Making Archaeology, Making Markets

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading the Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations published by the League of Nations’ International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation in 1940. It’s been a more exciting process than you might think. This lengthy volume (Manual 1940) is notable for a couple of reasons, not least because – and feel free to correct me here – it seems to have been almost entirely forgotten about in histories of archaeology; the Manual is an artefact of the professionalisation of the discipline in the period surrounding the Second World War that now doesn’t appear anywhere in professional archaeological consciousness (although the volume and its related legislative material is discussed as an artefact of international cultural property law in Vrdoljak 2006).

On some level, this omission seems unsurprising. The International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation was a predecessor organisation of, and amalgamated into, UNESCO, and institutional histories often flatten out and forget such changes. The Second World War also presumably played a part in making the Manual‘s existence fade into history. Meanwhile, leafing through not only the lists of the book’s editorial committee, but also the delegates to the March 1937 Cairo conference on which the volume is based (Manual 1940, 8 and 227-28), certain of the usual suspects relating to (Anglophone) archaeological professionalisation are missing: George Reisner was present, but Gordon Childe, Kathleen Kenyon, Mortimer Wheeler and many others were not. The conference took place in the year after the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, so perhaps they simply weren’t minded to turn up to a contentious corner of empire? It’s hard to tell, and it would be interesting to see what the Egyptian press made of an event that did include archaeologists and officials from all over Europe and the nearby League of Nations mandates. The conference lasted a week, and will doubtless have been covered by al-Ahram (if not other Egyptian newspapers, too), but I haven’t had time to do the research – yet.

Regardless, fifty-three delegates turned up to a conference in Cairo a couple of years before the Second World War. Once there, they helped to produce not only a textbook on how to conduct work in what was becoming the modern and professional archaeological discipline, but also a Final Act that was approved by the Assembly of the League of Nations on September 30th, 1937 (Manual 1940, 211). It is hard to tell how successful either the Act or the Manual were. But what is interesting is the extent to which, within them, professional practices of archaeological excavation are seen as indivisible from – and in fact constitutive of – a wider market in ancient artefacts (cf. Vrdoljak 2006, 116-17). Professionalising archaeology meant making a market in the objects extracted through archaeological excavation, too: the Final Act stated that “all Governments should consider the question of controlling the trade in antiquities in the general interests of the common archaeological heritage” (Manual 1940, 217), but didn’t state that this trade should be stopped. In fact, as Vrdoljak (2006, 117) notes, within the Final Act and the Manual “free trade in objects not subject to export controls” was positively encouraged, and at the same time as such a form of commerce was encouraged in the countries that were part of the League of Nations’ Mandate system. Furthermore, states were “to encourage excavations by granting liberal and equable conditions, guaranteeing … the possibility of competing for excavation licenses” (Manual 1940, 218).

Here, archaeology made the market that many of its practitioners would later come to question at the same time as its practitioners helped the discipline to make itself. Indeed, to make this market had an intensely moral justification, because archaeology as a professional science was to be intensely moral in terms of its methodology. To be used in countries and backed by states around the world, the Manual (1940, 61-62) somewhat ludicrously stated that:

“stratigraphic excavation is not only the mechanical application of a method, simple and straightforward in itself, but also expresses intelligence, intuition and penetration of facts, very often of infinitesimal vestiges of facts. A person who undertakes this work other than in a wholehearted spirit of zeal and self-denial will be unfit to face the problems of stratigraphic excavation; he must confine himself to the already vast and complex field of “surface” exploration, where the object of examination and study offers itself more or less intact to our observations and the observations of others. Stratigraphic excavation, on the contrary, inevitably involves the destruction of the area examined and consequently places on the shoulders of the excavator the gravest responsibility of his mission.”

The moralistic and commercial overtones found in the Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations therefore raise a viper’s nest full of issues for anyone who wants to think about archaeology after 1945. For one, these issues make it clear that archaeologists, to the extent that they shared anything at all, may well have shared a different set of ethical commitments to the ones that they (in theory) share now: commerce in the objects that they excavated was promoted as part and parcel of their work, and this point needs to be made clear and considered in terms of what it means for the present discipline. More than this (fairly obvious) point, though, these overtones raise questions about how best to write the history of archaeology in the first place. Judging by the Manual, any history of archaeology in this period also has to be a history of the spread of not only the market, but also therefore a history of ‘the economy’ that developed – at least as Timothy Mitchell (2002 and 2013) would have it – as a constructed set of organising practices and principles related to the post-War, and nation-state backed, constitution of that market as a central facet of the post-War world. To write the history of archaeology, then, is to write the history of something that might once have seemed entirely separate from it, but that instead is indivisibly linked: attempting to spread archaeology as a professional practice seems to have meant attempting to spread Keynesianism, too, at least in some quarters.

