Marianne Sommer on ‘Paper Trails’ and American Prehistory

In a wonderful culmination of the past 2 years of Field Notes at Cambridge, we welcomed Professor Dr. Marianne Sommer (Lucerne) and Professor Jim Secord (HPS Cambridge), to hear Prof. Sommer’s paper on ‘Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century Americadiscussing how knowledge about prehistory was interactively generated and circulated both in terms of its discursivity and mediality under the direction of Henry Fairfield Osborn, curator (1891) and later president (1908-33) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Prof. Sommer presented the case study of the Museum of Natural History, arguing that “paper trails” of the production and circulation of ‘human deep time’ in America was framed by objects, narratives, and various actors that “staged” a view of prehistory in a combination of scientific and theatrical techniques that continues to resonate in the present. Drawing upon Osborn’s extensive archive (and correspondence), she showed how the Museum President’s goal to build a paleontological department reflected contemporary trends towards professionalisation within the university, as well as drawing upon less formal networks of local social clubs and societies to produce the halls of paleontology at the Museum that depicted images of America’s deep history through fossil artefacts, mounted specimens, and murals.

Though lacking in specimens of early hominids, American curators and paleontologists funded expeditions to south east Asia to gather new objects, prompting conflict with Chinese imperial authorities over the rights to remains viewed as national heritage on the one hand, and natural objects on the other. American finds such as a supposedly ‘human’ tooth were touted as the ‘missing link’ in human evolution, discoveries that were likened to the excitement of sporting events or striking gold in the contemporary press (although as it turned out, the tooth in question belonged to an ancient pig and not an ancestor of Homo sapiens). Moving from objects to visual culture, Prof. Sommer demonstrated how Museum employees ‘revolusionised’ fossil reconstruction in mounted examples of ancient vertebrates, as well as full busts of hominid ancestors and the famous murals designed and executed by Charles R. Knight with Osborn’s extensive input. Completed in 1922, these murals purported to explain the loss of life during the Pleistocene era, producing familiar aesthetic motifs that translated into popular works such as ‘The Land That Time Forgot‘ by Edgar Rice Burroughs that, arguably, continue to characterise our conceptions of the prehistoric environment today. The combination of object, visual, and discursive evidence presented by Osborn at the Museum created a spatial dynamic of human evolution in which visitors could ‘walk’ through rooms marking the progress of life on earth, from reptiles to mammals to men.

Professor Secord refined the focus of Paper Trails to broader methodological and historical concerns, drawing upon his own work on the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. He encouraged historians to refine our concept of ‘circulation‘, noting that the idea of objects-in-transit is more precisely expressed in German,  prompting a different engagement with the process of epistemological transformation (when does ‘knowledge’ become ‘scientific knowledge’?). He suggested that an alternate framing of the same evidence might prompt a very different reading of the material, observing that using communicative processes as a central analytic category — tracing the imperial vs. global translation of objects, or how information gathered at a field site is visually represented and translated onto a notebook page, might help us better understand the intangible and later tangible stages of construction / reconstruction, iterative processes that produce knowledge. Overtly focusing on ‘great men’ or the individuals behind such ‘productions’, like Osborn, might too strongly frame our own historical narratives. Prof. Secord suggested thinking about the same period in the Museum’s history as part of New York’s rise as an intellectual centre in the late 19th century, or how the Gilded Age‘s increased interest in early American history is inextricably tied to the expansion of Manhattan and the introduction of the new metro system, which quite literally put the museum on the map. Peter Mandler observed that this history of American prehistory cannot be understood without reference to the concept of spectacle (how is information transformed from it’s depiction in the museum to society & culture outside the institutional boundaries of the former?), memento mori, and the Great Chain of Being.

Overall, the seminar prompted a long conversation regarding objects in transit, the ability to write quite different histories based on slight differences in analytic frameworks applied, and how historians of archaeology and anthropology might interpret the material evidence of the archive to produce histories that are not asymmetrical but address the widely divergent, discursive lives of objects and texts after their nascent moment of production. We thank all those who attended for an inspiring and lively seminar to end the year!

