University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Films of Sitio Conte as a primary source material


By: Kate Pourshariati

February 24, 2015

The Beneath the Surface exhibit has positioned the film records of the expedition to Sitio Conte prominently within the exhibit. We asked Clark Erickson, the lead curator of the exhibit, what the films mean to him as primary source materials in the history of archaeology, and especially of this site.

The video advances my agenda of “peopling the past” and “visualizing the past” for the exhibit and is an incredible archival testament about the practice of archaeology in 1940. Over the weekend, I spend an hour watching the loop over and over with the grandson and granddaughter of J. Alden Mason and the son and daughter of John Jr. who was on the dig as a high school student. They were excited and nearly drawn to tears seeing their ancestors in the film doing their archaeological work. *

Penn student Monica Fenton is writing her Senior Honors Thesis on Sitio Conte (she was one of the student curators for BTS). We noticed that the film records important contextual information that is not documented in the formal still photography of the excavation team. We hope to capture stills from all the film of pans over the archaeological objects in situ to help relocate and establish associations with individual bodies in Burial 11 and other burials at the site.

It is often a source of wonder that recordings such as these, casually taken in their day, can become significant to later researchers. What are we creating today that will have resonance to future researchers?

Other Sitio Conte film footage may be seen here:


*Mr. Mason sent us the following note this week “Being in that exhibit, seeing the items and the inspired three tiered display of the burial ground … I felt like I was completing the circle. Finally, all those stories and my grandfather and father’s roles in it came to life. You can’t imagine what a shock and joy it was to see the film footage (some in color – new to the time) of grandfather, circling around the dig, pipe in mouth, carrying equipment, bending down to take a closer look at the progress, picking away at the earth with his trowel, looking pensive, interacting with the team, and getting on with the job. How amazing to look at pictures, burial ground maps, the working tools, the trip medicine chest, expedition journals and his portable typewriter (portable!?! funny to see this clunky machine in comparison to smart phones and what we use and have available today). Moreover I was astonished by the film scenes of my father, as a lanky, floppy blond haired 17 year old, busily moving and organizing sacks of field work. This was a young man I recognized but did not know until that moment. To be followed by a new perspective and much clearer mental picture and understanding of what all those stories meant and now even looked like. Magical!”


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