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Following Footsteps…

July 22, 2019
This post comes to us from Hélène Maloigne, a HARN administrator and 4th year PhD student at the Department of History at UCL.


I’ve been thinking about Leonard and Katharine Woolley almost every day for the best part of ten years. It all started in 2011, when I first saw the call for participants for the 2012 excavation season at Tell Atchana/ancient Alalakh. At the time I was studying for a degree in Museum Studies at the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) at University College London and the name struck a cord in my archaeologist’s heart. I was familiar with both the site and its famous first excavators from when I studied archaeology of the Ancient Near East, and the idea of following in their footsteps immediately called out to me. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Tell Atchana/ancient Alalakh lies in the Amuq Valley in the Turkish State of Hatay. The site is located about 20 km from modern-day Hatay/ancient Antioch and about 100 km west of Aleppo in Syria. During the Middle to Late Bronze Ages it was the capital of the regional kingdom of Mukish. This was vassal, in turn, to the Mitanni and the Hittites, before the site was abandoned in the Early Iron Age, when the administrative centre shifted to neighbouring Tell Tayinat (excavated by the University of Toronto).

Charles Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) directed excavations at the site from 1936–39 and 1946–49, focussing on the palatial and temple precincts. Professor K. Aslıhan Yener, who has been exploring the site and the surrounding Amuq Valley since the early 1990s, directs the current excavations.

Figure 1: Map of Turkey showing the location of Alalakh
courtesy of E. Kozal: R. Szydlak background map; E. Kozal archaeological map


When I first arrived at Atchana in 2012 I immediately felt at home, in the inexplicable way you do in some places or cities or with some people, but not with others. While there have inevitably been some changes to the team over the years, the constancy of friendships forged during the short but intense field seasons has always fascinated me. There is a comfort in the ease with which a conversation can be picked up where you left it a year ago and jokes remain funny no matter how old they are. For me, going to Atchana is like visiting family—with all the ups and downs that entails. One of the ups has been encountering the Woolleys in the traces they left at the site and back in London in the archive of the IoA. Out of that first season in 2012 and the MA thesis I was then writing developed a project, which resulted in an exhibition at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED) at Koç University in Istanbul in 2014. My co-curator Murat Akar and I explored photographic practice at Atchana from the 1930s until today. Juxtaposing the images taken by Woolley’s foreman Yahia ibn Mohammed ibn Sheik Ibrahim with Akar’s own superb portraits of the local and visiting communities allowed us to explore the continuities as well as changes of archaeological practice over the last eighty years.

A lot has changed, that much is certain. Archaeologists in general, and we who work in the Middle East in particular, have started listening to the ghost of archaeology past and have started to explore our discipline’s entanglement with modernity, nationalism, colonialism and a range of other isms. We have come to acknowledge our dependence on these power structures and have started thinking about how to redress some of the imbalances they have engendered. HARN blog readers will be more than familiar with the deluge of books exploring the history and practice of archaeology in a variety of ways to appear in the last thirty years. Nowadays, conferences on archaeology in the Middle East, almost by default, include a session on endangered heritage or site preservation, usually with an emphasis on previous or current Western involvement in the region. In a similar vein, the archival turn has opened up new and exciting ways to explore the many ways in which archaeology has influenced and interacted with wider society.

Yet at the same time, some things have remained almost the same since the Woolleys’ days. The public have always been fascinated by the past and the ‘riches’ it keeps hidden from us in the ground. The image of the heroic male archaeologist, travelling alone to dangerous lands to rediscover a lost temple, jealously guarded by a hostile, primitive indigenous population has obstinately stuck in the popular imagination. And there is always a tinge of excitement in people’s voices when I tell them about my profession and they ask me what ‘the best thing’ is I’ve ever found. While some archaeologists roll their eyes and sigh at these questions, I embrace the fame Indiana Jones has brought us. After all, we ourselves have created and cultivated this image. Ever since Austen Henry Layard’s hugely successful popular accounts of his travels and diggings (we can’t call them excavations in the modern sense) in nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, archaeologists have been attuned to the importance of publicity and the ‘riches’ lying dormant in the popular book and newspaper market.

