Skip to content

Global Histories of Archaeology in the Field – Conference Report

April 28, 2016

I had an extremely instructive and enjoyable day on Friday. The programme can be found here, what follows is a summary from my notes and impressions, obviously the speakers had far more to say than I’ve written and my apologies in advance for all the things I’ve got wrong.


Global Histories of Archaeology in the Field, Senate House, London 22nd April 2016

The conference was organised and introduced by Sophie Brockmann: the aim of the day was to bring people from different countries together and look at archaeology in a global, rather than country specific, context. This is particularly needed for Latin America which has often been overlooked, or short changed, by historians of archaeology also has a long history of being interpreted via European and Egyptian archaeology – so pyramids, hieroglyphs, acropololeis and fora – rather than attempting to discuss, and therefore understand, these places in local terms.The common themes of the papers presented centred around – who is working in the field, how does the field equate with local space, how do outside agencies work on that local space, and what happens to the space and people when these outside agencies become involved? All of these questions frame the multi-sited nature of fieldwork, demonstrating that fieldwork is not confined to the field itself but spreads beyond to actors and acted upon, archives and institutions – and has to be studied globally rather than in isolation.

The first paper was presented by Irina Podgorny on Juan Galindo an adventurer, diplomat, governor of Petén and explorer of Central America, particularly  and Copan. These explorations resulted in 32 letters, over 500 pages, including maps and drawings which he sent to the Association de Geographes Francais. While Galindo was the first to attribute the ruins he discovered to the Mayans, Irina made it very clear Galindo was not some forgotten genius, rather he was drawing on the archives of previous work by the Spanish and was part of a wider culture of dealers in objects and knowledge. Post independence Latin America saw an influx of these agents interested in archaeology, natural history and anthropology, often employed in areas such as trade, but capitalising on their location to engage in their other interests. Galindo, like so many others, was not trained in antiquarianism, rather he was learning on the move, making up an identity as he went along, in effect a charlatan. But a charlatan who disseminated information about Central America through copying and circulating manuscripts and ideas to and from Latin America and Europe.

Irina was followed by (HARN member!) Alice Stevenson talking about the retrieval and dispersal of objects and thus the role of museums in shaping fieldwork. Alice’s paper debunked Hedley Swain’s assertion in An Introduction to Museum Archaeology that museums are peripheral to archaeological innovation and motivation. As Alice argued, there was a dialogue between museums and the field which had a direct impact on the way excavations were performed. Museums were created as the repository for objects which evoked memories and experiences and as museums funded excavations, particularly in Egypt, so excavation became the collection of museum worthy objects. This is particularly the case with Flinders Petrie whose Method and Aims in Archaeology assumes that the goal of excavation is not the features or site formation, but the displayed collection – either in a cabinet or on the published page. Objects had to be anchored, contextually located, and Petrie achieved this through his marking code, this gave objects their authentication and therefore their value as archaeological artefacts. One of the questions Alice and her team are investigating is how does this dispersal of artefacts impact on fieldwork practices? Again, these factors demonstrate the multi-sited nature of fieldwork.

Archaeology’s entanglement in the League of Nations was the subject of the next presentation by Christopher Zoller-Blundell. Christopher’s was the most overtly theoretical of the papers presented, discussing concepts of Global History in some detail, particularly Sebastian Conrad’s understanding of the term. Christopher has been investigating the International Museums Office, part of the International Commission for Intellectual Co-operation, which was, in turn, part of the League of Nations. The IMO was created in 1926, held its first meeting in 1927 and a conference in Athens in 1931 which resulted in a charter enshrining the importance of archaeological sites. This was followed by a conference in Cairo in 1937, and publication of the Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations in 1940. Christopher notes that the manual talks of archaeology civilising the natives whereas this colonialism was absent from the conference where many delegates came from the Near East. His suggestion is that the conference itself was part of contemporary gesture politics with the League of Nations anxious to keep the Near East away from German and Italian influence, when the results of the conference were reported back to the League they became translated, politicised and reformed, just as archaeologists themselves were being re-formed as international actors.

