The history of archaeology, as a field, has always seemed (to me) to be playing catch up with work in the history of anthropology.[1] Yet, reading the contributions to HAN’s “Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks” Special Focus Section suggests to me that the histories of archaeology and anthropology now operate on the same plane in terms of the tensions that drive their production. Anyone working on archaeology’s history should be willing to grapple with the many tensions inherent in acknowledging the field’s geopolitical entanglements in the same way as historians of anthropology. Indeed, these shared but distinct histories of knowledge production can be put to good analytical use. As their investigations are driven by similar—and often entangled—tensions, are bounded categories like ‘the history of archaeology’ or ‘the history of anthropology’ still useful?

I am not calling for the wholesale destruction of these categories. I am, however, asking how best we might work to shape these categories in a way that gives them renewed analytical heft, particularly with regard to decolonizing the practices and categories through which these fields construct their knowledge. One answer to this question is to think further about how, in what forms, and through which things, the practice and mobilization of archaeology and anthropology defined possibilities in making (knowledge of) the world. Discussing literary studies, Rita Felski notes that it is time to recognize “the text’s status as coactor: as something that makes a difference, that helps make things happen” (2015, 12). Alongside their objects (material or metaphorical), we might make a similar recognition of archaeology and anthropology both.

I see the utility of thinking about such entanglements in my own work on the global history of post-Second World War archaeology in the newly independent countries of Egypt and Sudan. In the early 1960s, a Ford Foundation-funded, Egyptian-American ethnological survey worked in the region of Egyptian Nubia to document the population whose homes were about to be submerged by the floodwaters of the Aswan

Image courtesy of the Archaeological Survey of India

Engraving Expertise: Artifacts from the Archaeological Survey of India’s expedition to Egyptian Nubia (1962)

High Dam—itself a product of geological and engineering work. At the same time, archaeologists under the imprimatur of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia—known for the salvage of the ancient temples of Abu Simbel and its role in the gestation of the 1972 World Heritage Convention—worked in both Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia to survey and excavate the ancient remains located there. While these events took place, both Egypt and Sudan were grappling with the end of colonial rule. As they did so, what sorts of knowledge did this geographically diverse grouping of disciplines and practitioners create? What forms of evidence did it make admissible? Who was allowed to speak for and about this evidence, and where could they do so?

Such questions have, of course, long concerned historians and sociologists of science. However, in framing these questions through the histories of archaeology and anthropology, the relationship between the global and knowledge production can be interrogated in new ways. Answers to these questions make visible the historical possibilities concealed in the co-production of these categories and undermine notions of a flat and seamlessly globalized planet.

Cold War politics played a sizeable role in constituting the Aswan High Dam and the Nubian campaign, strengthening representations of globally mobile—and vaguely defined—networks of bipolar expertise (Allais 2012). But it was expansive and intersectional communities of practice that included non-European actors and go-betweens that made these archaeological and anthropological endeavors possible. These actors used the forms of expertise involved for their own benefit. For example, a team from the Archaeological Survey of India mobilized their work in Nubia to promote ideas of a ‘Greater India,’ and the newly independent Sudanese government simultaneously promoted archaeological and ethnological work within their own, much wider developmentalist project. How did these different interests play out, and how do the ways in which they generated knowledge alter our understanding of what the global might be, particularly at a time when the end of colonial rule made new and different realities seem possible? Here are questions that the histories of anthropology and archaeology can productively contribute to answering. I hope that they will.


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Acknowledgements: This piece draws on research funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung and the Max Weber Stiftung. The author is grateful for their support.


Works Cited:

Allais, Lucia. 2012. “The Design of the Nubian Desert: Monuments, Mobility, and the Space of Global Culture.” In Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, edited by Aggregate collective, 179-215. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press

Carruthers, William and Stéphane Van Damme. 2017. “Disassembling Archaeology, Reassembling the Modern World.” History of Science 55 (3), 255–272.

Felski, Rita. 2015. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


[1] For more on what ‘the history of archaeology’ might constitute, see Carruthers and Van Damme (2017).


William Carruthers: contributions / / Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, Department of Art History and World Art Studies, University of East Anglia