All of which is simply to reiterate that histories of archaeology cannot be separated from the wider world and its making. It is hard (in fact, more or less impossible) to believe that an overwhelming number of archaeologists going into the field after 1945 went out as die-hard advocates of certain post-War financial policies. Yet it is less difficult to believe that the work that archaeologists did at least helped to spread those policies: as Gabriel Moshenska (2013, 138) notes, the speakers at the 1943 Conference on the Future of Archaeology held at the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology “appeared defiantly confident of the socio-cultural roles and values of archaeology in rebuilding post-war society in Britain and beyond”. Archaeological work therefore represented one node in the network that made post-War financial policies (and others connected to them) function, inadvertently or otherwise; one might even make the claim that statigraphically-excavated archaeological objects are ineluctably market-objects, too (cf. Stevenson 2014 for a slightly different, and historically earlier, iteration of this point in connection to museums).

For a long time, historians (whether of science or more generally) seem to have been reluctant to address the wider histories connected to archaeology, and for a long time we have therefore been left with accounts that seem to highlight notable facets of archaeological work without really knowing how to incorporate them into bigger narratives: everyone seems to know (and enjoy stating) that archaeology and military intelligence have been connected from their beginnings, for instance, but very few people have convincingly demonstrated why that connection is actually interesting beyond the level of ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’. Yet the same connection might be drawn between archaeological work and intelligence as between archaeological work and the market economy. Ultimately, archaeology is one practice in a set of practices that attempt (however successfully, and however purposefully) to impose certain forms of order upon the world. The questions become, then, ones of how does archaeology attempt to do so, how are its connections to other practices visible, and what (or who) is responsible for the discipline’s success or failure in this endeavour? Those are questions worth thinking about.


Manual. 1940. Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations. Paris: International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2013. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Second (paperback) edition. London and New York: Verso.

Moshenska, Gabriel. 2013. “Reflections on the 1943 ‘Conference on the Future of Archaeology'”. Archaeology International 16, 128-39.

Stevenson, Alice. 2014. “Artefacts of Excavation: The British Collection and Distribution of Egyptian Finds to Museums, 1880-1915”. Journal of the History of Collections 26 (1), 89-102.

Vrdoljak, Ana Filipa. 2006. International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Excavating a Free World? Archaeology and the Cold War

What is the relationship of archaeological knowledge to the prosecution of the Cold War? It’s possible to put forward a number of answers to this question, which scholars have barely addressed. Sometimes, though, a particular source jumps out that suggests that one answer might be more useful than others. Such sources also suggest something of the potential power of that answer for explaining how a ‘bipolar’ world was actually experienced.

Take a volume called Men in Search of Man, written during the 1960s, that deals with the actions of archaeological practitioners from the United States (I don’t want to use this blog to focus solely on America, but the numbers of this sort of source that are available makes the country a useful starting point). On one level, the publication suggests that at least some American archaeologists made good use of the opportunities afforded by the paranoia surrounding communism to excavate and conduct research at certain, very desirable sites. Percy Madeira, Jr., President of the Board of Managers of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, authored the volume (Madeira 1964) on the occasion of the Museum’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Inside, he makes it clear that countries perceived to be at risk from falling under the ‘Red’ spell were countries where American archaeologists often seemed to be able to arrange access.

Men in Search of Man demonstrates how the Cold War provided the space for archaeologists to gain access to sites in countries around the world (as its title suggests, the volume also reveals a Cold War-era institution of aggressive and somewhat paranoid scientific masculinity that is familiar from other contexts, too). I read the book because I was looking for information on excavations that took place in Egypt around this time, but found it notable in how many other locations around the world similar circumstances of access obtained. For instance, in 1954, the CIA had orchestrated, and the United Fruit Company had lobbied for, a coup in Guatemala to remove the (moderate, but reformist) government of President Jacobo Árbenz. Under Árbenz, policies of land reform and nationalisation had been legislated, threatening the previously powerful hold of US corporations like the United Fruit Company over Guatemalan resources (notably bananas, in addition to the labour that was used to pick them). Asserting that the country might turn (or already was) communist and align with the Soviet bloc, the CIA replaced Árbenz’s government with a military regime under the Presidency of Castillo Armas.

The new Guatemalan regime presented an opportunity to an institution like the University Museum. Before the Second World War, the Museum’s position, alongside that of other, similar institutions, had to some extent been based upon its ability to send excavating missions to colonised countries (archaeology’s links to missionary work had been, and often still were, close). Yet the moves to national independence that were now taking place around the globe posed a clear threat to this (embattled, and always somewhat ineffectual) status quo: it was unclear whether the presence of missions from places like the University Museum in formerly colonised countries would now be welcome. Yet regimes like the one newly-installed in Guatemala made life for the institution considerably easier. As Percy Madeira (1964, 65) noted, “in 1956 the University Museum, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Guatemalan government, set out to free Tikal from the tangled foliage [of the rainforest] and partially to restore it”.