~ The Field Notes Team

 

What happens to the culture of archaeology in National Socialist Germany?

Earlier today we were lucky to hear a fascinating lecture by Dr. Martijn Eickhoff (University of Nijmegen), who led us on a micro-study of 2 excavation sites carried out by Dutch pre-historians Assien Bohmers and Frans C. Bursch during WWII in the villages of Dolni Věstonice (Unterwisternitz) and Solone (Soljonoje). Using these localised case studies, Eickhoff showed photographs of the Dutch archaeologists in tropical colonial garb, arguing that their ‘colonial’ Dutch mindset represented one form of ‘colonising‘ eastern Europe under the Nazi regime. He wanted to know why archaeologists wore SS uniforms, and how colonial structures such as archaeology were projected into National Socialist lebensraum. This work, commissioned by the SS research unit and carried out by Dutch archaeologists, sought to legitimise German expansion and took place within the extreme racial intervention of the SS (e.g., the sites were also witness to discrimination and in one case, the quotidian execution of Jews).

How, Dr Eickhoff asked, were local research traditions co-opted to carry out these projects? Who was allowed to identify with these sites? How were Neolithic/Bronze Age sites integrated into an idea of a greater Germanic past, yet carried out transnationally – in non-German lands, by non-German archaeologists?

On one hand the narrative Dr Eickhoff presented was thoroughly Germanic: the SS-Ahnenerbe was one arm of Nazi bureaucracy, an extra-academic space seeking academic status that was occasionally avant-garde and often militant; both Bursch and Bohmers were committed national socialists who experienced archaeology as ‘adventure’; and the sites were linked to the rise of H. Sapiens, and later of the Aryan/Nordic peoples.

On the other, seeking ‘German’ traces often involved exploring the possible presence of Frisian or Viking peoples whose communities transcended national boundaries. Although archaeologists were ‘free’ to do what they wanted, many like Bursch continued to find traces of ‘Nordic migrants’ that fit the National Socialist worldview. Whilst artefacts confiscated from these and similar sites acquired a symbolism of national importance in Germany, they also confiscated another national heritage. Folkloric perspectives on local villages obscured the brutality of partisan executions and a sense of cultural superiority downplayed the uneven relationship between archaeologist and (often barefoot) forced labourers, cast as “happy children” singing all day.

In the postwar era, many sites were referred to as “stolen sites” or considered “taboo” within archaeology itself as the discipline entered a new period under Communist control. During the National Socialist period these sites Dolni Věstonice (Unterwisternitz) and Solone (Soljonoje) were both produced exclusively for German eyes, particularly SS-eyes; their history was safeguarded only as an Aryan heritage to be preserved for the future. Local people were totally subordinate to these research agendas, even more so, Dr Eickhoff, suggested, than in a colonial context.

Dr Helen Roche (Cambridge) expanded Dr Eickhoff’s discussion with typically probing insights. First, she noted that these and other narratives of cultural research were critical to the formulation of German identity, and that prehistoric archaeological agendas mirrored those of their classical counterparts, noting the constant anxiety amongst classicists that German historians would take all money and acclaim because their research so neatly dovetailed interest in national (ethnic) heritage. Dr Roche questioned the differences between the DAI (German Archaeological Institute) and the SS-Ahnenerbe, asking how these 2 case studies were representative of wider trends within the latter’s research interests. Finally, agreeing with Dr Eickhoff’s use of a colonial framework to explore the interactions and cultural hybridity or productivity of both Dutch archaeologists working in Eastern Europe, she suggested that we might reach a deeper understanding of National Socialist archaeological work during this period if historians consider similar individuals to be participating in a sort of “colonial imaginary”. Were scholars ‘seduced’ by Nazi ideology? And how did this permeate or influence their interest in archaeology as adventure?

Overall, Dr Eickhoff’s paper reminded us of the advantages of reading archaeology as a transnational European phenomenon rather than a specific nation-state project. Frisian, Saxon, and Viking cultures were all produced by a ‘joint’ effort of European archaeologists — and it is clear from this paper, at least, that histories of archaeology have much more to say if as scholars we can transcend institutional narratives and explore the interactions taking place within bureaucracies, between scholars, and across political borders — and moreover that such an approach may be beneficial not only in colonial or post-colonial contexts, but even within 20th-century Europe itself.


