Archaeology: Remembering the Human Element

August 26, 2012

Within the relative comfort of a 21st century museum, it is easy to forget the sacrifices, challenges, and dedication involved in the discovery of antiquities. All too frequently when we see glamorous vases, sarcophagi glistening with gold, and jewelry enlivened with lapis lazuli, we assume that these objects tell the entire glorious story of both the civilization that produced them and the excavators who found them. However, the rest of the narrative is frequently full of nuance and intricate details. Along similar lines, the treasures of the Royal Tombs of Ur do not tell the entire story of the expedition; toil, frustration, and uncertainty were as much a part of the excavation as were the exhilaration of finding priceless historical treasures. As a volunteer working on the Ur Digitization Project, I came to understand this lesson more intimately through my discovery of a series of telegrams and letters.

In 1922, the beginning of the joint expedition of the British Museum and Penn Museum to Ur brought much excitement and anticipation to the world of archaeology. However, long before the team of archaeologists reached Iraq, challenges were already on the horizon. The story of one man, Paul R. H. Hunter, is particularly curious.  Sent by the University Museum to join C. L. Woolley’s team in Iraq, Hunter’s participation on the project came to a sudden and shocking halt in London. In the words of a telegram, Hunter was “ill and unable to proceed and will be sent home by consulate.” Subsequent correspondence provides much more detail.

In this telegram, the news of Hunter’s mysterious illness is broken.

Breaking down the story chronologically, we can see that in the U.S., Hunter had undergone a medical examination and had been advised not to perform any work before taking “a long rest.” But nevertheless, Hunter left his home for London, ready to advance on to Mesopotamia. However, upon arrival in the United Kingdom, Hunter had no money on him, and he had to be advanced 25 pounds sterling. The next time Hunter was seen, he “presented himself at the house of some friends in a state of collapse, with a somewhat incoherent story of what had happened to him and without the money.” At this point, Hunter was “picked up by the police in a seemingly dazed condition and taken to his hotel where he soon became violent, and at the request of the proprietress was removed to Holborn institution.” Here, it was reported that “a single attendant is unable to control him” and various attendants were required to physically subdue him.

In this field photograph number 1951, from the 1931-1932 season, Woolley displays his concern for his workers by having them immunized against cholera.

Ultimately, the correspondence (our chief source of evidence) ends with Sir Frederick Kenyon, director of the British Museum recommending to his American counterpart, George Gordon, that Hunter be sent back to the United States, presumably to recover from his breakdown. While Hunter did not make it to the field, his story is an important reminder of the various challenges faced by archaeologists both traveling and in the field itself. In spite of these difficulties, archaeologists can triumph. The intrepid C.L. Woolley persisted in his excavations at Ur from 1922-1934, and it is because of his tireless energy and passion (and that of his assistants) that we can study, debate, and discuss the material culture of one of the world’s first civilizations.