Trust Falls and #Discovery in #Archaeology


I hesitate to say trust falls, but it seemed like a catchy title (and this gif from Mean Girls is great).  I will be talking about falling into discoveries of the archaeological kind, however.  They may have actually looked a little like when Gretchen Weiners fell.  Except sandier. And with a horse.  And no women.

One of the best parts about the history of archaeology is that it does lend itself to a bit of adventure.  It seems there is always a new place to go, a new tunnel to crawl through, or a new tomb to enter.  How to find these new and hidden places?  Well, in the late 19th and early 20th century, sometimes they just fell into them.  As I’ve been doing my latest research, I’ve run across a few of these stories and I couldn’t resist sharing them.  I’m also sharing them in the hopes that there are other stories like these falling ones out there and we can keep a collection of them.

What lesson do they teach us?  Since they’re accidents, as a scholar I can’t reasonably draw something from them historically.  Except maybe the idea that especially when dealing with a science that depends upon underground discovery for its theory, we should watch our steps.

I can’t resist sharing my favorite legend of falling in Egypt.  There are a number of legends for why the city of Cairo (al-Qahira) was founded where it was.  One of them contains a fall (maybe a foreshadowing).  When the Fatimid general Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969 AD, he decided upon the placing of his new palace city because his horse tripped on something in the sand–a large bag of gold, it just so happened–causing Jawhar to fall off the horse.  He dug up the bag and then decided that that place should be the new capital and that gold should help fund the building of his palace.*  We can all see how that story is going.  Cairo is an amazing city with a huge and diverse population.  It’s one of my top 5 places in the world to go.

Image result for cairo

Cairo from the top of Cairo Tower, image

That story aside, there are others that are, for the most part, true.  Jason Thompson’s 2nd volume of Wonderful Things told of the time in 1898 that Howard Carter was riding his horse near Deir al-Bahari near Luxor, Egypt, and his horse stepped into a hole, throwing Carter off.  Carter later wrote (and I’m quoting from Thompson, p. 75) “Afterwards, on looking into the small hole there formed, I saw traces of stone work, from which I concluded that there must be something and most probably a tomb.”  But he could not do anything about it until he got concession for the area and some funding to dig.  The excavation of what Carter named “Bab al-Hosan” or the “Gate of the Horse” happened in 1900.  He found a massive underground complex which contained very little except two sealed chambers.  One held a seated statue of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, the first king of the united Middle Kingdom (c. 2051-2000 BC), and the other held nothing but pottery and a few wooden boats.

Image result for nebhepetre mentuhotep statue seated cairo

Seated statue, now in the Cairo Museum

Relief of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II and the Goddess Hathor

Nebhepetre Mentuhotep. Image courtesy MMA

In the end, it is believed that the complex may have started as a tomb but then abandoned later.  But there is no consensus.

Another (relatively true) tale of a fall bringing about archaeological discovery is from the Catacombs at Kom el-Shoqafa (or “hill of potsherds”) in Alexandria.  For decades the area near these tombs had been a quarry and no one knew the tombs were buried underneath.  In late September of 1900, a worker was pulling a donkey and cart full of quarried rock across the site.  His donkey slipped and disappeared into a hole in the ground.  He then reported the fall and find to the local museum (Greco-Roman Egypt Museum) in Alexandria.  When the Egyptologists Botti and Scheiss-Bey entered the hole, they found what are now the famous Catacombs near the place of Pompey’s Pillar.  They excavated the site, finished clearing debris within a few years, and found what Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt called in 1902 “an admirable example of the characteristic Alexandrian fusion of the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman styles” (1902 edition, p 13).  Just a few years before this, Baedeker’s had told its readers that the whole area would not exist much longer due to extensive quarrying.  Now this important example of Greco-Roman funerary architecture is open to visitors each day.

Image from Around DeGlobe

Are there others like this?  What about in your field?  Help me find them!

*I heard this story on a tour in Old Cairo in 2010 so I may be misremembering it.  What I do know is that a horse, a fall from a horse, and finding gold were all part of the legend.  It seemed also that the gold was real, so Jawhar had some explaining to do as to where he found the gold.  This story did the trick.  For other legends about the founding of Cairo, see James E. Lindsay’s Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005), 103-106.

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ICYMI: Book Review: Wonderful Things, Vol. 2 — HARN Weblog

ICYMI: I wrote this book review over at HARNgroup.  Check it out!

Book Review: Jason Thompson, Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology, Volume 2: The Golden Age: 1881-1914 (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015). The second installment of Jason Thompson’s Wonderful Things is just as wonderful as the first. The first volume, which covered the history of Egyptology from Antiquity to 1881, was fast-paced and […]

via Book Review: Wonderful Things, Vol. 2 — HARN Weblog

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The #Archive: Women Administrators as Network Hubs

A little over a year ago, I wrote this post about Emily Paterson, the General Secretary for the then-Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) from 1892-1919.  I won’t rehash that post for you, but the main point was that there are women who are central figures in institutions and societies who don’t get the credit they deserve in life or in history.  Therefore they get lost in the archives and many times forgotten.  Carl Graves has done much more on Paterson here, at the Birmingham Egyptology Department’s Virtual Museum’s exhibit: A Ready Intelligence.

The more I work on my projects the more of these women I find–obviously.  There are rabbit holes in rabbit holes in rabbit holes to follow for many of them.  One I was working on just today, in association with Caroline Ransom, was Bernice Cartland of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From what I was able to find in a quick search is that she was probably born in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1887 and had 3 siblings and 1 half-sibling.  She graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1909 or 1910, did some graduate work there for a couple of years, then she began work at the MMA in 1912.  She was essentially Ransom’s assistant and wished to further her education by going to the University of Chicago.  In 1913, Ransom did what any good mentor would do–she wrote to the head of the department who happened to be her own mentor, James Henry Breasted.  (We already know about him.)  In these letters, which are found at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Archives (and with which I am working to publish a collected volume in 2017), Ransom asked if there were openings for Cartland and asked about scholarships.  He responded that Cartland would fit into the department, but there would likely not be any money for scholarships.

In the end, it looks like, from the letters between Ransom and Breasted, Cartland did not end up going to Chicago.  Ransom wrote to Breasted in late 1913 that Cartland probably wouldn’t be able to “manage it” at any point without a scholarship.  Cartland disappears from the correspondence until February of 1918, when Ransom mentioned her as being “the only person connected with the Metropolitan who has sufficient knowledge to help us materially” with an editorship of one issue of the journal Art and Archaeology.  Cartland was clearly still at the MMA.  In 1918, she did publish a short note in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology in which she used the new science of x-rays to investigate thread on pieces of pottery. See Bernice M. Cartland, “Balls of Thread Wound on Pieces of Pottery, JEA 5:2 (April 1918): 139 and Pl XXII.

Image result for bernice cartland egyptology

After 1918, she disappears from the record almost entirely.  Even a search on Ancestry produced nothing.

All of this is from about 15 minutes looking for her.  I think if I went to the MMA and looked for her specifically, I would find much more in their archives.  I don’t have the luxury of doing that right now.  When I read about her, the amount of time she spent at the MMA, who she worked with, corresponded with, and spoke to personally, I can’t help but wonder what institutional knowledge she carried.  So far, I don’t see that she wrote anything down, but that doesn’t make her less important.  What institutional knowledge died with her?

Does anyone else work with this sort of thing?  Do you use Ancestry?  I’d love your thoughts!



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ICYMI: Writing about Correspondence

I contributed another post to the HARN blog.  It was about 10 days ago, but I’d love your thoughts on how you use correspondence in your research.


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Writing Elsewhere

I have too been working!  To prove it, look at this.  Two weeks ago, I did a book review for HARN Towers.  It was a review of Andrew Humphreys book On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel.

This week, I’ll be blogging over there about correspondence and all the fun things reading old letters allows us in scholarship.  See you there!

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The Tomb of Perneb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It has been almost 6 weeks since I’ve posted anything, but that doesn’t mean no work is getting done.  I’m busy writing a paper for the HARN/Swedish Institute Conference in October; working on a volume of edited correspondence (more on which later); and other summer activities like grants, reworking syllabi, and hanging out with my son and husband more.  In two weeks I leave for Wyoming for a vacation–yes, VACATION.

In the process of the above mentioned research, I’ve found a lot of really great stories that will be posted here in the coming weeks.  One of the most fascinating is the story of the collection and installation of the mastaba tomb of Perneb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Thankfully, they tell their own story on their website.  If you have any questions about anything at the MMA, their website is really good.  They have videos, images, links for digitized documents, and great stories to tell.  I’ve talked about the MMA before, so if you want to know some history and a museum review, I invited you to see that post.  On to the Tomb of Perneb.

In 1913, an excavation led by Albert Lythgoe and the MMA dissembled the mastaba of an early Egyptian royal official (5th dynasty) in the Saqqara necropolis.  It was the mastaba of Perneb (c. 2381-2323 BC), an official who functioned in the presence of the Pharaoh as his dresser, not unlike a valet.  He was clearly a wealthy, high-status official and he was buried north of the Step Pyramid in Saqqara.  Thanks to the generosity of Edward Harkness and the Egyptian Government, the tomb was then brought to New York and reassembled in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Art department.  It took 3 years to reconstruct, and it opened with great acclaim in the winter of 1916.  It has remained in the same place at the MMA since its installation, with some conservation and new construction in the 1990s-early 2000s.  Curators argued that the presentation of the tomb people had seen for more than 80 years was not correct.

Before screen wall was built (2003). Courtesy MMA.

Curators wished to present the tomb as it should have been seen if it were in Egypt, so they did extensive research and had this wall built:

After screen wall built (2003).  Courtesy MMA.

The MMA made a short film in 2004 (around 20 min) about the tomb itself, and it is very well done.  I can’t embed it, but you can view it here.  It gives a history of the tomb, and a concise explanation of the purpose of tombs in Egypt.  At around the 3:50 mark, there is a digital reconstruction of what Saqqara would have looked like around the time of Perneb’s tomb, and they show a reconstruction of the tomb itself.  It is a fascinating video.

Also available on the site is a digital document, the 80-page booklet that the MMA published about the tomb at the time of its opening in New York.  Thank goodness for the internet!  I’ve been looking for this book, but no one will send it out.  It was written by Lythgoe, and the assistant curator of Egyptian Art in 1916, Caroline Ransom, later Mrs. Grant Williams.  She spent hours on the administration of receiving the tomb, arranging for its installation, and planning for the opening of the tomb, on top of her other work.  She did much of this while Lythgoe and others of his work crew (most, if not all, men), were in the field during the winters.

I know about Ransom Williams’ role in this story because I am editing a collection of her letters, which I found in the archives at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where she got her PhD in 1905.  If I didn’t have those letters (soon to be published in print form, hooray!!), I wouldn’t know about her work at the MMA because almost no one talks about it–save for the Breaking Ground project I linked to above.  She was crucial to the Egyptian Art department almost from its inception as the main administrator.  Her title was Assistant Curator, but that was because Lythgoe was the Curator.  The Curator’s main job at many museums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to lead excavations and bring home the pieces to build departments.  That was what Lythgoe did.  Ransom Williams’ job was to do almost everything else.

Ransom Williams’ work here was central to the building of the museum, much like countless other women in other museums, labs, universities, observatories, and more, whose work is hidden by a male scientist.  We cannot know the entire story behind Perneb’s arrival in New York without knowing about Ransom Williams’ work on the project.  I will not go into detail here, but more posts about this will be coming as I work through the editing of her letters.  I think I’ve said before that finding these women and having to talk about them is part blessing, part obsession.  They are so hard to find in the archives, but they need to be found to understand their central importance in the building of archaeological collections, theory, and excavation.

*Sorry for the lack of images.  I included a lot of links this time, that link to images instead.

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ICYMI: @HistoricEngland’s Martyn Barber is #Serious

Very serious things happening over at HARN Towers:

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