Disassembling Archaeology, Reassembling the Modern World: Questions and Possibilities

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A workshop to take place on 4 June 2015
Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute, Florence
Organised by:
Stéphane Van Damme (Professor of History of Science, European University Institute and William Carruthers (Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow, European University Institute)

In recent years, historians of archaeology have started to identify the main steps in the genealogy of the discipline. Much (although not all) of this work has taken the relationship of archaeology and the nation as the methodological basis of its enquiry, leaving aside other, non-national political schema, in addition to questions relating to practice, materiality and visualisation. But what would a history of archaeology written with these issues in mind—and articulating with histories of the so-called modern world—look like?
This workshop will consider these questions by disassembling the material and visual practices involved in making archaeological knowledge; thinking through things in order to comprehend how the history of archaeology is entwined with the making of various forms of modernity within and beyond the nation. During its history, archaeology has offered new and novel possibilities in materialising city and state, colony and empire. Yet how did its practices allow the discipline to do so? And how can we reassemble these practices in action in order to demonstrate archaeology’s dual role in providing not only a technology of, but also a moral and political compass relating to, the construction of modernity’s past?

This workshop will pay attention to these questions, examining how archaeological knowledge practices helped to make new forms of proof, evidence and scale that articulated with the making of (often transnational) global modernities. At the same time, the workshop will stress the methodological issues connected to understanding this process: paying attention not only to the high politics of national government and international legislation, but also to the micro practices of knowledge and identity in the making. Archaeology needs to be understood on levels beyond the nation, and its work comprehended as possessing tangible material significance in the world. This workshop will support this turn.

Full Programme

Abstracts of papers:

William Carruthers (MW Fellow, European University Institute, Florence): Making a Future for the Past: Visualising the Archaeological Field in Nasser’s Egypt

Studying the work of knowledge production within built environments like laboratories, scholars have explored how the manufacture of visual representations tidies up the material and other contingencies of that work. This paper, though, concentrates on the relationship between the material and the visual with reference to a different, much less well understood locale: the (archaeological) field. Field practitioners like archaeologists face particular challenges, not least their exposure to the messy and grounded materiality of outdoor spaces. But how do these specific material challenges constitute the sorts of visual knowledge that such field practitioners make, and how and why do these visualisations—site plans or section drawings, epigraphic copies or artefact illustrations—differ from ones made in other spaces of knowledge production? How, too, do historical circumstances play a role in the process of making these depictions?

Examining these questions, I will follow fieldwork conducted at one particular archaeological site in Egypt during the years after the 1952 Egyptian Free Officer’s coup. During 1955 and 1956, the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and the Egyptian Department of Antiquities conducted joint excavations at the site of Mit Rahina (ancient Memphis), just south of Cairo. In the context of the early Cold War, the project had been initiated by the American side as an attempt to develop influence in (and gain artefacts from) an Egypt—now effectively under the rule of Nasser—that was starting to flex its postcolonial muscles. The Museum therefore promoted the work in terms of the sort of development programs that the United States government had started to advance in similar countries around the world. The institution hoped to use the Free Worldist rhetoric of collaborative technical expertise that such programs set forward to its advantage in an Egypt where the new regime had started to heavily promote modernisation, and the Mit Rahina excavations were thus primarily advertised as enabling the transfer of modern archaeological skill from Americans to Egyptians.

Thus, as in the case of the laboratory (and in line with practices developed during the development of Egyptian archaeology in the colonial period), the field visualisations that the University Museum’s archaeologists made at Mit Rahina initially attempted to make a multitude of the site’s material contingencies immaterial. That way, expertise in the understanding of these contingencies could still be concentrated within the hands of the American institution, and the concurrent training element of the work be conducted with some authority. Yet in order to make an effective claim for the validity of (American) archaeological work in Egypt at this particular historical juncture, it soon became clear that at least one sort of field visualisation used at Mit Rahina also had to reveal the material contingencies of a past (that could only be) rooted in Egypt’s ground.

Ruth Horry (University of Cambridge): Babylonian Artefacts, Local Narratives: Displaying Mesopotamia in Philadelphia around 1900

Abstract TBA


Christina Riggs (University of East Anglia): Shouldering the Past: Archaeology as Collaborative Effort in the Tomb of Tutankhamun

The photographic archive associated with the 1920s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun includes dozens of images of the hard manual labour that went into the finding and clearance of the tomb and the safe transport of its objects to Cairo. The photographs were taken at different times and in different formats, ranging from large-format glass negatives to roll film from a handheld camera. Most remain unpublished, even in online databases, while others were more widely reproduced, especially during the first two seasons of work when the British excavators contracted with the London Times for privileged access.

This paper uses photographs of archaeological labour in the Tutankhamun excavation to explore the idea of collaborative effort in the production of archaeological knowledge. Working relationships crossed boundaries of nationality, class, and (as conceived at the time) race, yet the visualisation and narration of those efforts has invariably privileged a white, male, British and American point of view. For a find as contentious as the tomb of Tutankhamun, whose timing coincided with the formation of the modern Egyptian state, the authority to speak for the discovery was – and remains – a point of dispute, amply evidenced by Western media coverage of the mummy mask’s detached beard in January 2015.

What alternative narratives might arise from the representation of archaeological labour in the excavation’s photographic archive – and what moral imperative, if any, rests with the holders and users of these archives today in terms of presenting a more global view of both ancient and modern histories? Once lauded by archaeology and other sciences for its ‘objective’ and ‘accurate’ documentation of their work, photography now offers a way to revisit and re-vision the practices through which archaeology shaped its methodologies, its knowledge base and the modern world.