The afternoon session began with (HARN member!) Meira Gold’s paper about armchair archaeologists. Using the example of  Thomas Hayter Lewis (scroll down for Meira’s abstract) work on Tell-el-Yahudiyeh, Meira argued that going into the field was only one way of constructing knowledge. Rather than seeing armchair archaeology as passive, relying on others to garner the knowledge from the actual site, armchair archaeology can be seen as making the field mobile. Referring back to Petrie and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, Meira explained that field records were viewed as the vehicle for fieldwork analysis, but only after departure from the field. By relying on the work of others – Sir Frederick Alexis Eaton, the Reverend Greville Chester, Joseph Bonomi and particularly Dr James A.S. Grant – Hayter was using several reliable sources for his knowledge of Tell-el-Yahudiyeh and, saw no reason to visit the site itself (see Guha). Direct observation was not necessary to understand, to know, the site. This armchair methodology was not confined Egyptology, Biblical archaeologists, Assyriologists, [and one could easily argue contemporary British archaeologists] all used this technique, as did geographers and anthropologists. Field and armchair, site and analysis, are two separate spaces and just two of the areas where knowledge is constructed.

Assad Zaki followed Meira, looking at Aylward Manley Blackman and his time working with Reisner in Nubia in 1907. Rather than focussing on the archaeological work, Zaki discussed Blackman’s relationships with his colleagues, the excavators and the local Nubians. Blackman appears to have genuinely attempted to participate in Nubian life, he could already speak Arabic and tried to learn Nubian. Blackman’s letters home detailed his love of Egypt, his hope that the dam wouldn’t go ahead and his time spent with the locals, listening to music, buying Nubian items, playing games, just hanging out and chatting. In contrast Blackman’s relationship with his colleagues was much trickier, while he liked Reisner he also thought he was conceited , Blackman actively disliked Firth thinking him a trouble-maker, he also distrusted Elliot Smith and didn’t like Wood Jones. We don’t know what they all thought of Blackman, but he told his mother he felt they disliked him and thought him dull. Whatever Reisner’s feelings, Blackman only spent one season working with the Nubian Archaeological Survey. All of these personal relationships, however, were being played out at a time Egyptian hostility to the British occupation, once again a more global approach to history can pick up the connections and dissonances perhaps overlooked by more traditional histories of archaeology.

Organiser (and HARN Member!) Sophie Brockmann then presented her paper about the local affecting wider geopolitics of archaeology with especial reference to Copán in the late nineteenth century. Several nations were involved in Central America, growing fruit or coffee or trading in these commodities before the archaeological expeditions began. Most of these expeditions were from North American and reflect the – North American – view that Central America was part of North America and that the exciting archaeology uncovered there was part of the North American heritage. Even so these archaeologists styled themselves as explorers, laying claim to these spaces regardless of those that lived around the site and how they saw and used the site. These locals, however, did affect the perception of the area: its geography and location. The maps used were influenced by local knowledge and description, they were a visual aide rather than a scientific record and again this local space gave the sense you encounter things differently in the field. This conflict between external science and internal knowledge, between locals and outsiders, between expatriate plantation owners and workers, especially archaeologists who occupied both spaces as part of the international expatriate circle who lived in the local communities, all generated areas of knowledge and understanding of the field.

The final session began with Miruna Achim talking about the work of Guillermo Dupaix at Mitla. In many ways similar to Galindo, Dupaix was a charlatan, creating an identity, whose antiquarian work came out of nowhere, based on nothing previously written. Dupaix had been in the militia, stationed in the Mediterranean and interested in monuments and ruins, but there was no history of Mexican antiquarian writing so how was Dupaix crafting his style? As Miruna explained, what we have of his work is the finished polished manuscript, look behind this and you see the uncertainty, the mess. While there was no tradition of antiquarianism in Mexico, Spanish officials had recorded antiquities before destroying them and Dupaix had access to these colonial records, include Dupaix’s Mediterranean experience and you have the basis of his work. Additionally, in his manuscripts Dupaix set out his maxims for good antiquarian writing and working practice – everything was there from getting up early to remembering to sharpen his pencils – and he did attempt to follow his own advice. His manuscripts became the laboratory where he crafted objects into words or diagrams. While again Dupaix is not an overlooked genius, he did display considerable sympathy with the builders of Mitla and although it was channelled through Old World understandings Dupaix did attempt to understand Zapotec culture. All of which led to a huge quantity of work which Dupaix and his editors reduced to short, neat, descriptions of antiquities.

