James Donaldson is Manager and Curator of the RD Milns Antiquities Museum at the University of Queensland in Australia. Interview with Dr Amara Thornton, IoA History of Archaeology Network Coordinator.
AT: How would you define history of archaeology?
JD: I see the history of archaeology as a reflective discipline, examining all aspects of archaeological and quasi-archaeological practice over the past several centuries (and perhaps even longer). It has to do with how archaeology used to be done, and how modern archaeology developed, but also with understanding the people who did archaeology and the social, historical and theoretical contexts in which they worked. I’m also interested in the history of formal and informal excavation at particular sites, what happened to the resulting finds, and what we can learn from re-examining those finds and the associated records.
AT: What is your area of research in the history of archaeology?
JD: I research the history of antiquities collecting and collections in Australia, with a particular focus on antiquities collected by Australians during the First World War. My aim is to understand why antiquities were appealing souvenirs for soldiers to bring back to Australia, what kinds of material they were acquiring, and where it is now. Australian service personnel took artefacts from every theatre where they served, from Mesopotamia to the UK, and there is evidence for a diverse range of collecting practices that had a big impact on the way public and private collections of ancient material developed in Australia.
There is also the ethical aspect of collecting ancient cultural material during wartime: it is important to consider the relationship between antiquities as souvenirs and their status as items of foreign cultural heritage. A central part of my work is therefore to investigate how artefacts were collected during the war, how these practices relate to the broader context of colonial collecting and antiquarianism in the 19th and 20th centuries, and to promote transparency and dialogue about historical collecting activities and the ethics of antiquities collecting more broadly.
The current repository for this work is the First World War Antiquities Project.
AT: How did you become interested in the history of archaeology?
JD: My undergraduate degree was in Archaeology, but I then studied Classics for my Masters, while working as the manager of our Antiquities Museum at the University of Queensland. I became interested in the history of archaeology through provenance research, and research into the history of the UQ collection. This led to a further interest in how these archaeological collections developed around Australia, and some of the similarities in the way University and other collections were founded and used.
AT: Are you working on anything in particular related to the history of archaeology right now?
I’m in the final stages of “Phase One” of the First World War Antiquities Project which has focused on collections from Queensland, including over 60 artefacts from 10 service personnel held by the Queensland Museum in Brisbane.
An ongoing project is a biography of JH Iliffe, the first director of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem (now the Rockefeller Museum). Through a strange twist of fate, Iliffe’s archive of personal papers, three antiquities, and over 400 photographs came to be in Queensland and were donated to the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library in 2013. The Antiquities Museum received the artefacts and I curated an exhibition in 2019 on Iliffe’s archive. He spent almost 2 decades in Mandate Palestine in a position of considerable privilege as part of the British administration, and his archive and associated papers present a unique insight into the way Jerusalem was changing at this time, and the role of archaeology and the archaeological museum in these changes.
A new project in my role with the RD Milns Antiquities Museum is to start documenting the modern marks on our antiquities collection, inspired by the Artefacts of Excavation project. It promises to be a surprising take on more traditional provenance research and the sources of antiquities held in Australian collections.
AT: What, from your experience, is the most meaningful thing you've come across in history of archaeology research and why?
JD: I really enjoyed the challenge of contributing to the first detailed listing of the JH Iliffe collection (based on the UQ Library’s initial accession listing) as part of our recent exhibition. It was a chance to get to grips with a sparsely documented collection, and start to sort out how it all fit together.
The collection consists of over 400 photographs, alongside diaries, maps, notebooks and other ephemera, documenting a period of about 40-50 years of Iliffe’s life. It had some structure, but apart from a couple of brief obituaries and a few notes on the backs of photographs, there was very little to go on in terms of bringing order to the collection. It all came down to detective work, both within the collection and outside of it. It was exciting to see the narrative of Iliffe’s life emerge from texts, photographs and diaries, and to find important links to other archives around the world.
AT: Do you have any favourite books (academic or popular) related to the history of archaeology? Titles and authors would be great, and a few thoughts as to why.
JD: I think my favourite book on the topic is David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, 1985). It discusses the way the past (including archaeological sites and research) are used, interpreted, preserved, changed and challenged. It is “good to think with” when trying to understand how archaeological finds, sites, evidence and the resulting thing we call “history” has been interpreted, and misused, by all areas of (western) society. Donald Malcolm Reid’s Whose Pharaohs? (University of California Press, 2002) and Contesting Antiquity in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press, 2015) are important syntheses of archaeology, museums, and modern identity in Egypt that bring together a lot of amazing archival material and ephemera that sits outside of “traditional” archaeology but is more in the realm of archaeological reception.
I also enjoyed Susan Stewart’s work on collecting and the past in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993) and am looking forward to reading The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
AT: Is there a key object/ image/ text from an archive that inspires you or that you keep revisiting?
JD: The English poet Francis Brett Young (1884-1954) wrote a poem called “Song of the Dark Ages” in about 1916 while training on Salisbury Plain. He describes digging trenches in the chalk and finding “…calcined human bone: Poor relic of that Age of Stone, Whose ossuary was our spoil.” It goes on to reflect on the passage of time and the futility of the war, ending with the lines “And they will leave us both alone: Poor savages who wrought in stone – Poor savages who fought in France.”
I keep coming back to this poem. There is something about this wretched reflection on the futility of the digging, the war, and the passing of time all concentrated on the discovery of ancient human remains that is so striking. Thousands of service personnel passed through Salisbury Plain for training during the war, saw the monuments, and speculated about them. Often this speculation was based on misunderstandings and out-of-date history (one soldier talks about Stonehenge being made by the Romans), but there is something very human about the intersection of archaeology/collecting/souveniring/remembering that I think speaks to why the history of archaeology is an important thing to study.
AT: Any advice for those interested in starting research on the history of archaeology?
JD: I would encourage them not to be afraid to branch out from the established disciplines of archaeology or history or classics. There is so much work in interdisciplinary spaces, like the history of archaeology, but it is sometimes unclear how to get into these areas in standard university programs. Try to cultivate a wide interest in the past and different approaches to it.
AT: From your perspective, what are the key issues in the history of archaeology right now?
JD: History of archaeology is an emerging discipline in Australia and there is still a lot of foundational work to be done on understanding themes like the development of our old-world archaeological collections, and the history of Australian archaeological missions. There are great untapped archives of materials are universities and museums all around Australia, with links to other work happening around the world. A number of my colleagues are starting to undertake this research so it is an exciting time to be working in this area in Australia. There are also big questions to be asked about how and why “classical” and other forms of archaeology have been done in Australian and how they have contributed to museum collections and our collective understanding of the past.
AT: How can people learn more about your research (personal blog, twitter, etc)?
JD: I’m mainly active on my Twitter account where I share things related to First World War Antiquities and my work with UQ’s RD Milns Antiquities Museum. You can find me at @CairoJim. My work is also available on my ORDIC profile.