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Cold War Archaeology: An Archival Exploration of Museum Director Froelich Rainey


By: and Sarah LaPorte

May 15, 2022

This year, I was granted the wonderful opportunity to be a Penn Museum Fellow, during which I was able to expand the research that I had started working on with Dr. Lynn Meskell as a Summer Intern. The project is a large-scale archival “deep-dive” that considers multiple angles for how the US government, private industries, and academia came together in Froelich Rainey’s long career.

Ambassador Reinhardt’s party at Tarquinia, Italy, Fall 1961. From Left: Froelich Rainey, US Ambassador Reinhardt, C. M. Lerici, with tie, in center. Penn Museum Archives.

Who was Froelich Rainey?
Froelich Rainey was director of the Penn Museum for 30 years, from 1947 to 1977. During his time as director, he oversaw expeditions in 33 different countries, spanning hundreds of projects and multiple fields of research. Rainey’s background both as a trained anthropologist and archaeologist, along with extensive government work beforehand, placed him in a unique position when he arrived at the Penn Museum. Particularly, it was his time as a foreign officer and other related jobs that allowed him to make the connections that would enable so many of his projects to function as they did. All this was especially relevant when considering the context of his directorship, which was the Cold War. His government and military connections not only gave him the resources to carry out projects internationally, but they also made use of his position as a respected archaeologist to carry out their own missions. For example, the CIA granted him easy access to carry out projects in many places that were increasingly difficult to access for archaeology, and in turn he was recruiting and placing operatives abroad under the guise of “research”.

Froelich Rainey using a periscope to examine Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia, Italy. Penn Museum Archives.

“Your Mysterious Instruments”
The first part of our project in looking at Rainey resulted in an article published in the Journal of Field Archaeology, titled “Your Mysterious Instruments:” ​​American Devices and Imperial Designs in Cold War Archaeology. It provides an overview of the empire of archaeological instruments that Rainey established around the world, including magnetometers, drills, “sonic” devices, and more. More than the instruments, however, this work was important to Rainey because it was a means of pacifying the atomic science that was born of the second World War. In other words, it was a way of reintroducing what that research produced into the world in a way that was taking away that aspect of “war”, and proving that it could be used for more “humanitarian” purposes, such as archaeology.

At the same time, to Rainey, archaeology was not a passive discipline in the traditional sense of just doing the research and publishing the findings. Instead, archaeology was a discipline that could be inventive and prospective, symbolized by the instruments that he had created for the purpose of archaeology. He was not necessarily concerned with working with the data after its collection, and often lost interest in his projects after this initial stage of prospecting.

This project is also a testament to the military – industrial – academic complex often found in archaeology. Rainey had the full support of tech and biomedical companies, which created the instruments at his behest. He had the military both contributing to and benefitting from these creations, and used his government connections to gain access and the funding that enabled him to use the world as his testing ground for the new technology, while simultaneously testing the connections between the US and the countries he worked in. 

Electric resistance apparatus used to locate archaeological deposits at a site in southwestern U.S. Froelich Rainey at left. Arizona, 1960s. Penn Museum Archives.

The Tikal Project
The next step in our project will be looking at the work that was done in Guatemala, particularly the excavation of the Maya site of Tikal. So far we know that Rainey had been planning on carrying out this project back in 1948-9, but decided not to after some political shifts in Guatemala. However, in 1955, he received word that Guatemala was once again in a position where a project was possible, and that the Guatemalan government was open to collaborating with the Penn Museum. Following this, the Tikal team got their approval to carry out the project, which began in 1956 and ran until 1969.

This project stands out because it left a mark in the Peten region where Tikal is found. There was not much in the area before the project began, and much of the infrastructure that remains today was built for or as a result of the project. This includes hotels, water wells, an airfield, as well as the growth of nearby cities. It is also relevant because this was all done by working closely with the newly established Guatemalan government, particularly the military, while being funded by major corporations and organizations, like the many oil companies that were interested in exploring the region.

While our project is still in the early stages, we are excited to continue investigating the government connections which enabled this project, both in the US and in Guatemala, as well as the private industries that funded it. We were able to visit Tikal over my Spring Break, where we observed the remains of the project, talked with local archaeologists and Guatemalans who participated in the project, and assessed the legacy of Penn’s presence after they left in 1969. We were also able to access the archives that were left behind in Guatemala, allowing us to see a clearer picture of what the project really entailed. More importantly, we were able to connect the information found in Guatemala with the work we have already done in the Museum Archives. Again, in the context of the Cold War, this was another project not just with goals of archaeological research, but of expanding American ideals and solidifying relations between the two countries.

The author standing by one of the temples in the Tikal National Park, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Meskell.

The Fellowship
Over the course of the year, I received invaluable support from the program and the other Penn Museum Fellows in carrying out this research. It has been an incredible experience to see the project grow, and I am excited to see where it takes us next. After all, there are many other angles that we are planning to explore, and I know that the Museum Archives will continue revealing troves of fascinating information. This opportunity has not only allowed me to learn more about the history of the Penn Museum, but also about the nature of conducting research and the field of archaeology itself.

Written by Sarah LaPorte, Penn Museum Fellow (2021-2022)

Sarah LaPorte is a rising senior in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in Anthropology and Classical Studies with a minor in Archaeological Science. She was one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2021-2022 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program provides financial and research support to three Penn undergraduates as they complete a capstone project or thesis that articulates with the Penn Museum’s collections, archives, galleries, or broader mission.