How to Observe in Archaeology

Recently I came across this intriguing slim volume, a guide to amateur archaeology in the Near and Middle East, produced at the recommendation of the British Museum’s Archaeological Joint Committee and published by the Museum in 1920. It was edited by G.F. Hill, Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, with individual chapters by experienced scholars.

Title page of How to Observe in Archaeology

Title page of How to Observe in Archaeology

It’s essentially a ‘how-to’ guide for travellers who fancied having a go at archaeology on their way through the Near and Middle East, or in the intervals of their duties in these regions (while it is not explicitly stated, a male traveller is clearly assumed, and indeed the joint authors are all men). The Committee appear to have taken the view that the energies of amateur excavators and collectors should be directed in order to minimise damage to archaeological sites, as well as adding to scientific knowledge. There is a sense of weariness in the description of what too commonly occurs:

‘The inexperienced traveller is apt to pick up a number of objects haphazard, without accurately noting their find-spots, and even, getting tired of them, as a child of flowers that he has picked, to discard them a mile or two away. If the first act is a blunder, the second is a crime’.

It’s full of fascinating period details; travel by camel is taken as a matter of course, and readers are advised to be firm in bargaining for the sale of antiquities, as ‘your donkey-boy will soon spread your character’. Magnifiers and pocket-knives are recommended as gifts, presumably to secure the help of local people in finding sites of interest. The section on photography in particular is a reminder of how much easier life is with modern technology; no more grappling with glass plates and bellows, or increasing the contrast of objects with charcoal, ink or chalk – a practice which would surely be frowned on these days. There’s a pleasingly make-do feel to some of the advice: ‘Tin-foil is very handy for squeezes, and may be saved from chocolate for this’, and ‘Lids of biscuit tins serve well’ for photographic reflectors. Clearly then, as now, chocolate and biscuits were essential for archaeological work.

There is a striking change in attitude from the previous generation of archaeological exploration, which was very much a free-for-all. The authors are keen to put down ‘those pests, the curio-hunting tourists’, and have strong words to say about the importance of observing local laws of antiquities and taking proper records:

‘The traveller who makes it his object to loot a country of its antiquities, smuggling objects out of it and disguising the sources from which they are obtained, does a distinct dis-service to archaeological science… Such action is equivalent to tearing out whole pages from a history and destroying them for ever’.

The chapter on Cyprus is written by J.L. Myres, who led the British Museum’s excavations at Amathus in 1893-94, the possible source of the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection. His advice is practical and down-to-earth, revealing his experience in the field:

‘Taking into consideration the utility of good building material to the present owners of such sites, active co-operation to preserve ancient masonary is not to be expected, unless local patriotism and expectation of traffic from tourists can be enlisted in support of Government regulations.’

His advice on recording tomb-groups shows the growing awareness of the importance of recording the totality of finds, as reflected in his own excavation notebooks:

‘Most of our knowledge of Cypriote arts and industries comes from this tomb-equipment, which should therefore if possible be preserved entire and kept together, tomb by tomb’.

The reader is particularly directed to be on the look-out for ‘Cypriote inscriptions’, which ‘are of great value and interest, and have been often overlooked among building material drawn from old sites.’

Bilingual inscription from Curium

Bilingual inscription from Curium

Arguably the most exciting chapter is that on Palestine, written by R.A.S. Macalister. His aim seems to be to depress the pretensions of the amateur archaeologist:

‘Study of the pottery… is an absolutely essential preliminary. Without an acquaintance with this branch of Palestinian archaeology, so thorough that any sherd presenting the least character can be immediately assigned to its proper period, no field research of any value can be carried out.’

‘A knowledge of the various Semitic alphabets is necessary for copying inscriptions… a good knowledge of Arabic is indispensable – not the miserable pidgin jargon usually spoken by Europeans…’

If the would-be archaeologist is not discouraged by his less than encyclopaedic knowledge of pottery, or his imperfectly colloquial Arabic, the author has further words of caution:

‘The explorer of rock-cut tombs must be indifferent to mud, damp, evil smells, noxious insects, and other discomforts, and he must be prepared to squeeze through very narrow passages much clogged with earth. He is recommended to be on his guard against scorpions and snakes.’

Macalister alludes with nonchalance to his own exploits in the field:

‘There are occasionally unexpected and dangerous pitfalls: and hyenas and serpents often shelter in the caves. The present writer has explored many of them entirely alone, but this is, on the whole, not to be recommended.’

He was evidently of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology.

Cover of How to Observe in Archaeology

Cover of How to Observe in Archaeology

The small volume has practical rounded corners, making clear it is intended to be used in the field. My second-hand copy is regrettably clean (as much as its near-century of age allows), and doesn’t appear to have seen active service. Perhaps it belonged to an armchair archaeologist, who dreamed of travelling through the East by camel, taking squeezes, and making measurements with a theodolite; but never quite made it.


2 thoughts on “How to Observe in Archaeology

  1. Dear Anna,
    I thought your post very interesting and quite amusing. I shall share with my readers because your post fits with the general topic of my blog: archaeology.
    I enjoy your blog and I am learning a lot about Cypriot art. There are quite a few Cypriot pieces in the collection I curate, but my academic expertise lies elsewhere.
    Keep up the good work.
    An Archaeologist’s Diary


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