“I am interested in the contentious aspects of history, too” – Interview with William Carruthers



During the Annual Conference in Heidelberg in October 2016 I had the opportunity to interview William Carruthers about his research on the connection between UNESCO politics, the difference in the management of cultural heritage on national level and the colonial traditions deeply embedded in archeological practices in North Africa.

William, before we speak about the role that decolonization, identity and heritage play in your research, I would like to ask you about what you are currently working on and where you are based.

wiliam-carruthersI am currently working as a fellow with the German Historical Institute London, funded by a Gerda Henkel Stiftung Postdoctoral Research Scholarship; I was also recently a Fellow at the M.S. Merian International Centre of Advanced Studies in New Delhi, funded by the Max Weber Stiftung. My work revolves around a foundational event in the narrative of UNESCO and “World Heritage”: the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which took place from 1960 to 1980. I am interested in the campaign for a number of reasons. The first one is what the Nubian campaign tells us about decolonization and the making of the past in decolonizing countries, and how this works also from a kind of global perspective; further how we talk about the movement of knowledge and about expertise related to the past. I initially trained as an archeologist and then spent several years in Egypt, but my PhD is actually in the history of science and I see my work straddling those two disciplinary worlds.


Basically, I was concerned with the history of the practice of archeology and its moral and ethical implications. My way of thinking about that turned into thinking about the categories archeologists have used and the way that they constitute the past across time and space. So, this kind of conference we are participating in here is interesting to me, because in a situation that sets up a sort of an interdisciplinary conversation, you get this wide range of almost contradictory opinions. On the one hand you have archaeologists who are embedded in the countries where they work, so often they have a very deep sort of relationship with those places. On the other hand, there are a lot of anthropological and historical scholars here who can question archaeologists about the categories that they use. I’m interested in the results of that sort of critical interrogation.

Thanks, I now have several follow-up questions. My first question is a practical question. Nubia – where is it located (because as far as I remember it is not located in just one country) and how do people identify with that cultural heritage? My second question would be – when you speak about historians and archeologists – who was more important for the construction of a national, cultural identity?

Nubia straddles the border of Egypt and Sudan – so Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia are two distinct geopolitical entities even as they’re identified as a coherent region. Nubia itself has been interpreted by archeologists in a number of ways. For a long time the region was seen through the lens of ancient Egyptian colonization, which of course fit historically with Egypt’s relationship with Sudan from the 19th century onwards. The standard narrative then goes that as a result of the Nubian campaign, Nubia became reinterpreted (as in the title of the 1977 book by William Y. Adams) as a “Corridor to Africa”, a social and geographical pathway. I think that the development of that concept is actually something we really need to think about. In many ways it is not quite as clear cut as it might seem from the campaign’s official narrative; the sense of Nubia being a contiguous area was not so concrete in practice. So, for instance, during the campaign, archaeological documentation in some ways helped to reinforce the geopolitical separation between two parts of Nubia by adhering to different national norms in terms of the recording of information. At the same time you have many archeologists working in Nubia who are still thinking about it basically through the lens of Egypt, because that is how they were trained to see it. I think that’s interesting, because you have an area supposedly becoming emblematic of regionality and mobility — this supposed “Corridor” —that in some ways actually isn’t. We should think, too, about how the campaign worked to solidify the categories of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia themselves.

Do people in Egypt claim Nubia as cultural heritage or do Sudanese people claim it as theirs?

There are all sorts of Nubian diaspora groups, and many of them have existed since long before the UNESCO campaign, partially because the original Aswan dam, inaugurated in the early twentieth century and heightened thirty years later, had already flooded parts of Egyptian Nubia. The UNESCO campaign seems to have increased Nubian identification with a Nubian heritage and I’d like to do more work to find out how, exactly, that happened, and also about how that breaks down in terms of differing Egyptian and Sudanese relationships to it. One thing it’s really important to remember, though, is that Nubians weren’t involved in the planning of the High Dam or the salvage campaign. And when you go through the archives it’s clear that neither UNESCO officials nor many of the experts involved with the campaign viewed the Nubians themselves as really in any way connected to the work or that the work might be connected to the building of any sort of Nubian identity. In Egyptian Nubia, there was a Nubian Ethnological Survey conducted by the American University in Cairo, but there seems to have been very little—if any—overlap between that and the UNESCO-connected work.

The Meroe Pyramids in North-East Sudan. Photo by Retlaw Snellac Photography (Flickr, CC-BY 2.0).

Nubian Pyramids at Meroe in North-East Sudan. Photo by Retlaw Snellac Photography (Flickr, CC-BY 2.0).

