Dramas in the dust

‘John Henry Haynes: A Photographer and Archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire 1881–1900’ by Robert G Ousterhout
‘Palmyra 1885: The Wolfe Expedition and the Photographs of John Henry Haynes’ by Benjamin Anderson and Robert G Ousterhout

Two recent publications pay homage to John Henry Haynes John Henry Haynes (1849–1910), American archaeologist and long-unacknowledged pioneer of archaeological photography. John Henry Haynes: A Photographer and Archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire 1881–1900, by Robert G Ousterhout, was first published in 2001. The expanded edition includes hitherto-unpublished photographs. In meticulous detail it records the life and career of Haynes, from his first experiences as photographer with the Assos Expedition in western Anatolia, to his years as excavation director at the Nippur Expedition in Iraq.

In Palmyra 1885, Ousterhout and co-author Benjamin Anderson provide an account of Haynes’s life, focusing particularly on his five-day visit to Palmyra as part of the Wolfe Expedition in 1885

Most of Haynes’s surviving photographs – held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Aga Khan Archives at Harvard – are published here for the first time. The few that had been published previously were largely uncredited or attributed to (even claimed by) other archaeologists and photographers. Ousterhout and Anderson have achieved the remarkable feat of locating and identifying these photographs, and reclaiming them for Haynes, accompanying the many rare photographic reproductions with long, discursive captions that repay careful reading.

Ousterhout’s John Henry Haynes provides an exposition of Haynes’s life-long engagement with archaeology and its documentary agent, photography. In investigating the photographs, Ousterhout makes careful note of sites and buildings that Haynes was the first to photograph, some since damaged or destroyed, from ancient Assyrian and Hittite finds to Medieval Christian and Seljuk monuments. Drawing on excavation reports, diaries, personal letters, and the internal correspondence of institutions, the author also engages in a rigorous analysis of Haynes’s endeavours, bringing to life the dreams, challenges and frustrations of a self-made archaeologist in the formative decades of the discipline.

Haynes’s most significant output was as archaeologist at the Nippur Excavation organised by the Babylon Exploration Fund of the University of Pennsylvania, which was to deal the final blow to his career. He had been affiliated with the project since its launch in 1888. Through the 1893–1896 and 1898–1900 seasons, he was appointed director of year-round excavations, only because more accomplished archaeologists were unwilling to endure the near-intolerable conditions. In 1900 Haynes made a major discovery, unearthing 23,000 cuneiform tablets from the Nippur Temple’s scribal office – at which point, Assyriologist H.V. Hilprecht stepped in and took the credit. Denigrated and in failing health, Haynes retreated to his home in New England. Tracing setbacks and tribulations, Ousterhout provides a sensitive account of Haynes’s shortcomings, professional aspirations and their eventual collapse, exposing the way in which his modest background and education disadvantaged him within the academic community and doomed him to obscurity.

Haynes himself regarded photography as mere documentation, but Ousterhout observes a unique subjective vision that charges his images with a distinct energy. Thanks to the influence of his mentor, William Stillman, whose technique and outlook were rooted in the picturesque aesthetics of the 19th century, Haynes was able, the author argues, to combine the analytical and technical aspects of archaeological photography with the sensibilities of the picturesque, making him the “unknown father” of American archaeological photography.

The second book Palmyra 1885, includes 85 of the hundred or so photographs Haynes took at the Syrian site. Most are included at the end in catalogue form, beautifully reproduced. While providing biographical information, the authors examine the specifics of the Wolfe Expedition within the broader context of 19th-century American archaeology.

There is an informative summary of Palmyra’s fortunes, from its beginnings as an Assyrian settlement, through the reign of Queen Zenobia in Roman times and its mediaeval transformation under the Islamic empires, to the vandalism inflicted by ISIS in 2015, elaborating above all upon the singularity of the Roman city, abounding in temples and colonnades. Palmyra represented a short detour on the Mesopotamian expedition, so none of the Wolfe team was well prepared to investigate and evaluate the site. Thus Anderson and Ousterhout indicate what was visible and meaningful to Haynes, and what remained vague. Through his diary entries, they highlight his occasional mistakes and misattributions as he strove to piece together elements of the site.

While Palmyra was already well documented by such early photographers as Louis Vignes and Félix Bonfils, Haynes imbued it with life, revealing the ruins animated by local dwellers. Through his “unobtrusive” engagement with the site, his images “provide our best view of the ecology of the place, a balance between animals, people and things now fully irrecoverable”.

Foraying into uncharted territory, these well-written books, with their enthralling visual content, offer a fresh and critical perspective. They would have benefited from the inclusion of maps, to help us to follow the archaeologist on his journeys, but these volumes make a noteworthy contribution to multiple scholarly fields, reinstating John Henry Haynes in photographic and archaeological history.

Ahmet Ersoy is a historian teaching at Boğazici University, ersoya@boun.edu.tr

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