Don’t forget our last seminar of the year (and potentially forever!) is tomorrow, in room SG2 at CRASSH, from 5-7pm.

Professor Dr Marianne Sommer (University of Lucerne) will speak on:

Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century America

Discussant: Professor Jim Secord (University of Cambridge)

 

We hope to see you there!

~ The Field Notes Team

 

Two Seminars this Week

It’s a busy week at Field Notes: we’re running two seminars, one each on Wednesday (May 28th) and Thursday (May 29th), and both from 17:00 – 19:00 at CRASSH (Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge). These are also the final two Field Notes seminars, so thank you for all your support over the last couple of years, and we hope you can make it to what should be two fascinating events!

On May 28th (in room S1), we are very lucky to host Dr. Martijn Eickhoff of Radboud University Nijmegen. Martijn will talk on the topic of: “Witness to a Greater Germanic Past? The SS-Ahnenerbe and the Archaeological Research Sites of Dolni Věstonice and Solone”. Former Field Notes speaker Dr. Helen Roche (University of Cambridge) will start discussion.

On May 29th (in room SG2), we are similarly lucky to be hosting Professor Marianne Sommer of the University of Lucerne. Marianne will speak on the topic of: “Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century America”. Professor Jim Secord (University of Cambridge) will again start discussion for us.

Further details are available via CRASSH, and the abstracts are below.

May 28th: Witness to a Greater Germanic Past? The SS-Ahnenerbe and the Archaeological Research Sites of Dolni Věstonice and Solone.

In my presentation I focus on two archaeological excavations carried out by Dutch prehistorians Assien Bohmers and Frans C. Bursch during the Second World War in the villages of Dolni Věstonice (Unterwisternitz) and Solone (Soljonoje). These excavations were contracted by the SS-Ahnenerbe—an SS research unit—and are therefore examined not only in conjunction with the history of East Central Europe and the history of archaeology, but al­so on the micro-level, where institutional, organizational and biographical aspects are in­corporated alongside cultural and social backgrounds. The inspiration here is the post-colonial approach, in which scientific expeditions carried out outside Europe are understood as a process in which each party influences the other. It thereby becomes clear how during the Second World War, the SS-Ahnenerbe tried to portray the two research sites as materi­al witnesses to a Nordic- (Indo-) Germanic past. In the scenario, Unterwisternitz was a sym­bol of ‘origin’ and Solone symbolized ‘propagation’. At the same time, the Czechoslovak­ian and Ukrainian interpretations (and significance) of the research sites were to be oblite­rated. This leads to the conclusion that the SS-Ahnenerbe was indeed a highly active National Socialist scientific organization and that they developed a new militant and “Greater Germanic” scientific style and a new practice which at the time was directly connected to the terrorist interventions of the Na­tional Socialists. The avant-garde nature of the SS organization did, however, also contri­bute to the fact that their activities had little “effect” outside their own SS circle. The two excavations—including the fact that SS archaeologists had ever been involved on-site—were as a result soon forgotten after 1945.

May 29th: Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century America.

Along the lines of approaches that in the German-speaking community have become known as Wissensgeschichte, in my talk, I present aspects of my current research on the establishment of an American mass culture of human deep time. The term Wissensgeschichte marks a turn to knowledge cultures, to the everyday life and practices of scientists and the adoption of scientific knowledge in living environments. Within that context, the circulation of knowledge in its capacity to allow for the generation of meaning, knowledge, and sociality has been revived as a unifying concern of research. Although there is no clear origin from where knowledge circulates, particular ways of passage and itineraries, the transformations it undergoes and the obstacles it meets, might be reconstructed on the basis of paper trails. Following such paper trails, I enquire after the role of a particularly powerful institution – the American Museum of Natural History in New York – and its equally powerful president – Henry Fairfield Osborn – in making visualized ancestors and lost-world narratives travel through the press, into different disciplines, writing genres, and private homes. While I am thus attentive to the unequal power relations, I also try to do justice to the wider discursive formations that shape the institution and its protagonists, as well as to the negotiations that seem to accompany knowledge production from field to exhibition. I ask how scientific knowledge stabilizes within expert networks that form around the exchange of visits, expertise, and proxies of archeological objects, and after its translation into narrative, image, and exhibit. I exemplify how, in order to survive in the course of circulation thus made possible, ‘our ancestors’ had to adapt to different cultural environments.

