Past masters

When COVID-19 reached New Zealand, all my plans to continue excavating and attend conferences ground to a halt. So I turned my attention to writing my memoir, Digging Deep: a journey into South-east Asia’s past. Having kept a diary since 1955, I was able to pinpoint to the day various crossroads in my life that led me to archaeology. Since then, I have become interested in other archaeologist’s recollections. Indeed, in one of these I read that every archaeologist should take the time to recount their discoveries, and describe how they first became hooked. In The Past Masters, 12 pioneer archaeologists recalled how they began and what they looked back on as their particular achievements. Having begun my own serious studies in 1957, I knew most of them as the grand old men of the discipline – and, yes, all the authors were men. I just missed Gordon Childe by a week or so, as he left the Institute of Archaeology in London as I began, but his presence pervaded St John’s Lodge, and on my birthday on 19 October, I arrived for my class to the news that he had just killed himself by jumping off Govetts Leap in the Blue Mountains of Australia. I made sure I visited the very spot when I found myself there years later.

Queen Pu-Abi’s headdress, with its gold poplar and willow leaves and lapis lazuli beads, dates to about 2550 BC. It is 26cm high. Photo: courtesy of the Penn Museum

Stuart Piggott with Glyn Daniel and John Evans were the trio who led our team of aspiring prehistorians on a memorable visit to the Lipari islands in 1958. He had the good fortune to be encouraged by O G S Crawford and succeeded Childe in the Abercromby Chair at Edinburgh. Bob and Linda Braidwood once welcomed me to Chicago. Their excavations at Jarmo were front-page news in the late 1950s, set against Kathleen Kenyon’s fieldwork at Jericho as they debated the origins of agriculture in the Near East. John Mulvaney was the pioneer in his native Australia, responsible for pushing back human settlement there by thousands of years. Gordon Willey came to Cambridge on a sabbatical in about 1960, so I came across him too. When I was lucky enough to spend part of my doctoral research on a Danish government scholarship in Copenhagen, I was greatly helped by Carl Becker. At least two common themes prevailed. One was the help given by the older generation, and the other was luck.

Annus mirabilis

My most recent biography, however, concerns Sir Leonard Woolley and the year 1922. I am tempted to write about him because a recent email message from a young American archaeologist revealed that he had never heard of him. 1922 was an annus mirabilis for archaeology, seeing a conjunction of three discoveries in three great civilisations of the Old World. In November of that year, Howard Carter found the steps leading down to the tomb of the teenage pharaoh Tutankhamun. Sir John Marshall began his epic excavations at Mohenjo-Daro, and Leonard Woolley was opening what became 12 seasons that included finding royal tombs at Ur of the Chaldees in Iraq. Before the First World War, Woolley and Lawrence of Arabia had worked together, under conditions of great difficulty, at Carchemish, an Assyrian and Hittite centre that straddles the border between Turkey and Syria. Working as I have done for years as a guest in a foreign country, one is totally dependent on the goodwill of the local authorities for the necessary permits. Woolley worked under considerable duress during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, as war clouds gathered and the Germans were nearby building the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. So imagine Woolley’s dilemma when informed by the local Turkish administrator that he would not be given permission to continue digging. Woolley rapidly resolved the situation by holding a gun to the man’s head and informing him that he would be back in the square the following morning.

The bull-headed lyre from the Ur royal tombs. It is made of gold, silver, shell, and lapis lazuli on a wooden base. The head is 35.6cm high. Photo: courtesy of the Penn Museum

Woolley also had the misfortune by birth to be eligible to participate in both world wars. During the earlier, he was an intelligence officer who regularly sailed up the eastern Mediterranean coast on missions until captured and imprisoned by the Turks. During the Second World War, he was back serving in intelligence with a Middle Eastern focus. But with his release from a prison camp in 1919, he obtained funding from the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to direct the fieldwork at Ur, which – like Carchemish – had strong biblical connections as the possible home of Abraham. And so, on Sunday 29 October 1922, Leonard Woolley arrived by train at Ur Junction to begin, remarkably just five days before Carter took the first step down into the tomb of Tutankhamun. Inevitably, rivalry arose between the two camps. Woolley was a master publicist and Gertrude Bell was a regular visitor to the dig to apportion the artefacts between the Iraqi government and the sponsoring museums. One of the problems was the regular discovery of gold, and, with 200 or so workmen, it was necessary to reward them handsomely or lose precious finds.

Inevitably, given the biblical background to Ur, there was a host of visitors. In October 1925, Max Mallowan joined the team as a new field assistant. I was lucky enough to be taught by him at the Institute of Archaeology 32 years later. Agatha Christie was another visitor, and Max was given responsibility to explain the dig and show her nearby sites. In due course, they married, and she was an occasional visitor to the Institute tea room. By then Max was digging at Nimrud and finding the spectacular ivories. He said in one of his lectures that his wife earned in a week what he earned in a year. Hopefully, I once asked if I could join him at Nimrud. He responded positively, if I could afford the fare and my keep. I couldn’t, so I went to Verulamium in Hertfordshire instead. Ur had a deep impact on Agatha Christie. She ‘fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, its lovely pale colours of apricot, rose, blue and mauve… It filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself’ – so she wrote in her autobiography.

It took a long time to train Woolley’s huge workforce, overseen by Sheikh Hamoudi, and work into the depths of Ur. By the 1927 season, Woolley was on the brink of his greatest discoveries. Two thousand graves of the populace at large were uncovered, none standing out for their wealth. But then came one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time: the royal graves. The golden helmet of King Meskalamdug was compared with the golden mask of Tutanhkhamun, and the golden dagger blade with its lapis lazuli hilt and golden sheath was described as ‘a marvel of design and workmanship’. The king’s drinking bowls bore his name and the text ‘good hero of the land’. The next season saw the opening of the tomb of Queen Pu-Abi and revelation of ‘unrecorded barbarities’. First, came rows of skeletal attendants, the women wearing stunning golden headdresses but each accompanied by a drinking vessel that, it was surmised, had contained the poisoned draught that they had taken to accompany their queen in death. There were the remains of a wheeled vehicle and a lyre player, his lyre decorated with a golden bull’s head from which eyes of lapis lazuli stared out from the oblivion of 5,000 years.

Woolley’s description of the death- pit and attendant rituals must be read by all those fascinated in the excitement of discovery. To his worldwide audience, Woolley revealed the soldiers, men servants, and court women in their headdresses of carnelian, lapis, silver, and gold, the harpists playing to the last, the chariots drawn by oxen, all at the entrance to the tomb of Queen Pu-Abi and her husband. All this was published in what is the most widely read archaeological book of all time, which went through eight printings in six years under the simple title Ur of the Chaldees.

Sir John Marshall was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 until 1928. As work began at Ur, so he began his exploration of the great city of the Indus Civilisation at Mohenjo-Daro. Not least among his many discoveries were seals that showed direct contact with Sumeria. Further east still, this was the time when Anyang, the last capital of the Shang Dynasty of China was being explored.

There are occasions when it is timely to recall some of the great discoveries in archaeology that fascinate us all. Are they now largely a thing of the past? I doubt it. A lot more awaits discovery.

Charles Higham is a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand, and an authority on Cambodia's Angkor civilisation and Ban Non Wat in Thailand.