Radical Friendship

Friendship and Fieldwork

This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here

The 2020 public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on academia and has forced us all to rethink how we teach, research, read and write. As historians we might have thought lockdown would enable us to focus on writing, finally being able to churn out articles and books as if we didn’t have any financial, caring, or health issues that might have an impact on this. Instead, many of us have found it difficult or impossible to concentrate at home and have reached the limits of research we can do without access to libraries and archives.

The basis of our profession, historical research conducted at the source (be it the archive, the library, the museum, the countryside or in the streets), is more often than not conducted alone. Even so, we are of course never alone. I share space at the library with others, I interact with archivists, students and colleagues and I even have the occasional chat with a stranger during my commute. The loss of these small but significant interactions and the contribution they make to our work is only starting to become apparent to me, and surely to many others. Yet I feel the loss of collaborative work most in my inability to participate in the archaeological project in Turkey I have been part of for eight years. Fieldwork in many countries is currently suspended or severely restricted due to travel bans and I, along with many others, will miss out on seeing friends I only see for a short period once a year and whose hospitality, loyalty and generous collaboration I have had the privilege to enjoy.

Archaeology, and especially fieldwork, depends on communication, collaboration and, I would like to think, friendship. Archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean is conducted seasonally over the summer break when there is no teaching. This is therefore a short period of time (two to three months) when we have to get as much work done in the field as possible. Days are long, starting at sunrise, and we often work a six-day week, cramming our PhD work, personal calls to family and friends and other administrative work into to our “day off”. Under these pressures an excavation is an environment in which friendships are made or destroyed, professional relationships and careers established or ended and romantic involvements flourish or wither.

A prime example of a lifelong professional collaboration and friendship in archaeology is the relationship between Charles Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) and Sheikh Mohammed bin Sheikh Ibrahim el-Awassi (c.1875–1953), known as Hamoudi. Both men worked together as archaeologists for over forty years, excavating the cities of Carchemish, Alalakh (Turkey), and Ur (Iraq).

Map of Turkey showing the location of Carchemish and Alalakh (Courtesy of E. Kozal: R. Szydlak background map; E. Kozal archaeological map)
Map of southern Iraq, showing the location of Ur (© The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

In the Middle East excavations have traditionally relied on employing large numbers of (cheap) local labour: up to 500 men and boys over an area of about 50 ha. This is to do with the large quantities of earth and sand that often need to be shifted before reaching the desired levels. But it is of course also to do with the colonial context in which most archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean was undertaken until the 1950s. The origins of this system in the corvée labour forced upon the Egyptian population by the French, Ottoman and British occupiers in the 19th century often go unmentioned in histories of the discipline.

The foreman (usually from the local community) played a crucial role on an archaeological excavation, especially during the early years of a project, when foreigners depended on local expert knowledge. Western teams at the time were small, consisting of about three to maximum ten people, not all of which had previous training in fieldwork. As archaeology became an increasingly complex discipline with more exacting standards of recording, photographing, illustration, publication, and communication with funders, antiquities departments and the public, foremen provided the support without which this work would have been impossible. They were responsible for a huge amount of the work of an excavation, such as organising and supervising large workforces, managing payroll, sourcing supplies and tools, or arranging travel and accommodation. Yet, despite this pivotal role foremen performed, or perhaps precisely because of it, they have long figured in archaeological histories in a rather ephemeral manner, similar to guides or interpreters in travel accounts. In the multilingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic Middle East it took a particular kind of personality to successfully negotiate relationships with different communities in a professional context over decades, weathering wars, the end of empires, and the creation of nation-states.

Sheikh Hamoudi was such a personality. Yet acknowledgement of his contribution to the discipline remains fleeting, found mostly in forewords, acknowledgements or memoirs. Leonard Woolley, the main source of biographical information about his friend, made no secret of his admiration for Sheikh Hamoudi’s personality, integrity and loyalty. He praised his skills as a manager and organiser, as an excavator and teacher of fieldwork techniques. Nevertheless, Sheikh Hamoudi never appeared as a co-author on Woolley’s impressive catalogue of excavation reports, journal articles, popular books and newspaper and magazine articles. Similar to Leonard Woolley’s wife Katharine – another co-worker of twenty years – our publish-or-perish academic culture has relegated Sheikh Hamoudi to the footnotes of our discipline.

There are, however, ways of bringing Sheikh Hamoudi and countless other silent and silenced contributors to science back into the spotlight. As Emily Callaci has pointed out, acknowledgements in academic publications ‘dismantle the myth of the lone, self-contained genius-at-work’ and ‘offer a glimpse into the political economy of academic life, revealing truths that we intend to share, as well as many that we do not.’ These few pages at the beginning of a book are primary sources for information about the friendships that are vital components of academic work. Reading these kinds of texts against as well as with the grain offers rich pickings for the historian of friendship and emotional labour.

Sheikh Hamoudi and Charles Leonard Woolley at Ur, Iraq. c. 1930 (© The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence)

In her introduction to this series, Laura Forster asked whether friendships are truly possible in the face of glaring power hierarchies and disparity. I believe that the friendship of Sheikh Hamoudi and Leonard Woolley serves as a great example to explore this question further.