12 May Seminar Cancelled

Due to unavoidable circumstances, we have had to cancel the Field Notes seminar scheduled to take place on May 12th (“Still Life and Stage Sets: Authority and Authenticity in Archaeological Photographs”, by Dr. Jennifer Baird). We have been unable to reschedule this event, for which many apologies.

Our next seminars take place on May 28th and 29th, and details are available here.

Easter Term seminar details

The details of our final term of seminars are now available at the CRASSH website. We are particularly excited by our initial event on 28th April, which we have organised with the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network, another CRASSH Graduate Research Group. All welcome!

April 28th. Movements between Art and Anthropology: Conceptual Art and Ethnographic Inquiry.

Dr Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (Art History, Berlin/Cambridge)
Adrien Sina (Curator & Art Historian, London)
Dr Michal Murawski (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)

Chair: Dr Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)

The term ‘ethnographic conceptualism’ refers to ethnography, conducted as conceptual art, and to artistic and aesthetic experimentations in ethnography. It takes its cue from conceptual art or ‘conceptualism’ that creates art objects out of concepts – and, most importantly, out of audiences and their reaction to these objects. Much of contemporary digital art, for instance, is performed by the audiences of digital art exhibitions. And while there is a recognition of the performative character of museum anthropology there has been little discussion so far of the methodological deployment of these performative acts. What happens when performances become research tools? What is seen in a society that one studies if performance of anthropological concepts is an explicit method of this study? If conceptual art is a mirror representation of the audience, what kind of informant is this audience? If ethnographic conceptualism is a form of participant observation, exactly what is ‘observation’ in this ‘participation’? And what is being ‘observed’?

May 12th. Authority and Authenticity in Archaeological Photographs.

Dr Jennifer Baird (Birkbeck College, University of London)
Discussant: Dr Sudeshna Guha (University of Cambridge)

Mass digitization projects are making archaeology’s photographs, over the length of its existence as a discipline, increasingly accessible as images and increasingly inaccessible as objects. These transformations demand reflection on the relationship between photographs (as both images and objects) and the creation of archaeological knowledge. This seminar will examine the role photographic practice and photographic images have played in the construction of authority within archaeology, and their relationship to the concept of authenticity. Focusing on archaeological expeditions in the Middle East during the first half of the twentieth century, the seminar attempts a preliminary answer to the questions: why do archaeological photographs look they way they do, and why do they matter?

May 28th. Witness to a Greater Germanic Past? The SS-Ahnenerbe and the Archaeological Research Sites of Dolni Věstonice and Solone.

Dr Martijn Eickhoff (Radboud University Nijmegen)
Discussant: Dr Helen Roche (University of Cambridge)

In my presentation I focus on two archaeological excavations carried out by Dutch prehistorians Assien Bohmers and Frans C. Bursch during the Second World War in the villages of Dolni Věstonice (Unterwisternitz) and Solone (Soljonoje). These excavations were contracted by the SS-Ahnenerbe—an SS research unit—and are therefore examined not only in conjunction with the history of East Central Europe and the history of archaeology, but al­so on the micro-level, where institutional, organizational and biographical aspects are in­corporated alongside cultural and social backgrounds. The inspiration here is the post-colonial approach, in which scientific expeditions carried out outside Europe are understood as a process in which each party influences the other. It thereby becomes clear how during the Second World War, the SS-Ahnenerbe tried to portray the two research sites as materi­al witnesses to a Nordic- (Indo-) Germanic past. In the scenario, Unterwisternitz was a sym­bol of ‘origin’ and Solone symbolized ‘propagation’. At the same time, the Czechoslovak­ian and Ukrainian interpretations (and significance) of the research sites were to be oblite­rated. This leads to the conclusion that the SS-Ahnenerbe was indeed a highly active National Socialist scientific organization and that they developed a new militant and “Greater Germanic” scientific style and a new practice which at the time was directly connected to the terrorist interventions of the Na­tional Socialists. The avant-garde nature of the SS organization did, however, also contri­bute to the fact that their activities had little “effect” outside their own SS circle. The two excavations—including the fact that SS archaeologists had ever been involved on-site—were as a result soon forgotten after 1945.

