Dr Sarah Irving
Sarah is Lecturer in modern Middle Eastern history at Staffordshire University. Interview with Dr Amara Thornton, IoA History of Archaeology Network Coordinator.
AT: How would you define history of archaeology?
SI: I’m not sure I’m properly a historian of archaeology – I’m more of an interloper who uses historical records of archaeology to look at social and gender history – so I’m not sure it’s entirely my place to define it. But from my perspective it’s the history of how archaeological and the search for material remains of human activity is carried out, not just by professionals in the field but also in terms of its relationships with the people surrounding it – labourers, farmers on archaeological land, guards and museum attendants, people who read about and watch films of archaeology, interact with it in exhibitions and in discussions… and so on.
AT What is your area of research in the history of archaeology?
SI: I primarily look at the role of ordinary Palestinians and other people from the Levant region in the conduct of archaeology in Late Ottoman and Mandate Palestine. This ranges from educated Christian Lebanese who worked at supervisors on excavations for the Palestine Excavation Fund for many years and who became quite significant figures in how the archaeology of their period was enacted and interpreted, to women and men from nearby villages who were manual labourers on excavations, perhaps only for a total of a few months, or to some of the (usually but not always) nameless guards and other workers who were employed by the Department of Antiquities of the British Mandate administration in Palestine, or the lower-level dealers and go-between from the Palestinian Syriac Orthodox community who were the conduit by which various museums acquired the Dead Sea Scrolls.
AT: How did you become interested in the history of archaeology?
SI: In a parallel universe I went to university nearly 30 years ago and stuck with the archaeology I started then. In actual fact the course at Cambridge bored me so badly that I switched to anthropology – I should have stood up to my school better and gone to Sheffield, but who makes good decisions at 18? I went back to university to do a PhD in my late 30s and became a social historian of Palestine, but by various roundabout routes (involving looking for something completely different in the archives of the PEF) I’ve ended up combining the two in a lot of my work.
AT: Are you working on anything in particular related to the history of archaeology right now?
SI: Although my main research project at the moment isn’t history of archaeology – it’s on the 1927 earthquake in Palestine, so it does still have overlaps with the material environment and how that affects history – I am working on a couple of papers in HoA. One is for a conference next spring run by Michael Press at Agder University, for which I’ll be looking at the sale of antiquities, including Dead Sea Scrolls jars, by the Department of Antiquities/Palestine Archaeological Museum in the Mandate and Jordanian periods. I also have an article coming out in Jerusalem Quarterly taking a long-view look at the lives and working conditions of guards on archaeological sites in the Mandate period, especially at Athlit and Jericho, and how those intersect with the broader political situation in the country, and I’ll be speaking on the same broad subject at a Bade Museum/PEF online talk later this month.
AT: What, from your experience, is the most meaningful thing you've come across in history of archaeology research and why?
SI: The archives from the pre-WWI Harvard University excavations at Sebastia, which are at the Harvard Semitic Museum, include the fortnightly pay lists, which means they have long lists of the names of every worker on the site, men and women, how many days they worked during that period, and how much they were paid. Given how little we know about the lives of ordinary Palestinians over a century ago, how much information has been lost in the wars since, and how many Palestinians have been displaced as refugees, to able to get that snapshot of what such a large group of people were doing is amazing. Archaeological records aren’t often on the radar of social historians but sometimes they can be amazingly rich sources.
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.
SI: Given my subject area, the main ones would be other explorations of workers on archaeological sites, so Stephen Quirke’s Hidden Hands: Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives, 1880–1924, parts of Elliott Colla’s Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity and Donald Malcolm Reid’s books Contested Antiquities in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums and the Struggle for Identities from WWI to Nasser and Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to WWI, and of course Amara Thornton’s investigations of archaeology in Palestine during the Mandate period. Going beyond books, I’d also like to flag up Unsilencing the Archives[https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9eb391c6f57f4399a58ecf9b818e6762], an online exhibition curated by Melissa Cradic and Samuel Pfister, which is an amazing look at the workers at Tel en-Nasbeh during the Mandate period and which includes video footage from the late 1920s of archaeological labourers at work.
AT: Is there a key object/ image/ text from an archive that inspires you or that you keep revisiting?
SI: There is a photograph in the PEF archives of two Palestinian women at the Tel Jezar site, I think during R.A.S. Macalister’s excavations there, sieving for small finds. One of them is looking straight into the camera. She’s mid-work, sitting on the earth, staring at us with a really no-bullshit look on her face. She’s just as much part of the history of archaeology as a guy in a pith helmet and puttees whose name is on all the publications about Gezer, and I want to know as much as I can about her life.
AT: Any advice for those interested in starting research on the history of archaeology?
SI: The best information is never where you expect to find it. To amend a well-known saying, the best way to make the Gods laugh is to tell them your (research) plans – my most exciting finds have always been accidents, usually when I’m looking for something completely different.
AT: From your perspective, what are the key issues in the history of archaeology right now?
SI: I would say that getting away from the Indiana Jones/dead white men view of archaeology is one of the biggest things – especially decolonisation, but also finding the female, black, Muslim, gay, Arab, Asian, indigenous, non-literate, working-class etc etc people who contributed to archaeology but whose names aren’t in the published records. And moving on from that, communicating this so that the public view of archaeology (and perhaps even more the view of TV producers) evolves away from treasure and ‘exploration’ to some more nuanced understandings of who does/did archaeology, why, and what its impacts were for their lives and communities.
AT: How can people learn more about your research (personal blog, twitter, etc)?
SI: I rant a lot on twitter at @DrTermagant, and am less ranty on my project twitter handle at @JerichoQuake27. Otherwise, my profile page on the Staffordshire University website (when that goes up) should list publications and have access to those which are open access, and have information on my current research.
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