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.


One thought on “Making Archaeology, Making Markets

  1. Pingback: What we are talking about when we talk about Tutankhamun’s beard | HARN Weblog

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