s discoveries etc. However, this is minor carping, it really is an excellent display. If you get the chance, go to Manchester and visit the museum (but go to the Whitworth for lunch!)

Have a great weekend


* I’m aware that given the intense local rivalry I will have to visit and review Liverpool University’s Garstang Museum of Archaeology and quite possibly the Victoria Gallery & Museum – so there will be one more museum review at least.

** The answer seems to be baking – pursuance and consumption, so far this week I’ve made shortbread and scones and I need to produce an edible Lego cake for Sunday.




PhD Studentship at UCL

March 23, 2015
‘Domesticating the Sumerians in Mandate Iraq: contextualising Woolley’s excavations at Ur (1922-1934)’
Applications are invited for a doctoral studentship tenable at University College London (UCL) History Department, in collaboration with the British Museum (BM). This doctoral award is funded though the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under its Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme. The project will be co-supervised by Professor Eleanor Robson at UCL, and Dr Jonathan Taylor at the BM.
UCL Department / Division: History
Duration of Studentship: Three Years (to start 01 October 2015)
Stipend: £16,413 per annum (rate as at 2014/15 session)
Studentship Description
The successful candidate will explore the motivations and methods in Middle Eastern archaeology at the nexus of the infancy of modern, scientific archaeology and the birth of the modern nation state of Iraq, and the lasting impact of these excavations on public understanding of the past. The project will take as primary case study Leonard Woolley’s important archaeological expedition to the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq (1922–34). It will benefit from the Ur of the Chaldees project, currently underway at the British Museum and Penn Museum, which is providing integrated digital access to the complete finds and records of Woolley’s excavations.
Person Specification
We are looking for a highly motivated student with a strong academic record at undergraduate and MA level who will relish the opportunity of combining academic research on this topic with involvement with a national museum. We welcome applications from students with training in the history of science, broadly construed, or the modern history of British and/or US relations with the Middle East, particularly those who have an interest in embedding the study of objects and material culture in their study of the past. The appointee will be expected to attend relevant training courses arranged by a consortium of London-based Collaborative Doctoral Partnership institutions, as well as courses run for doctoral students within UCL.
Closing date
31 March 2015
For more information, see

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