May 29th. Paper Trails: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of Human Deep Time in Early 20th Century America.

Professor Dr Marianne Sommer (University of Lucerne)
Discussant: Professor Jim Secord (University of Cambridge)

Along the lines of approaches that in the German-speaking community have become known as Wissensgeschichte, in my talk, I present aspects of my current research on the establishment of an American mass culture of human deep time. The term Wissensgeschichte marks a turn to knowledge cultures, to the everyday life and practices of scientists and the adoption of scientific knowledge in living environments. Within that context, the circulation of knowledge in its capacity to allow for the generation of meaning, knowledge, and sociality has been revived as a unifying concern of research. Although there is no clear origin from where knowledge circulates, particular ways of passage and itineraries, the transformations it undergoes and the obstacles it meets, might be reconstructed on the basis of paper trails. Following such paper trails, I enquire after the role of a particularly powerful institution – the American Museum of Natural History in New York – and its equally powerful president – Henry Fairfield Osborn – in making visualized ancestors and lost-world narratives travel through the press, into different disciplines, writing genres, and private homes. While I am thus attentive to the unequal power relations, I also try to do justice to the wider discursive formations that shape the institution and its protagonists, as well as to the negotiations that seem to accompany knowledge production from field to exhibition. I ask how scientific knowledge stabilizes within expert networks that form around the exchange of visits, expertise, and proxies of archeological objects, and after its translation into narrative, image, and exhibit. I exemplify how, in order to survive in the course of circulation thus made possible, ‘our ancestors’ had to adapt to different cultural environments.

Two Upcoming Events

Field Notes regulars (or anyone interested in the histories of archaeology and anthropology) may well be interested in the following two conferences, which are organised by/involve various people who have given seminars for us at CRASSH.

The first is called “The Disciplined Past: Critical Reflections on the Study of the Middle East”, and is taking place at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard on April 4-5. Broadly speaking, “the symposium aims to reassess the study and the representation of the Middle East in scholarship and museums today”, which should certainly be a topic of interest to various readers of this blog.

The second event is a conference taking place at the UCL Institute of Archaeology on October 18, for which the call for papers has just been released. The deadline for submission of abstracts to “Performance and Display in the History of Archaeology” is May 31, and the conference “aims to explore the development of visual cultures in archaeology”.

Needless to say, both events come highly recommended!

“Disciplinary Formation, Imperialist Gender, and Nationalist Class: Egyptian Archaeology under British Military Occupation, 1882-1956”

At our final seminar of Lent Term, Field Notes was delighted to hear Stephen Quirke, Amelia Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at UCL and Research Curator at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology speak about the origins of Egyptology as a discipline and the constraints imposed by this genesis on its modern practice.

Starting with Said’s 1989 call to heed the ‘Othering’ inherent in Western anthropology, Prof. Quirke observed that responses to the anthropological turn in the late 1980s/early 1990s “seem pale”, noting that the ‘violence’ we ‘inflict’ in the fields of archaeology and anthropology are unsustainable in the long term – and that not all people are interested in “Others” to the extent of Anglo-American culture. Situating the questions he asked about the evolution of Egyptology, gender, and class/nationalism, within the context of recent work by R. Boynter et al. (Controlling the Past, Owning the Future: The Political Uses of Archaeology in the Middle East, 2010), Christina Riggs (‘Colonial Visions: Egyptian Antiquities and Contested Histories in the Cairo Museum’, Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 1.1 (2013): 65-84), and others, Prof. Quirke outlined what he viewed as the ‘disciplinary gridlock between ‘gender’, ‘class/nation’, and ‘race/empire’. Sketching a brief outline of Egyptian political history from the beginning of British military occupation in 1882 through to the Suez Crisis of 1956, Prof. Quirke observed that not much had changed in the practice of Egyptology from the early 19th century through to the present, despite new USAID initiatives in the form of locally-run archaeological field schools in Egypt.