Melania Savino (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz — Max-Planck-Institut): Connecting Sites and Images: Archaeology as Visual Knowledge in Modern Turkey

In Turkey, the period after the establishment of the Republic saw archaeological representations play an active role in defining the ancient past and producing new disciplinary knowledge. Visual practices emerged as important sites for the formation of a new conception of the ancient past in the larger context of the political and cultural discourse over the modernisation of the country. Based on museum guidebooks, official publications and archival documents, this paper investigates how Turkey has constructed the perception of its past through different modes of representation, such as popular museum displays, exhibitions, photography, magazines and books, and how the imagery of antiquity has influenced the narrative of the modern state of Turkey.

In this period, the discipline of archaeology underwent a profound transformation, becoming one of the main fields of investment for the government seeking to forge a new national Turkish identity and to legitimise the new Republic. Most of the existing studies in the field have focused on the impact of nationalism in the development of the discipline of archaeology, concentrating on the impact that the Kemalist ideology had on the interpretation of archaeological objects. Without denying the importance of this aspect, this paper seeks to look beyond the frontiers of the nation-state and discuss the extent to which archaeological knowledge was created and presented to the general public. By examining the history of archaeological discipline in these terms, the paper aims to propose a deeper understanding of the evolution of modern identities through visual culture.


Nathan Schlanger (École nationale des chartes, Paris): Work in Progress: Labour and Industry in Nineteenth-Century Prehistoric Archaeology

Together with its contributions to nation-state narratives, and its position at the interface of natural history and human history, prehistoric archaeology has also been crucially implicated since the first decades of the nineteenth century in another quintessential debate of modernity; the question of work. Fossil man and savage man aside, the working man too has been a target and a model for the emerging discipline, in between the French and the Industrial revolutions. Preoccupations with the nature of labour and its organisation, and with the values of industry both in terms of industriousness and productive apparatus, can be perceived in the works of prehistory’s founding figure, J. Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868) – the custom officer from Abbeville usually cast by historiography as a romantic and dilettante precursor who was in reality also a social thinker and philanthropist, deeply concerned with the conditions of work and the means of production, in his own times and in the remote past. Throughout the succeeding decades, disciplinary redistributions and overspecialisations have obscured or neutralised these concerns with the origins and progress of labour, which it is proposed here to begin to reassemble and problematise.


Marianne Sommer (Universität Luzern): Making Modernity’s Past: Population-Genetic Trees and the Global Human Diasporas

 Population-genetic trees are informed by various data and are condensations of elaborate theories and scenarios, although they in themselves do not lay bare the decisions on which their particular way of branching and systematisation is based. But despite the highly specialised knowledge, theoretical assumptions and mathematical algorithms and computer programs that may inform phylogenetic diagrams, due to the iconography’s situatedness in cultural history, they seem readily understandable and lend themselves to the communication of knowledge. In my talk, I discuss aspects of the history of such tree building. At the basis of the population-tree are technologies to analyse distributions, movements, series, combinations, as well as instruments to render visible, to register, to differentiate and to compare. Among the processes behind the surface of the genetic tree-diagram are population identification, sampling and labelling. On the other hand, very conspicuous but no less burdened with problems are the separate branches that may render isolated groups of people who have in reality been interacting and converging. I see the visual language of the tree doubled in the discourse of unity in diversity that often structures especially popular textual renderings of ‘the great human diasporas’. This anti-racist liberal discourse has at times been criticised as running counter to the socio-political effects of human population genetics – most notably in the Human Genome Diversity Project. In population-genetic tree building, the conceptualisation of some living human communities as modernity’s past once again allows the creation of one panhuman history in which each human group has its place in modern genealogy.


Stéphane Van Damme (European University Institute)The Pillar of Metropolitan Greatness: Boundary Objects and the Birth of Parisian Archaeology (1711–2001)

In 1711, with the discovery of an inscription on a block of stone inside the choir of Notre-Dame, the Republic of Letters seized the opportunity to develop all kinds of interpretations. The Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Charles Césare Baudelot de Dairval in his Description des Bas-Reliefs anciens (1711)[1] and Dom Félibien in his Dissertation sur les antiquités celtiques of 1725, even Leibniz were all involved in this. A century after its discovery in 1844, the stone blocks were taken to the Hôtel de Cluny, a mediaeval ecclesiastical building constructed over the remains of a 2nd-century Roman bath house. In 2001, the blocks were restored, removing the black patina of grime that had accumulated on the surface of the stone over the three centuries since discovery. The restored stones are once again on display in the museum. During the last three centuries, these blocks were considered as the earliest pieces of representational Gaulish art to carry a written inscription and still remained an object of interpretation and discussion among specialists. Sometimes considered as local, national or imperial representations, these blocks which are separated, were a constant object of interrogation and speculation.

I will argue that these blocks are boundary and fetish objects of the emergence of a Parisian archaeology since 1711, reflecting the tensions and ambiguities of a local regime of knowledge. By exploring the various scientific technologies used to set up a good representation of the pilar des Nautes and to give robustness and greatness, I would like to discuss how recent methodologies in history of science or science studies underlined how such objects came into being by focusing on their ‘historical ontology’ through a set of operations : monitoring, inventorising, recording, archiving, displaying, which are instrumental to transforming a thing (a stone) to an archaeological object. Therefore the thingness of the pillar will be also interrogated.

[1]. Charles César Baudelot de Dairval, Description des Bas-reliefs anciens trouvez depuis peu dans l’Eglise cathedrale de Paris, Paris, Pierre Cot, 1711.