Books are a vehicle for transmitting information through the written word, but they are also objects, things, material culture. Like other objects, they are created, have ‘lives’, and will, eventually, ‘die’. They can be bought and sold, possessed, hidden, cached, discarded, exchanged and displayed. Books, like other products of human activity, have meaning in addition to their function as texts.
With this archaeological approach to books in mind, we have been reviewing some of the books hoarded on the shelves of the Institute of Archaeology and reconstructing their life stories: the biographies of the object. The first book we picked for review was this:
It’s an American edition of Heinrich (here Anglicised to ‘Henry’) Schliemann’s excavations at Troy, published in English in 1884 by Harper and Brothers.
It’s a lovely thing, with its dark blue covers, breathless account of the excavations, and beautiful maps and pull-out plans of the site:
It’s an absorbing account of the famous nineteenth-century investigation of the site, fascinating for its insights into Schliemann’s thought-processes and expectations. Convinced that he had found the Troy of the Illiad, the book is a confident interpretation of the archaeology to conform to this belief that he was describing ‘The Homeric Troy and…the later Illium’ . Schliemann’s dating of the site proved to be wildly inaccurate, and his methods of excavation were heavily criticised.
Schliemann was not the only 19th century excavator of Troy: the great German archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld excavated there in 1893 and 1894, and further excavations took place in the next century under the direction of Carl Blegen, from 1932-1938. We can be confident that Blegen was familiar with Schliemann’s earlier work, at least in the form of his 1884 English language publication, because we have the evidence of his name in his own handwriting, on the inside leaf of the book at the Institute of Archaeology:
It’s Blegen’s book! But who owned it before Blegen, and how did it come to Oxford?Blegen’s is not the only inscription in this volume – it has been in the possession of at least three people before being donated to the Institute:
The first named owner was Thomas Harvey (b. 1821). At the time he acquired this book, he was living in Painsville, Ohio, where he was superintendent of the area’s schools. He died in 1892.
Carl Blegen was born in Minnesota, Minneapolis in 1887, he joined the University of Cincinnati in 1927 and began working on the mound of Hisarlik, Troy in 1932. Between leaving Harvey’s library and arriving in Blegen’s hands, the book must have had passed through one or more booksellers and private libraries, but archaeologist Blegen was the only one to want to mark his name in the volume.
After a distinguished career excavating in Turkey and Greece, Blegen retired in 1957. He received an honorary D. Litt from the University of Oxford in the same year. Although it is tempting to see this as a potential route which led the book to its current home in Oxford, in fact it took at least one more owner before the book crossed the Atlantic, almost certainly in the luggage of British archaeologist Mervyn Popham (1927-2000).
Although Popham had been interested in archaeology from his childhood, working on epigraphy and joining excavations, it was not until the early 1960s that archaeology became his career. Known in particular for his important work at Lefkandi and Knossos in Crete, Popham was predominantly based at the British School of Athens (he was its Assistant Director from 1963-70) with a brief interlude as associate professor of classics at – the University of Cincinnati! He was in Cincinnati from 1970-1972, which overlaps with the death of Carl Blegen, aged 84. We have to suppose that it was at this time the book came into Popham’s hands, either directly from Blegen, as a gift, or acquired when Blegen’s library was broken up after his death.
In 1972, Popham returned to England to take up a post as the lecturer in Aegean archaeology at Oxford. The Institute of Archaeology, where he had an office, became his working home for many years, and generations of students have benefited from the books donated from Popham’s private library to the Institute’s Reading Room.