So local people were not involved in the discussions about the UNESCO-backed salvage campaign?

Not to the best of my knowledge. The whole thing was rather top-down, which is obviously not out-of-place for the period and emblematic of wider attitudes towards modernization and development. If you read Hassan Dafalla’s The Nubian Exodus (London, 1975), for example, this attitude comes across very strongly. Dafalla, the Sudanese official placed in charge of the forced emigration of the Sudanese Nubian population, would talk to the Nubians—canvass their opinions—but also constantly implies that the work he is doing is for their own good. It’s all quite paternalistic.

Is that a general concern you have about UNESCO?

Yes and no. What I am interested in is how historically that paternalism happened and also what it allowed in terms of the creation of knowledge about the past, particularly archaeological knowledge. You could criticize UNESCO very easily, of course (and people have obviously done so). But what is fascinating to me is that this foundational event in UNESCO’s world heritage mythology is, I think almost inevitably, conducted in this particular way and you wonder what that means for the work carried out during and after it. Thinking about that question in a slightly different way, for instance, it’s pretty clear that during the Nubian campaign archeological practices in existence since the colonial era enjoyed a certain amount of prominence. Many of the archaeologists involved in the campaign had trained in previous decades and worked across colonized countries and so it is interesting to me what that history means in terms of connections between the knowledge that they produce and the way in which UNESCO went on to promote world heritage. At the same time these practitioners often seemed really quite invested in the idea that they were salvaging something by working in Nubia, adhering to the rhetoric that UNESCO set forward. I think it has become rather easy to dismiss or criticize this language of salvage. And we need to move beyond that critique because it clearly meant something to the people who were carrying this work out. So, I am interested in what salvage meant to them and how the category is connected to knowledge practices that developed in Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere as a result.

What role does decolonization play in your research? Can you tell me more about the archeologists who were trained in the colonial era but then worked on that particular case that you are studying, when decolonization was already taking place?

That is a difficult question. I think the most important thing to bear in mind is that we’re talking about decolonization not as a finite state but as a set of ongoing—and very complex—practices and representations. In Represented Communities (Chicago, 2001), John Kelly and Martha Kaplan wrote that decolonization was basically something set forward by the United States. In Nubia, as Lucia Allais has noted, you see this phenomenon occurring, particularly in terms of financing the preservation of Abu Simbel and Philae. But I think that we also need to do more work on what Egypt and Sudan really think they are getting out of the Nubian campaign: the moving of ancient monuments obviously garners a lot of publicity around the world but what work does it really do for these two nation-states to have archaeologists excavating in the two countries at this point? What value does a lot of rather unspectacular archaeological knowledge hold? Meanwhile, the government antiquities departments in Egypt and Sudan had both been headed by European officials in the colonial period; in Sudan, when the campaign started, a European official, Jean Vercoutter, was still in charge of the antiquities service (his post was later ‘Sudanized’ and taken over by Thabit Hassan Thabit). So how does this history interact with the campaign?

There was still a lot of influence from former colonial powers?

Most of the Nubian archeological work was conducted by missions from Europe and America, so in that way, yes. But to go back to the original question you also have these really interesting cases where a country like India was involved. This case is what I spent my time in New Delhi researching. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI), which was (and still is) the government agency for archeology in India, was itself organized and re-organized under British-colonial rule. Then, in the early years of Indian independence, and under Indian leadership, it decides to become involved in the UNESCO campaign in Nubia. That was striking to me, particularly because the organization’s officials at least partially make their case based on the fact that a lot of the people working there received training from the British archeologist Mortimer Wheeler, who was the last director of the ASI under British rule. So, as part of the process of decolonization, the ASI uses that colonial history as a way of claiming authority elsewhere in the world. At the same time, they make the claim that they should carry out work in Nubia because they undertook work during the mid-1950s on a similar dam project in India, at Nagarjuna Sagar. So, now the ASI’s officials could also attempt to translate this case-specific expertise to Egypt, which itself is quite interesting.

What happened then?

After finishing in Egypt the ASI make further claims that they possess the expertise to work abroad. And, regionally, they do in fact do this work (although their return to Nubia—this time to Sudan—never occurs despite the ASI’s wish to do so). This seems interesting to me because I do not think that anyone has ever really picked up on this specific example and all that it might mean; archaeological work abroad has tended to be seen as a phenomenon linked to western institutions. The world is not flat when it comes to the development of things like archaeology and heritage, basically, and we need to think about that more. Especially because India ended up with this archeological relationship with Egypt, and if you go to the UNESCO files, Pakistan tried to do the same thing but never got permission. There’s a lot going on here, and it would be good to understand it better.

