I haven’t written here in a few months. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing – I’m always writing, something, somewhere – only that I haven’t had anything I felt I could share in this forum. Life gets in the way, too. Academics aren’t terrible humans, but terribly human.
And being human, we miss things out sometimes. A source we couldn’t track down, a language we can’t read, or a piece of evidence we inadvertently overlooked, like Dr Watson trying to keep up with Sherlock Holmes. When researching and writing my Photographing Tutankhamun book, I kept meaning to spend enough time in London (I don’t live on Baker Street) to go through a newspaper called The Egyptian Gazette. As far as I can tell, the British Library has the only run of this newspaper in the United Kingdom, which surprised me given that it was the main English-language newspaper published in Egypt during the colonial era and throughout the interwar period. Founded by British journalists in Alexandria in 1880, the Gazette is still in print, with Egyptian editors at the helm since the 1952 revolution.
The Gazette was the daily paper for the large British community in Egypt, including archaeologists. Tutankhamun photographer Harry Burton referred to the newspaper in some of his letters from Egypt, passing on news to colleagues back in New York. In 1933, for instance, he wrote to Herbert Winlock: ‘According to the Gippy Gazette, Lacau has renewed his contract with the Gov[ernmen]t for another three years. At the beginning of the season it was rumoured that he was going to resign […] but Madame won’t let him!’ Lacau was Pierre Lacau, head of the Antiquities Service in Egypt from 1914 to 1936 – and the man with whom Howard Carter clashed over the fate of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. And yes, ‘Gippy’ is a derogatory diminutive of ‘Egyptian’, a slang that appears elsewhere in Burton’s letters and must have been common parlance at the time. Certainly he felt comfortable using it in his professional correspondence.
To my regret, I never did make it to the British Library to read through The Egyptian Gazette during the 1920s, when it covered the excavation of the tomb and all the legal and political controversy around it. Life got in the way, and I decided that a complete book that relied on other scholars’ use of the Gazette (like the excellent Donald Malcolm Reid) was better than an incomplete book languishing on my laptop. Not ideal, but the best I could do in the circumstances. The list of sources in Photographing Tutankhamun makes it clear which newspapers I did consult, and crucially how I accessed them: namely, by database, on a laptop or as print-outs, from desks in Oxford and Norfolk, and occasionally an armchair by the fire. Research, Watson-style.
Unlike several major newspapers in British and North American cities, the Gazette hasn’t been digitized by scanning it (although an effort to digitize and analyze a single year, 1905, has been undertaken by Prof. Will Hanley‘s students at Florida State University, in a fascinating online project). Instead, it’s kept on microfilm, the medium of an earlier generation of ‘digitization’. If you’ve never used it before, viewing microfilm has its frustrations, and sitting in front of a microfilm reader, scrolling through one roll of film at a time, can be frustrating and hypnotizing, in turns. It is undoubtedly time-intensive work, unless you have a specific date or narrow date range of pages you want to read. Digitally scanned newspapers, in contrast, have searchable text, so as long as you know that Tutankhamun was spelled ‘Tutankhamen’ in the 1920s, you can stick the name into a database search function and work your way through whatever results turn up.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Word searches in a database are time-efficient, but unless you take the time to read the surrounding pages, or the whole issue, of the publication, you miss out on the experience readers at the time had. Knowing that news of Tutankhamun appeared right next to news about the occupation of the Ruhr valley, a flu epidemic, and the Lausanne Conference – all of which were knock-on effects of the First World War – helps put the political context of Egyptian archaeology in focus, which is where it should be. Microfilm takes time, more time than I had for the book project in the end, but for all that it feels far-removed from the physical experience of handling a newspaper, it does give you more of a sense of what a whole newspaper was.
An overlooked aspect of both microfilm and scan-based digitization are the motivations behind the selection of what to record in the first place. An award-winning academic article by Prof. Paul Fyfe, entitled ‘An Archaeology of Victorian Newspapers’ (PDF) details the involvement of intelligence services like the CIA – yes, really – in earlier drives to preserve library material. Microfilm technology, which is a form of micro-photography, itself developed out of intelligence operations. Its potential was then marketed to libraries and record offices, especially after the bombing campaigns of the Second World War made the preservation of printed material (or at least, some printed material) seem an urgent priority. Seventy years later, preserving printed material through technology still seems an urgent priority – but as Fyfe points out, ‘New media is always in the process of constituting itself as new, erasing the legacies of its entanglements and the continuous work of its propagation.’ (Fyfe 2016, p. 546).
In other words, as I often say about photography and archives, there is no neutral source, no innocent image or record. Sometimes the people who were making and using photographs in colonial-era and interwar archaeology reveal more awareness of a photograph’s unreliability than the scholars who treat those photographs today as sacrosanct ‘records’ of immediate facts. To end this post, appropriately, here is a snippet from The Egyptian Gazette, courtesy of my colleague Dr William Carruthers – who has been more assiduous than me about scrolling through microfilm in the British Library. Published Saturday, 17 October 1931, it’s a feature about a book on forensic chemistry, written by Alfred Lucas – one-time head of the Egyptian Government’s analytical laboratory, who dedicated several years to the repair, analysis, and chemical treatment of objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. ‘Egypt’s Sherlock Holmes’, the headline calls him:
The article reveals awareness – and anxiety – about how unreliable photographs could be: ‘When dealing with photographs, it should not be forgotten that both negatives and prints are very easily “faked”. Thus a negative may not be the original negative, but a secondary one on which something not on the original has been added or from which something has been omitted, and in the same way the print may have been made from a “faked” original or from a secondary negative.’
Such processes of re-photography were everyday practices, as was the manipulation of negatives or positives, for instance to edit them for publication. If some photographs were more ‘true’, and some negatives more honest, it was because only a community of practitioners accepted a certain range of interference with the image – and rejected anything outside that range. A lot depended on trust. No wonder advice manuals for field photography, or a book on forensics, like Lucas’s here, gave such precise stipulations for taking ‘good’ (trustworthy) photographs.
Elementary, whether you’re a Holmes or a Watson: photographs aren’t facts. They’re photographs. I may have missed out some sources, but I’m confident I got the fundamentals right. And I promise, this very human academic will one day make it to the British Library and scroll through those microfilms myself.
Here are a couple of great books that tackle questions around the reliability of photography, plus something I wrote about re-photography in the Tutankhamun archive:
Geoffrey Belknap, From a Photograph: Authenticity, Science and the Periodical Press, 1870-1890. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Christina Riggs, ‘Photography and antiquity in the archive, or how Howard Carter moved the road to the Valley of the Kings’, History of Photography 40.3 (2016), 267-82.