Why had this project come about? As Madeira (1964, 66) also noted: “when President Castillo Armas supplanted the Reds, the writer, who was familiar with Guatemala, revived the proposal”, which had originally been made in 1948, when “a Communist government came into power”. Now, though, “an agreement was reached with the [new] Guatemalan government whereby it would fly all the necessary men and machinery to Tikal at its expense if the Museum would spend $100,000 on the site”. This American institution, it seems, was welcome as part of the country’s new order, and its excavations would continue until 1970.

The quotes from Madeira’s volume illustrate how closely archaeological work and the Cold War were intertwined: they make it clear that events like the Guatemalan coup made access to certain archaeological sites much easier for practitioners from a ‘Free World’ country like the United States. Yet this explanation is overly simplistic, and there are other (much more powerful) answers to the question about what this interconnection means. Men in Search of Man provides a way of starting to explain what those answers are. In tandem with work works such as Odd Arne Westad’s (2005) The Global Cold War, Heonik Kwon’s (2010) The Other Cold War and Gabrielle Hecht’s (2012) Being Nuclear, the book raises the possibility that the history of archaeology can significantly complicate a bipolar model of Cold War history by suggesting not only that the supposedly ‘Cold’ conflict had material ramifications, but also by suggesting that its place was not limited to either ‘the West’ or to the Soviet bloc, nor even to the impact of those ramifications in a country like Guatemala.

What the Cold War actually was – and how the Cold War was experienced – came about not simply in the ways in which countries like the United States and the Soviet Union sought to impress their power upon the world. It came about in the material and social processes at a site like Tikal, the sort of place where the reality of such ‘global’ representations of power were negotiated (and then sent on their way again). The Cold War was local, global, and neither of those things. It was somewhere in between, constituted in the (often transnational) process of making and excavating an archaeological site. Or, at least, that is the situation that a critical reading of Percy Madeira’s book hints at.

Reading Madeira’s words more carefully, on one level the work at Tikal tried to bring the perceived benefits of the ‘Free World’ to the Guatemalan ground: “the project”, he (Madeira 1964, 65) stated, “was to be the largest of its kind ever undertaken by a museum in the Western Hemisphere”, an attempt to demonstrate what it was that the countries of the West could achieve via the material practices of excavation and restoration. “Stone by stone, Tikal began to emerge from its blanket of matted greenery” (Madiera 1964, 65). Also stone by stone, then, so the locals at work on the site would sense the putatively global political power that lay behind this process.

Madeira claimed that this power, emanating from the University Museum, now directed the Guatemalan government. “Workers and machines were airlifted two hundred miles from Guatemala City at the expense of the national government. … [A]ll these to a city whose builders lacked even a wheel” (Madeira 1964, 65). There is no way, then, to separate this sort of archaeological work from the larger power structures that surrounded it. Archaeology and the Cold War constituted each other rather than the Cold War simply allowing for some sort of ‘archaeology as normal’ to take place. The apparent provision of technological progress by the University Museum (Tikal “lacked even a wheel”, after all) implied the simultaneous presence of the Free World political forms that ordered that progress.

Yet what Madeira does not discuss is how this situation played out beyond his own idealised description of events: how did the dig materialise in practice? Did officials in Guatemala City really bend over backwards at the Museum’s requests? How did workers on the ground in Tikal react to the ways in which University Museum representatives ordered the excavation, not to mention the workers themselves? Did the archaeologists appointed by the University Museum to lead the work (including Edwin Shook and Aubrey Trik) share in Madeira’s apparently gung-ho Free Worldism?

If these sorts of questions can be answered (and it will take a lot of careful archival work to answer them), then that is when an understanding of the interplay between archaeology and the Cold War can really start to be made. The two constituted each other, not to mention political and social realities in countries like Guatemala. But a brief reading of a volume like Men in Search of Man only hints at what this process of construction might mean, and how the location of this process might be moved away from narratives based on bipolar or national frameworks into the transnational space of the field and the networks circulating around it. Madeira’s words hint at the gaps in our knowledge that can be filled, but it will take some time yet to fill them.


Hecht, Gabrielle. 2012. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Kwon, Heonik. 2010. The Other Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press.

Madeira, Jr., Percy C. 1964. Men in Search of Man: The First Seventy-Five Years of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Westad, Odd Arne. 2005. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.