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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.

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