Historical How-To: Splitting up Finds

A month ago, over the span of about 10 days, I had multiple trustworthy sources tell me I JUST HAD to read Mary Chubb‘s fabulous Nefertiti Lived Here (1954).  The book is her memoir about her first-ever excavation at Amarna with John Pendlebury and his crew in 1930.  It is a fascinating read.

Chubb is almost anthropological in her participant-observer writing style.  She opens the book in a dark, wet, dreary, London basement (of the Egypt Exploration Society) as she is looking for a “painting from a Theban tomb which was wanted for some publication or another” (7).  Upon searching, she found a piece of glazed tile at the bottom of the large box that held a number of scrolls.  As she studied the tile, which had lotus flowers on a blue background, she was spellbound.  She recounted:

“I was holding something that had scarcely been touched since it had been found in Egypt years before, something which might still bear the fingerprints not only of the finder, but even of the maker.  All the photographs of exquisite jewelry and sculpture which I knew so well upstairs, all the highly cleaned antiquities, sterile behind their glass in the museums, had never moved me as did this small, rough-edged, uncleaned, enchanting thing in my hand” (8-9).

This was her first encounter holding an ancient object in her hands–a rite of passage I think many of us can recall in our archaeological or historical careers.  Mine, incidentally, was at the Petrie Museum at UCL when we held an object that really did still bear the potter’s fingerprint.  That was surreal.

Anyway, my point here isn’t to do a review of the book, or even a summary of it.  I think you should read it.  Throughout, the reader gets insight into parts of excavations that are not recorded otherwise.  The “fantasia” that happened on the last night of the excavation and the finding of what became the “robber’s hoard” are two of these episodes.

Image of Pendlebury’s report in the December 1930 Illustrated London News. Image found on the EES website, here.

The part I found the most interesting was when Chubb described arriving in Cairo with their finds, and how, exactly, the Department of Antiquities went about splitting the season’s finds in 1930.  As a historian and a former archaeologist, I’ve often wondered about these types of seemingly common-place events that never get described in site reports, letters home, or diaries because they are so mundane and everyone knew about them.  So, when I began reading Chubb’s recounting, I was fascinated.  I won’t quote here word for word, but here is basically what happened. (Correct me if I’m wrong–have I missed this event in other biographies/memoirs/archives??)

The deal at the time between archaeologists and the Department of Antiquities was that the Museum kept unique pieces that would add to the collections, and the archaeologists could keep everything else.  But it was all up to the discretion of the Department.  (Now, at least in Egypt, as I can’t speak for anywhere else, everything stays in the country.)  The boxes of finds largely travelled ahead of the archaeologist, who was sent a summons by the museum, asking the archaeologists to come unpack the finds.  Upon arriving at the museum, the archaeologists were taken to “a large room at the back of the museum, almost empty except for several long trestle tables.  The cases were standing near the tables, with their lids removed” (189).  The objects were then unpacked and laid out on the long tables so that “The Old Man, in other words, the director of the museum, M. [Pierre] Lacau,” could look at the finds and decide what to keep (189).  As he chose objects, it was Chubb’s job to mark a “C” for Cairo Museum next to the item on the list.  Lacau kept a number of the best objects–a lintel, half of the robber’s hoard, some knives, mirrors and more.  The other half of the robber’s hoard of gold and silver was bought by the Bank of England for £200, helping to partially fund Pendlebury for the following year.

When it came to the delicate head of the Princess (see above, and below) was hard won.  Rex Engelbach, who was assistant keeper at the time, and who apparently appreciated the “nice way” the EES excavation had behaved throughout the season, convinced Lacau that the head was “practically a replica of the sandstone one from two years ago, sir, apart from the wig…And not so perfect” (192).  The head, originally attributed to the Princess Ankhesenamun (the wife of Tutankhamun), ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image courtesy MMA website, captioned “Head from a statuette” “From House no. 68 (T36.68)” Accession number 31.114.1.  A Gift from Mrs. John Hubbard and Egypt Exploration Society, 1931.

Thus closed the division of the finds.  Pendlebury remarked that he was “completely satisfied” (193).  They shook hands with Lacau and Engelbach, repacked the boxes, filled out customs forms, and went for a celebratory dinner.  Again, I may have missed something in my last 12 years of research in the history of archaeology, but I’ve never encountered such a detailed description of the division of field finds.

It is useful for the historian to know about these types of activities, so we know how field seasons were wrapped up.  I thrive on the mundane, quotidian stuff that isn’t glorified or even remarked upon in any kind of report, and I’ve found that women are the ones who tend to record these types of things.

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4 Responses to Historical How-To: Splitting up Finds

  1. harngroup says:

    Reblogged this on HARN Weblog and commented:
    Another fascinating post from Dr Kate

  2. Pingback: Meh/fnugggh? | HARN Weblog

  3. Pingback: On the Division of Artifacts in Egypt and Iraq – Jazz Age Adventurers

  4. There are similar descriptions of Leonard Woolley and Gertrude Bell negotiating over the artifacts from Ur in the 1920s – Bell won one artifact “on the toss of a rupee.” You can read a little bit more about it at jazzageadventurers.com (http://bit.ly/1qW0x7x) and their letters should show both sides of the negotiations.

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