As I am packing my bags to travel to my seventh season at Atchana, I (inevitably) think about the Woolleys and how their journey to Ur in southern Iraq and later to Tell Atchana was an essential part of their archaeological lives. I am currently completing my PhD thesis exploring how British archaeologists working in the Middle East in the interwar period made the most of the public’s fascination with their profession by writing books, newspaper and magazine articles and speaking on the radio. The period of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Royal Graves at Ur, and the Indus Valley culture coincided with an expansion of the British Empire as a result of the Great War. Archaeologists made good use of the connections forged during their military service to obtain excavations permits as well as high positions in colonial administration. At the same time, cheap daily and weekly newspapers and magazines reached a mass readership in Britain hungry for anything but casualty lists and heavily censored reports of minimal shifts on the front line. The human-interest angle and the public’s budding obsession with ‘celebrities’ worked in favour of archaeologists (like the Woolleys) with a talent for popular writing. How archaeology was practiced, the methods being developed, began to subtly creep into popular writings emphasising life on a dig or travel to and in foreign lands, as archaeologists began to narrow the boundaries of their discipline.

Iraq_Site_300dpiFigure 2: Map of southern Mesopotamia
© The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago


The trip out East often featured prominently in Leonard and even more so Katharine Woolley’s (1880–1945) newspaper articles. The Middle East was familiar enough to the reading public in Britain through centuries of travel accounts as well as reports on the Mesopotamian theatre during the Great War, yet still ‘exotic’ enough as ‘the Orient’, the location of Biblical events and the origin of the monumental sculptures from the Neo-Assyrian palaces of Nineveh and Nimrud brought home by Layard and others in the nineteenth century.

In one of her articles published in 1929, Katharine Woolley described her journey to the readers of the magazine Britannia and Eve. Travelling to Ur in southern Iraq, they usually took the Orient Express to Istanbul, then the Taurus Express to Aleppo where they met up with their long-term collaborator and foreman Hamoudi (Mohammed ibn Sheik Ibrahim, Yahia’s father) and his sons who lived in the area of Jerablus (on the Turco-Syrian border). Over coffee they’d relive the highlights of the previous season, enquire about friends, exchange gossip and make lists of supplies to buy. Hamoudi, Yahia, and his brother Alawi then travelled ahead to prepare the site for the Woolleys’ arrival who stayed behind for a few days. The couple drove on to Damascus where they booked places on the Nairn Company’s cross-desert car service which took them via Ramadi in Iraq to Baghdad and from there by train to Ur near Nasiriyah.

I’ll be travelling on my own, not looking forward to a night-time layover in the vast new Istanbul Airport, five hours under the glare of neon lights and gigantic advertisement screens. I know that the only thing keeping me awake there will be cups of strong, sugary Turkish tea and filled pastries, which are a delight everywhere in Turkey, even at an airport café…

The Woolleys usually spent October/November to March at Ur (depending on the always slightly precarious funding by the British Museum and the University Museum in Pennsylvania). In 1928 there had been a sandstorm prior to their arrival at the house, and Katharine evocatively described their approach to the site at dawn to her readers. The vast desert landscape of southern Iraq, only relieved by the numerous Tells dotting the scene, made a strong impression on her. She wrote about the sun rising over the abandoned ruins of ancient Ur, partially excavated since 1922, and the vision of the men appearing slowly on the plains as little dots, some of them walking for a couple of hours to be signed up for the season. Their first task was to dig out the house covered up to the roof in sand.

Figure 3: The excavation house at Ur after the sandstorm, 1929.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.


After a gruelling six months the Woolleys returned to Britain. Accompanied by Hamoudi, Yahia and Alawi as far as Aleppo, they stopped to visit other sites on the way (Uruk, Kish, Mari and Dura-Europos), enjoy the comfort of cool restaurants and coffee houses in the winding streets of Damascus and then Aleppo, where they said goodbye until the next year. Once again, friendships had been strengthened over an intense period of time spent working together from dawn until dusk, jokes had been laughed at and small dramas averted.

BM-Ur-GN-1586_300dpi2500pixSizeFigure 4: Father Eric Burrows, M.E.L. Mallowan, Katharine Woolley, and Sheik Hamoudi watching Leonard Woolley.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.


All of this lies just ahead of me as I glimpse the familiar silhouette of Tell Atchana through the car window and I must leave you to your own summer adventures…


Hélène Maloigne is completing her PhD at the Department of History at UCL. She has been working at Tell Atchana since 2012.

The Forgotten Kingdom – ANAMED

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