02 February 2010

Vintage dig film: excavations at Jebel Moya, 1912-1913

This film of Henry Wellcome's excavations at the Meroitic-era site of Gebel Moya in Nubia (Sudan) might be the oldest excavation footage on the internet. Taken during the 1912-1913 season, this 13-minute film is a fascinating combination of Orientalist fantasy, colonialist paternalism, and excavation in action.

Part One:

Part Two:

(Also available here with description at the Wellcome Library).

Digging scenes start at 1:54 in the first clip and 2:49 in the second. In both clips the digs seem like enormous operations, with a sea of bodies working and piles of backdirt. In the first clip, workers are pouring sacks of dirt into some kind of enormous hopper - is it a kind of screen or sifter?

Clip 1 has shots of camels at the watering hole, camels carrying people, footraces among workmen genially supervised by white men on campstools wearing pith helmets (at 5:30) - and Henry Wellcome riding around on his bicycle, presumably an uncommon site in the Sudan in 1912. Clip 2 has more footage of herdsmen and landscapes, and concludes with a view of the excavation site and a village from high atop a local mountain.

A fragment of barbotine ware from Jebel Moya (UCL).

These videos were put up by the Wellcome Library, which curates the vast collections - mostly medical - of Henry Wellcome. Wellcome was an entrepreneur and founder of pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, but he took an interest in archaeology. The excavations at Gebel Moya from 1909 to 1914 uncovered over 3000 tombs (!) The town flourished from ca. 500 to 100 BC, with most objects imported from Meroë. (See this page at UCL for more on the site, including artifact photos, or the Wikipedia page for bibliography [in German]).

Sir Henry Wellcome, born in a log cabin in Wisconsin (Wellcome Images).

The Wellcome library page suggests that the excavations were undertaken as a "public works project", and the Wikipedia entry for Wellcome says baldy that he "hired 4,000 people to excavate", a mind-boggling number that I could not confirm elsewhere. The closing shot in Clip 2 shows the site, a small village, and a pastoral landscape. Where did the 4,000 people come from? In what sense (beyond generating some local economic activity) was this excavation "public works"?

As usual with such things, you have to wonder what in the world the residents of the area made of the Europeans in their white suits, pith helmets, and bushy mustaches showing up in the neighborhood, with bicycles and movie cameras, and putting thousands of men to work in the ruins. In today's terms, expeditions like this were probably more like trips to outer space than anything else: a chance to show off high technology in a remote environment, for the entertainment of the folks back home. Though the excavations produced lots of artifacts, the theatricality of the work is evident, and you have to wonder to what extent the digging scenes were staged for the benefit of the camera.

There's a nice trend of putting old industrial and incidental films on line (most notably at the Library of Congress' Internet Archive). Archive.org has a lot of cool anthropological and archaeological films from the University of Pennsylvania's expeditions (Seneferu's Pyramid, 1929-1930; Fara-Tepe Hissar, Iran, 1931; Tell Billa, Iraq, 1935). The Oriental Institute's history blog also links to some footage from Nippur, Iraq, (1948-1950). All in the public domain! I'll try to review more of these soon.

p.s. I know that I found these clips via some blog, but I cannot for the life of me remember where. Feel free to refresh my memory so credit can go where it's due!


  1. Great footage! I'm not sure how much of the excavation work needed to be staged for the camera; the large number of workers seen in these clips is not dissimilar to the hundreds of workers that are sometimes still employed on large-scale excavations in Egypt today (I'm thinking of some of the Abydos expeditions, particularly the work at Kom es-Sultan and the tomb of Senwosret III). I don't know how credible Wellcome's claim of 4,000 workers is, but a couple hundred would certainly have been considered standard then, and is not unheard of today.
    The footage of hundreds of workers gathered at the dig encampment reminded me of payroll day at current Egyptian excavations; all of the workers gather outside the compound to be paid in cash by the dig director. I wonder if some of the footage was taken on a payday.

  2. I have a set of postings for AWOL on this Penn archaeological footage that I had not yet sent live to the blog. Maybe it's time?

  3. Along these same lines, I recently uploaded footage of the 1926 and 1935 seasons at Tell en-Nasbeh under Creative Commons licensing: http://vimeo.com/8174994. Certainly these videos are a slice of Orientalist history, but they are also (at least in the case of the Nasbeh video) a valuable record of the burgeoning archaeological field as it was practiced then, and as Lindsay pointed out, still practiced today in some places.

  4. @Lindsay - Thanks for the context! Sometimes I'm too suspicious I guess.

    @Chuck and Dig Girl - Let's get a video rally going! These old videos are amazing stuff and hard to find. I'd love to see people use these in classes.

  5. I was looking for information on Vintage dig film: excavations at Jebel Moya, 1912-1913 and before ending in your blog I watched like 10 sites about viagra online, the web is full with that topic. But anyways the info on your site help me very much, thanks for the post and have a nice day.

  6. Fantastic footage, thanks for sharing! In case it's of interest the Egypt Exploration Society has film from the early 1930s work at Tell el-Amarna, see here:


  7. Great footage, many thanks for posting!

    In case it's of interest, The Egypt Exploration Society has film of the early 1930s excavations at Tell El-Amarna, see e.g. here: