The Flying Archaeologist and The Human Adventure

As most of my blog posts have been, recently, this one is tangential to my research, but an interesting find I wanted to share.  You may remember from an earlier post, James Breasted’s home on University Avenue is derelict and awaiting action.  It is in that state because it belonged to Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Chicago (a dubious distinction).  I wasn’t sure why it had been bought by the Fijis, as they’ve become known, but there may be a clue or two.  It turns out, as I found in this article, Breasted’s son and protégé, Charles, was a Fiji at Chicago in the late 1910s.  He even threw his fraternity pin into Lake Michigan, announcing he was done with Greek life.  He may have worked with the University to purchase the house.  This is just a guess on my part and I have no evidence to back it up.

Also, in this article from the Evening Independent in St. Petersburg, Florida, there is quite a bit of gossip about old Chuck, as they call him.  This also contains the only picture I can find of him over the age of 8. Not only does the article talk about Charles as “The Flying Archaeologist,” but he was also unlucky in love.  It’s an interesting blurb from the Evening Independent, and I encourage you to read it.  While I am sure that a biographical treatment of Charles Breasted’s life (as well as the life and career of Breasted’s other son, James Jr, who was also an art historian) would be fascinating, I am not in the business of writing more about a topic that is already widespread—Great Man Biographies.  So, I won’t go into too much of it here, but to say that Charles followed his father reluctantly into the field and soon was hired officially at the OI.  The article itself reminded me of a film Charles Breasted produced, which starred James Breasted, and premiered in 1934 at the Oriental Institute: The Human Adventure.  The first showing was introduced by none other than founder James Breasted himself, the second showing by Charles.

Thanks to the Oriental Institute for uploading the whole film to YouTube, and I’ve embedded it here.

The Human Adventure has not been discussed by any scholars that I know of, except for Jeffrey Abt.  Thankfully, in his biography of James Breasted (or as I’m calling it lately, the Bible), he includes a relatively lengthy discussion of the film and its production—the first time anyone really analyzes the production and reception of the film.  Everything I say here about the film’s background comes from pp. 381-389 of the book, all of which is based on archival research at the OI.

Charles got his nickname as the Flying Archaeologist because he was known to take advantage of a relatively new traveling technology—the airplane.  By using an airplane and flying all over the Near East, he could travel in mere hours what it took his father months to travel by boat, train, and car in the early century.

As the Great Depression took over in the US, it affected budgets for institutions all over the country, and the OI was looking for ways to save money.  Charles pushed for the film as a way to “present the ‘scientific ideas and ideals’ that led to the institute’s creation, and to … ‘show the work of its field expeditions in active operation’” (Abt, 382).  He also argued that it could save money by educating visitors to the OI museum before they went into the collections that they could get rid of two salaried guides.  They could also charge people to see the film, $.50-$1 at the OI and other locations.  Not only that, but there was a widespread public demand for short, educational films like this at the time.

Filming began in December 1932, and it had an expensive budget of around $12,000-$15,000 (about $150,000-$187,500 today).  By February 1933, James, his wife Frances, and James Jr. joined Charles and the cinematographer to finish out the filming.  According to Abt, “they hopscotched to expedition sites throughout the Middle East.  It was strenuous flying, however, with a number of very bumpy passages that took a toll on the entire group, but especially the older Breasteds—Frances had turned sixty a few months prior, and Breasted was 67” (383).  The sites they visited were mainly sites the Epigraphic Survey and OI archaeologists were working on.  They included: Cairo and the Giza Plateau, Luxor and Thebes focusing on the newly-built Chicago House, Meggido, Mosul and Ninevah, Baghdad and their Chicago House, Shiraz, and Persepolis.  At the end, Charles needed a year to edit all the footage down to about an hour.

Chicago house

Chicago House, Luxor, 1932

Since I’ve embedded the video here, I won’t go into a detailed description of it, as Abt does beautifully (383-384).  One thing the film shows throughout, are the lives and work of the local workers.  There were criticisms of harsh working conditions and using child labor.  Harold Nelson tried to explain this by saying that foreman always carry whips but don’t always use them.  There were a number of showings throughout Chicago, and 4 in New York at Carnegie Hall.  Critics called it “vivid and exciting” and “entertainment in a full sense” (Abt, 387).


Arial view of Karnak Temple, 1920s

Films like this are crucial to historians for a number of reasons.  First, it’s surreal to see these digs in action and not just black and white photographs.  If you get a chance to watch the whole film, please do.  It is only about an hour or so.  Second, Charles’ voice overs are interesting in their execution, mirroring the theatricality in which he was originally trained as an undergraduate.  Further, the patronizing and colonial viewpoints expressed are useful for analysis as well as simply to understand the mindset of archaeologists at the time.  If you aren’t interested in those aspects, the film has breathtaking views of Cairo and the Giza plateau in 1932.  Because it focuses on Luxor, Thebes, the Valley of the Kings, and Chicago House, there are numerous views of those sites and how they appeared in 1932.  Karnak Temple is especially interesting here.  I haven’t taken the time to do “then-and-now” comparisons, but it bears doing.


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1 Response to The Flying Archaeologist and The Human Adventure

  1. harngroup says:

    Reblogged this on HARN Weblog and commented:
    That’s my coffee break taken care of tomorrow then – film time!

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