Writing Archaeological Labour at Qau, Egypt, in the 1920s

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This article offers a cautionary tale about exclusively relying on official archaeological reports for writing histories of archaeological labour. It investigates a small personal collection of postcards and photographs by British field assistant James Leslie Starkey to interrogate the representation of Egyptian labour in the official reports of an archaeological project run by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE) at Qau, Egypt, in 1922–23. The postcards raise two points that the reports contest or fail to address: the Egyptian efforts of setting up camp and the Egyptian autonomy in seeking out new areas for excavation. I argue that these discursive strategies were entangled with an early 20th century style of writing reports, archaeology’s restricted self-image as primarily a field-based practice, hierarchical structures and representations, and an orientalist and colonialist discourse that sees archaeological knowledge as produced by European ‘heads’, never Egyptian ‘hands’. Unfettered by disciplinary standards, these ‘informal’ postcards give a glimpse of an archaeological project whose work was more collective and comprehensive than its official reports ever made it out to be.
Original languageEnglish
Article number9
Pages (from-to)1-19
JournalBulletin of the History of Archaeology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2024


  • Archaeological labour
  • history of archaeology
  • postcards
  • reports
  • 1920s

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