The two men developed a life-long friendship and appreciation for each other after first working together at Carchemish from 1911 to 1914; Woolley as the head of the excavation, Sheikh Hamoudi as the foreman. The latter came from a distinguished family in the area of Jerablus (the modern town closest to Carchemish, which now serves as a border-crossing between Syria and Turkey), then part of the territory of the Ottoman Empire. The British excavation team (David George Hogarth, Reginald Campbell Thompson, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’), although doubtlessly privileged as Europeans, was there at the discretion of the Ottoman Government. The inexperienced men depended on the local community for supplies, interpretation and protection vis-à-vis the Ottoman authorities and the German engineers building the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway just across the river.

In his memoirs of the excavation, Woolley spent many pages on Sheikh Hamoudi’s story, and the affinity Lawrence felt for the Arab community had its origin in this first contact with the hospitality culture and male companionship he experienced there for the first time. After the 1912 excavation season, Sheikh Hamoudi accompanied Woolley and Lawrence to Oxford, a trip which seems to have made a great impression on him. This is one of the moments where we can see a shift in the power structure of their friendship: the ‘exotic’ Sheikh in his keffiyeh and agal walking along the manicured paths of Oxford colleges surely brought Woolley and Lawrence much attention, making Sheikh Hamoudi perhaps feel dependent on their interpretation, protection and hospitality in return. The First World War interrupted excavation work in 1914 and the Europeans dispersed to their various postings. Little is known about Sheikh Hamoudi’s life during those years, but as a known friend of the enemy of the Ottomans he and his family were perhaps under suspicion and observation.

Keen to restart his excavations at Carchemish, Woolley returned there in 1920 but the conditions on what had become the frontline between Kemalist troops and the French army made the continuation of excavations impossible. Upon his appointment as the director of the Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia he immediately hired Sheikh Hamoudi as his foreman (and continued to refer to him thus in his publications). Together they worked at Ur in southern Iraq from 1922 until 1934. The colonial Mandate administration over the new nation-states of the Middle East introduced a new power structure to archaeology. While both Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi were foreign nationals in Iraq, there can be no doubt of the privileged position British (and other European and American) excavators occupied compared to citizens of the newly-created states.

Sheikh Hamoudi figures prominently on the first pages of every one of Woolley’s preliminary and final excavation reports in which Woolley highlighted his friend’s energy, leadership skills and dedication to the work. As both Woolley (later with Katharine) and Sheikh Hamoudi (with his sons who worked as junior foremen) each went home at the end of excavation seasons, they often took the opportunity to travel together, thus cementing and celebrating their friendship by visiting other archaeological sites or cities like Damascus and Aleppo together. These joint trips to and from the excavation illustrate that their relationship went well beyond a purely professional collaboration.

Unfortunately no correspondence from Sheikh Hamoudi to Woolley survives in UK archives (the on-going civil war in Syria has severely restricted access to national and private archives there). Letters in the British Museum’s archives show that Woolley communicated official excavation business to his friend via the Akras family in Aleppo (bankers and British honorary consuls). As Woolley left no personal archive, we don’t know how and if the two men communicated outside of work. This gap in the archival record thus echoes the power imbalance of early twentieth-century colonial spaces in that we rely solely on the voice of Western archaeologists when talking about the lives and experiences of their collaborators.

In 1936 the Woolleys (Katharine was by then an indispensable if mostly silent part of her husband’s team until her death in 1945) began their excavation at Tell Atchana/ancient Alalakh. As they were working once again in Sheikh Hamoudi’s home region, there was no doubt that he would continue to be an integral part of the project. Due to his international archaeological career Sheikh Hamoudi had achieved the status in his community commensurate with this professional and personal success. As the head of a large family, a landowner and community leader his local standing undoubtedly made the successful initiation of the only precariously funded excavation project possible. In the meantime, the political map had altered significantly. Then part of the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon, the site is now situated in the Turkish Province of Hatay.

Katharine Woolley, Charles Leonard Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi conducting payroll at Tell Atchana/ancient Alalakh, Turkey, c. 1939 (© UCL Institute of Archaeology)

After the interruption of the Second World War Woolley returned to Tell Atchana in 1946 and Sheikh Hamoudi’s sons now continued their aged father’s archaeological work. Sheikh Hamoudi, in the meantime, had been elected to the Syrian Parliament despite his reticence at accepting a political office. Woolley retired from fieldwork in 1949 but the two remained close friends until the Sheikh’s death in 1953. In the same year, Woolley dedicated his small volume of reminiscences to his ‘life-long helper and friend’, in which he recorded his friend’s reserved attitude towards his political career. Hamoudi maintained – wrote Woolley – that he was ‘an archaeologist, not a politician’. Interrogating the two men’s friendship allows us to access something of the lived experience of collaborative fieldwork and the development of modern archaeology as a discipline. More importantly, it allows us to highlight the contributions by local experts, often crucial for the long-term survival and success of archaeological projects.

True friendship is often expressed in small acts of support, loyalty and trust, rarely in grand gestures. It is therefore in the small and often neglected corners of our discipline that we must look for its traces. We can find it in the forewords, acknowledgements and thanks that we extend to friends, supervisors and colleagues. There is a reason we place these texts at the beginning of our books – in many ways friendships foreground our work, and make possible our intellectual contributions.

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