Why did UNESCO support some attempts to participate in the campaign and neglect others? Do you know what UNESCO’s approach was to a kind of compensatory thinking in a postcolonial context?

In terms of giving Egypt and Sudan compensation, UNESCO’s attitude, if at all, seems to have been that the work of preservation and excavation constituted compensation enough. Otherwise, in Sudan, state law guaranteed the excavator at least fifty percent of the antiquities that they excavated, which was not a position that UNESCO tried to contest. And in Egypt, which had resisted such division for several decades, the campaign, as is well known, became a chance to re-institute the process. Interestingly, in the mid-1930s (1937, to be exact) there was a (now-almost-forgotten) conference on the technique of archeological excavations, which took place in Cairo. Unsurprisingly, given the period, most of the participants in the conference were actually European. One of the recommendations of the conference was to set up a global system of archaeological collaboration, in addition to guaranteeing “scientific ownership” of excavated artefacts, whatever that term was meant to mean. I’d suggest that the conditions attached to division that we see in Egypt during the Nubian campaign represent one result of that recommendation and its history.

Head of a Kushite Ruler, ca. 716-702 B.C.E. Photo: Brooklyn Museum (CC-0 1.0).

Head of a Kushite Ruler, ca. 716-702 B.C.E. Photo: Brooklyn Museum (CC-0 1.0).

Were these conditions applied coherently?

Fascinatingly, not at all. In Egypt, say, the final decision regarding division rested with the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. So, for instance, the ASI got one hundred percent of the objects that it excavated. Now that might have happened because Egypt was feeling generous towards a partner country or it might have been because it thought those antiquities were not important objects to keep, I don’t know. But then you read letters from someone working for, say, a big American institution complaining about the process of division, lamenting about not getting everything they wanted. If you start investigating the paper work, the really small-scale stuff, the practices surrounding division were really not coherent in their application. And if you do research on the UNESCO files you will also find that the Egyptian government sent out a list of possible things they might donate to foreign countries, major works of ancient art as they were described. People then began to write about them, requesting certain things. Then there is a gap in the paperwork and it becomes pretty clear someone in Egypt has a lot of work to do to persuade the authorities to actually let any of these objects leave the country. There is a letter from UNESCO thanking an Egyptian official for persuading whoever needed to be persuaded to let this happen. On that level it becomes clear that there was still an element of resistance to this whole internationalizing, globalizing campaign. We need to think about that resistance in much more detail, because it just doesn’t appear in any of the histories we have.

With my last question I want to come back from global to the local. At this conference we spoke a lot about heritage and identity, or identity construction. I wonder, in the Egyptian case, how the archeological findings in Nubia mattered in the construction (or the reconstruction) of the Egyptian national identity?

I think that is interesting, because prior to the Nubian campaign there is a pronounced—and well-known—rhetoric of monumentality that developed under Gamal Abdel Nasser. For example, there was a particular colossal statue of Ramses II, which was moved from the site of Mit Rahina to just outside Cairo’s main railway station; it was a pretty obvious symbol for the rebirth of the past in this new, ‘revolutionary’ age. The Egyptian press was full of these symbols, and the Aswan High Dam is itself wrapped up in this (visual) language. What strikes me is that again you have as a result slightly different relationships with archeology in Egypt and Sudan. In Egypt, the famous narrative relating to the campaign is that the temples are moved and reconstructed, safe from the floods, and so it really is all about these monumental structures. There is significantly less archeological work done in Egypt, partially because there had already been campaigns in the Egyptian part of Nubia when the first Aswan dam was built and heightened. And what you observe developing in Egypt afterwards is a contested idea of what archeology should be about. In terms of “are we saving monuments” or “are we investigating ancient lives and settlements”? That dispute had already been around for a while, but I think Nubia intensified it. In Sudan – being sort of a terra incognita, as archaeologists claimed – I think the work created a different, less monumental, sense of what archeology was. Partially because there were fewer monuments (or things that could be defined as monuments). So, you have two geographies of archeological knowledge, if you will, on either side of this geopolitical border, even as those geographies are interconnected. I think there’s a lot of work left to be done understanding how and why that process occurred.


Citation:“I am interested in the contentious aspects of history, too” – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.12.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5566

Gesche Schifferdecker

Gesche Schifferdecker works as a press officer with a focus on online communication at the Max Weber Stiftung. She is editor of various scientific Blogs (e.g. trafo.hypotheses.org and wwc.hypotheses.org) and organizes the "WeberWorldCafé".

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  1. 11. April 2017

    […] you can find his response paper to the Annual Conference 2016 in Heidelberg here, or read another interview with him, where he talks about his own research in […]

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