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.


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