There were always copies of National Geographic lying around in my parents’ house. My father has been a long-time Nat. Geo. reader, and he recently told me about how, as a young boy, reconstruction drawings of ancient life published in the magazine stoked his childhood imagination. My great-grandfather, he said, had accumulated a large collection of National Geographic issues going back to the 1920s. I can easily picture my father as a youngster sitting in his grandfather’s house with an open magazine on his lap, entranced.*
I knew that the digitised archive of National Geographic back issues would be the perfect birthday gift for him. Plus, as I am actively accumulating evidence of popular publishing in archaeology, it would be quite handy for my own research too. And so it was that, over the recent holidays, my father and I sat down with his laptop and browsed chronologically through the first sixty years of National Geographic.
The very early issues were much closer to an academic journal than I expected – few papers, sparsely illustrated. Most seemed to cover what we might call physical geography. By the 1910s, however, articles were heavily illustrated, sometimes in colour, and resembled the modern format for National Geographic more closely. A wide range of topics were featured – travels, cultures, peoples, places, scientific discoveries, current affairs and (importantly for my purposes) archaeology.
I was especially interested in what archaeological topics were being covered, when, and who was writing the articles. Being an US-published magazine, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that a significant proportion of archaeology covered between the 1910s and the 1940s focused on the Americas – North, Central and South - and the US expeditions uncovering the past in these regions. Hiram Bingham, the American archaeologist associated with Machu Picchu, for example, wrote about his explorations in Peru (sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society) in the April 1913 issue. But the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Near East makes an appearance too. In September 1913 a series of three well illustrated articles on ancient Egypt were published, the first by Rev. James Baikie, who as a popular archaeology author was the pre-First World War equivalent to post-Second World War Leonard Cottrell.
The most fascinating result of the browsing sessions, however, was finding Leonard Woolley’s 1928 article on excavation. Woolley was then Director of the University of Pennsylvania/British Museum excavations at Ur in Iraq, but he had been working in archaeology for over twenty years. Entitled “Archaeology the Mirror of the Ages”, it’s the article’s subtitle that really packs the punch: “Our Debt to the Humble Delvers in the Ruins at Carchemish and at Ur.” It is the story of the diggers.
Archaeologists, Woolley states, would have very little to report without the men they employ to do the backbreaking physical labour of digging out the earth. To these pick-men – the real ‘spade’-workers – the credit of discovery should be due. He includes narrative sketches of his foreman "Mohammed ibn Sheik Ibrahim" (known as Hamoudi) who worked for him at Carchemish, a city of the ancient Hittite empire in northern Syria, and Ur. Though Woolley’s stories are slightly tinged with early 20th century superiority, his message about the debt archaeologists owe those they employ to dig is a critical one; and one that historians of archaeology have begun to address in the past decade.**
Through Woolley’s eyes we see not merely human digging machines, but individuals from a variety of backgrounds actively engaged in interpreting and recreating the past alongside Woolley and the other ‘archaeologists’ on site. Woolley’s nineteen-page article has nineteen images; one of the photographs shows workers re-enacting daily life in ancient times in the remains of a kitchen uncovered at Ur. National Geographic readers in 1928 would have had an introduction both to the diversity of culture on site and to a rather more nuanced view of diggers than was evident through most archaeological publications.
Over thirty years’ worth of National Geographic magazines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are now available online via Internet Archive. There’s a lot to discover in these pages; my brief foray into the back issues of National Geographic has shown me that, for the history of popular archaeology publishing at least, it’s a periodical definitely worth a closer look.
*I'm now reliably informed that my father's 'reading room' was in fact an incredibly hot and humid attic, complete with old cannon balls and suitcases.
**See, for example, Stephen Quirke’s book Hidden Hands; the Petrie Museum exhibition “Framing the Archaeologist”; the article on the Palestinian excavator Yusra on Trowelblazers and the profile of Ali Suefi, an Egyptian excavator for Flinders Petrie in Characters and Collections.