I think the winner of the best illustration of the day has to go to (HARN member!) Amara Thornton, how could you not want to immediately go out and buy this book?


Amara was discussing how archaeologists construct their identity in non-specialist publications and how the field became part of that identity and a saleable commodity. Amara makes a three-fold division of this literature: The Field Excavated  – Petrie‘s Ten Years Digging and Benson and Gourlay‘s The Temple of Mut in Ashur both discuss excavation, but also talk about dealing with the locals. The Field NavigatedHogarth‘s A Wandering Scholar and Conway and Radford‘s A Ride through the Balkans mix  archaeology and contemporary politics – particularly A Ride through the Balkans which was undertaken in 1914, written while war was being declared and published in 1916. The Field Remembered – the predominantly Victorian era of archaeologists writing their memoirs; Annie Pirie Quibell‘s A Wayfarer in Egypt which Amara described as nuanced imperial life and part of harem literature, while Arthur Weigall’s Laura was my Camel. is more light-hearted and overtly imperial. Amara also mentioned a fourth division The Fictional Field – using the example of Campbell Thompson‘s verse Digger’s Fancy. The field is many things and gave archaeologists an identity; publishing subsidised their work and raised their profile. In all the divisions the field is presented as a romantic, alternate reality that marked an archaeologist for life.

The final presentation of the day was by Elizabeth Graham who has spent her career working in Mesoamerican archaeology particularly in Belize. I think Liz would be ok with me saying that her paper was a reflection on her life as an archaeologist: the changes she has seen and the important questions this has raised for her, rather than a presentation on global history. As the last Mesoamerican archaeologist in Britain, Liz wants to know how Latin America has become so unpopular, so quickly? As she pointed out the only reason the British Museum has part of its collection on display is because the Mexican Government is footing the bill. Other questions Liz posed were: how research is disseminated; how such work can be improved; who sets the guidelines for writing; who is the intended audience; should archaeologists be doing our history or are we too close to the subject; history as cultural heritage management; the moral aspect of archaeology – Liz and her team are one of the few overseas bodies that have been in Belize for decades, as such she feels they should play a role in helping the locals through development and foreign aid. Rather than simply doing no harm, archaeology should be proactive in assisting those whose land they’re investigating.

All of which are very important questions and ones that need to be raised and at least considered even if at present they can’t be answered.

The final discussion of the day did cover some of Liz’s questions, and a more general conversation about the need for global history encompassing all disciplines. Unfortunately (or fortunately given the length of this review) I can’t talk and make notes at the same time. I do remember  Mark Thurner‘s expression as he recalled his experience of excavation and his suggestion that archaeologists drink to forget the amount of data they produce and have to process. And, more importantly,that the overwhelming consensus was that global history is an innovative and informative way to approach the history of archaeology.

Oooft. I hope I haven’t misrepresented anything anyone said, or left out anything important – if I have do feel free to correct me in the comments below.

I’ll be back next week, no idea what I’ll be writing about but I think I can safely say it’ll be a much shorter post!


PS. For those who asked, the museum and the Amazing Bubble Man were a huge hit. Trams and tube trains were driven, then the, extremely shy, 10 year old went up on stage and had a fantastic time culminating in being inside a bubble and finally his auntie bought him an enormous waffle.


Note the forks at the ready!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kathleen Sheppard permalink
    April 28, 2016 1:32 pm

    Now I REALLY wish I would have been at this conference. Your summaries and analysis of the papers is excellent, as always!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: