Archaeology of Archaeology

I’m slowly working through my pile of articles that I need to read, and yesterday read William Carruthers’ “Credibility, civility, and the archaeological dig house in mid-1950’s Egypt” in the Journal of Social Archaeology 19(2) 255–276. The article is really great. 

Carruthers studied the social and political context for the the construction and outfitting of the dig house built by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania at the site of Mit Rahina in Egypt. The initial efforts to arrange for the dig house were led by John Dimick, a businessman whose wife’s donations led him to become nominal director of the project. Dimick’s impolitic, impolite, and explicitly colonialist attitude toward the project’s Egyptian collaborators jeopardized the construction of the house. Carruthers unpacks the backdrop of 1950s Egypt, the rise of Nasser and a growing sense of political and cultural confidence that defined elite Egyptian society and the newly autonomous Department of Antiquities. The project was only salvaged when the more experienced archaeologist, Rudolf Anthes, who was the research lead on the project, interceded and managed to smooth over hurt feelings and coordinate the construction of the dig house for the Penn team. The intention of the Mit Rahina team to train the Egyptian archaeologists in scientific practices only added to the complex backdrop of the dig house’s construction. 

Carruthers recognized that the dig house was a liminal space between the authority of the host country and the values and practical needs of foreign project. As someone who has worked at a number of project with their own dig house, this space is a familiar one. In fact, this summer, there was a good bit of talk about upgrading the simple dig house of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition in Polis with new mattresses, screens, and maybe even wifi. In Corinth, the iconic Hill House of the American School of Classical Studies, secure behind its imposing stone wall, has long embodied and belied certain aspects of the relationship between Corinth Excavations and the village. The dig house of the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia is a model of functionality with storage and work spaces. My formative years as an archaeologist occurred against a backdrop of constant maintenance to the buildings overseen by the late, memorable, and endlessly creative “Yannis the Workman” (and son). In all these cases, dig houses reflected spaces of negotiated expectations, expertise, and culture. Carruthers’ article offers a more historically sophisticated and refined take on the space of the dig house as one of the key spaces of negotiation for archaeology especially in a post-colonial context.

(As a curious and historical aside, the story of the “first dig house” in Polis on Cyprus is quite sordid. From J.A. R. Munro and H. A. Tubbs. “Excavations in Cyprus, 1889. Second Season’s Work. Polis tes Chrysochou-Limniti.JHS 11 (1890): 1–99: “A half-empty house in the village of Poli, into which we effected a forcible entry in the owner’s absence, inducing the inhabitants of the courtyard sheds by bribery or eviction to seek quarters elsewhere, furnished lodging and storage room; and within two days we were settled there with all our belongings.”

One thing that piqued my interest in particular was the material culture of dig houses. While Carruthers’ article does not delve into the material culture of the Mit Rahina except in the broadest possible way. I’d be interested in understanding how dig houses changed over time from both a historical and archaeological perspective. Morgan and Eddisford offer an opening into this kind of research in their 2015 article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology: “Dig Houses, Dwelling, and Knowledge Production in Archaeology.” 

Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the various buildings around the site and village at Polis that have formed part of Princeton’s archaeological infrastructure. One particularly ramshackle building, called the “Sheep Shed,” stands atop part of an Early Christian basilica and was used in various capacities from storage and work rooms to make-shift bunks for volunteers. The building has been stripped of its doors and windows and is in pretty poor condition, but I suspect that it preserves enough of its past lives to tell some of the story of the excavations at Polis. Whether this story would be different from the established narratives about Polis is hard to know, but the opportunity to document this building and trace signs of its various uses is tempting. The work of Carruthers and Morgan and Eddisford gives me a context for just this kind of research. 

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