Is archaeology, Prof. Quirke asked, “toxic” to its host country? Is “neocolonialism” in an insidious and quite disturbing way  “even more efficient than its predecessor”?

Arabic archaeological publications in Arab-speaking countries are still dominated by Western narratives, reflecting the early 20th century trend for heads of the Egyptian Antiquities Service to be Europeans chosen out of desperation even when qualified Egyptian candidates (Ahmad Najib, Ahmad Kamal) existed. Underscoring the striking similarities between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in this narrative of Egyptology, Prof. Quirke called for a stronger, and more nuanced, criticism of “us” and the “Other” in the field, both disciplinary and physical.

Focusing on gender, Prof. Quirke argued that women archaeologists abroad were able to create new hybrid class identities in different environmental contexts. Citing May Amherst (Lady William Cecil), Margaret Benson, Margaret Murray, and Hilda Petrie in the British context, as well as Ida von Hahn-Hahn, Wolfradine von Minutoli, Ida Pfeiffer, and Amalia Sola Nizzoli on the Continent as examples, Prof. Quirke nevertheless argued that women tend to be silent figures in histories of Egyptology because they frequently held roles (i.e., epigraphic) whose secondary position meant their names were ‘unpublished’, and were no more conspicuously present in the late 19th century than in the 1810s-1820s.

Gender is a slippery category, and it’s subtle diffusion into areas of identity like class, race, and nationality equally diffuse across pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial contexts remind us that the culture of Egyptology is just as elusive to pin down. Prof. Quirke concluded by flagging three specific areas of future engagement, optimistically calling for pragmatic action to resolve the dilemma of the anthropological turn and the pervasive Western authority of Egyptology.

  1. Write new histories of Egyptology by targeting the archive: Seek sources beyond the structure of the university,  forms that aren’t eligible for conservation in national archives.
  2. Evacuation: Should scholars leave the discipline, and seek other avenues for the advancement of knowledge, e.g. grassroots, Arabic-language archaeological publications?
  3. Authorship: Should we seek an unstable plurality – and can we even change our own, Eurocentric practices?

Our discussant, Dr. Mimi Winick (Rutgers University), noted that the problem of feasibility haunted each of these three solutions. Instead, Dr. Winick highlighted the concept of interdisciplinarity, or rather the inherent multidisciplinarity akin to early modern science/inquiry,

arguing the benefits of an “alchemical knowledge” challenging the limits of the defined, legitimated “knowledge” structures safeguarded by universities today

– i.e., works like Martin Bernal’s Black Athena that prompt a critical reading of the discipline due to their controversial and extra-academic nature. Alternative references and archives might foster a new kind of disciplinary knowledge by making space for other authorities and standards, a refashioning that in some ways neatly complements the origins of Egyptology. As a hybrid epistemology that sought a “new way” to explain the 19th century origins story by challenging the logocentricity of European knowledge, Egyptology privileged material culture whilst legitimising this new focus by tacking it to the already established legitimacy of philology as afield. And where, Dr. Winick asked, do we draw the line between occult histories and academic writing? What, in this Egyptology as modern hybridity, begins to define the ‘colonial’ and ‘non-colonial’?

These are thorny questions that prompt many others in turn, but we must not ignore them simply because they are uncomfortable. Self-critical narratives like those discussed by Prof. Quirke and Dr. Winick are crucial to the longevity and health of any field, and the constellation of interconnecting points (race, empire, colonialism, publishing practices, etc.) they raised are pertinent to archaeology in general, and should not go unheeded.

See you in April!

~ The Field Notes Team