'Territorial soils: Egyptology, agriculture, and the colonial politics of field sites'

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Meira Gold (New York University)

When Victorian archaeologists began overseeing large-scale excavations in the Egyptian Delta in the 1880s, they capitalized on the colonial infrastructure of the cotton trade – especially agricultural land and labor. Foreign excavators recruited workforces from landless Fellahin, local Bedouin, and young villagers to dig ancient soil through the winter months before the annual Nile inundation in the summer. Most archaeological sites were moreover buried under tells (artificial mounds) and situated on modern farmland. Territorial disputes were commonplace. Archaeologists sought to preserve the soil in situ, while farmers needed to rotate and redistribute it. The messy growth of British Egyptology was therefore predicated on the identification, popularization, demarcation, and especially, long-distance control of a new scientific space termed the “field site.” This talk will denaturalize the field site by exploring the literal shared ground between archaeology and agriculture, and the process by which Pharaonic ruins were made archaeological through Egyptian dispossession and exploitation. 

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Erica Charters (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (University of Oxford), Rob Iliffe (Linacre College), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)