Pioneering archaeological photography in John Alfred Spranger’s 1929-1936 photo reportages

Stefano Anastasio and Barbara Arbeid present the photo-archives of archaeologist and photographer John Alfred Spranger (1889-1968)

The importance of early photo-archives for archaeology

Early photo archives are becoming an increasingly important source of information for archaeology. This is, of course, a positive trend: any effort to make “forgotten” data available to the scientific community is to be welcomed.

Early photos may prove a powerful tool for protecting and promoting the value of archaeological heritage.

Hopefully, the current interest in early photo-archives will result in an increasing number of published archives. This will help archaeologists enhance their research, as well as the protection and conservation of the archaeological heritage.

John Alfred Spranger

John Alfred Spranger was born in Florence on 24 June 1889. His father, William, moved to Tuscany from England in the middle of the nineteenth century and was a professor at the Academy of Arts and Drawings in Florence. John Alfred was a leading figure in the cultural milieu of Florence at the beginning of the twentieth century. Both archaeologist and photographer (as well as engineer, topographer, mountain climber, art collector…), he was the author of several photo reportages detailing archaeological monuments and landscapes especially in Italy, Albania, Greece, Canada, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

In 1913-1914, he participated in the Filippo De Filippi Expedition to the Himalayan Karakoram, as assistant topographer. The photographers of the expedition – Cesare Antilli, Major of the Italian Army, and Giorgio Abetti, a Florentine astronomer – systematically used cameras during the expedition, creating a real reportage, and Spranger surely gained a great passion for photography thanks to this expedition.

FIG_1
Fig. 1. Harry Burton at work in Deir el-Bahari (1929). The photo on the right corresponds to no. 4 marked on the map.

In the 1920s-1930s, he took part in a number of Etruscan excavations in Tuscany and paid great attention to the use of the camera to document the excavation work in progress. During this period, he spent time with Harry Burton, photographer of the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. It was, in fact, in Florence that Burton was hired as a photographer and archaeologist by Theodore M. Davis, who obtained the concession for the excavations in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. During his stay in Florence, Burton spent time with Spranger and both were involved together in a number of Etruscan excavations. Their friendship is witnessed by Spranger in his Egyptian album, where Burton is portrayed in some photos taken in 1929 during the excavations at Deir el-Bahari (see fig. 1). Spranger died in 1968 at Newbury, in England, and was buried in Florence.

The publication of Spranger’s photo-archives

9781789691269The passion for photography accompanied Spranger for life. He took thousands of photographs, collecting them in refined photo-albums, consistent in shape, size and style, enriched by annotations, topographic maps and plans (most of the original stereograms were recently retrieved at the public library of Vaiano, a small town close to Florence where many documents from Spranger’s family are held today). On Spranger’s death, some albums, i.e. those dedicated to “archaeological subjects” were donated by his heirs to the then Superintendency of Antiquities of Etruria, and are currently held at the Photo-Archive of the Archaeological Museum of Florence. The volume published by Archaeopress presents the photos dedicated to a trip to Egypt in 1929 and a trip to Mesopotamia (Iraq) in 1936, as well as to some surveys and excavations carried out in Etruscan archaeological sites in Tuscany between 1932 and 1935.

FIG_2
Fig. 2. The map of the témenos of Ur (1936), with the photo perspectives and camera angles marked and numbered. On the right, photos corresponding to no. 3 (ziqqurat, from NE) and no. 8 (ziqqurat and courtyard of Temple of Nannar, from N).

Spranger’s photos are particularly meaningful, especially because he combined his skills in using the camera with a great expertise in archaeology and topography. He often glued maps of the sites he had surveyed on the albums, on which all perspectives and camera angles were marked and numbered (see an example in fig. 2). As a result of this, he was able to create outstanding “georeferenced” sets of photos for many archaeological sites: Giza, Heliopolis, Menphis, Saqqara, Beni Hasan, Abydos, Dendera, Medinet Habu, Karnak, Luxor, Thebes and Deir el-Bahari, in Egypt; Ur, al-Ubaid, Uruk, Nippur, Babylon, Ctesiphon and Birs Nimrud in Mesopotamia; the tholos of Casaglia, the tumulus of Montefortini and the necropolis of Casone, Riparbella, La Ripa in Tuscany.

FIG_3
Fig. 3. Excavation of a tomb at the necropolis of La Ripa, in Tuscany (1933).

Stefano Anastasio and Barbara Arbeid
Superintendency for Archaeology, Arts and Landscape – Florence
stefano.anastasio@beniculturali.it
barbara.arbeid@beniculturali.it

Cover photo: Page from an album dedicated to the temple of Seti I in Abido, Egypt. On the left is the temple plan, with perspectives and camera angles numbered so as to allow identification of the related photographs, in turn numbered and placed on the right page.

About the authors
Stefano Anastasio has carried out archaeological researches in Italy (Sardinia, Tuscany), Syria, Turkey, Jordan and currently works at the Archaeological Photo Archive of the Superintendency of Florence. His main research interests are the Mesopotamian Iron Age pottery and architecture, the building archaeology and the use of the early photo archives for the study of the Near Eastern archaeology.

Barbara Arbeid is an archaeologist at the Superintendency of Florence, appointed to the archaeological heritage protection service. Her main research interests are the archaeology of Norther Etruria, the Etruscan bronze craftsmanship, the archaeological collecting and photography.

Further reading

9781789691269Egitto, Iraq ed Etruria nelle fotografie di John Alfred Spranger Viaggi e ricerche archeologiche (1929-1936) by Stefano Anastasio and Barbara Arbeid. Archaeopress Archaeology, Oxford, 2019.

205x290mm; 178 pages; highly illustrated throughout in sepia and black & white. Italian text with English summary.

Paperback: ISBN 9781789691269. £35.00.
eBook: ISBN 9781789691276. From £16.00 (+VAT if appl.).

Also available from Archaeopress

9781784911188The 1927–1938 Italian Archaeological Expedition to Transjordan in Renato Bartoccini’s Archives by Stefano Anastasio and Lucia Botarelli. Archaeopress Archaeology, Oxford, 2015.

210x297mm; ii+242 pages; extensively illustrated throughout in black & white.

Paperback: ISBN 9781784911188. £40.00.
eBook: ISBN 9781784911195. From £16.00 (+VAT if appl.).

9781784914646Ceramiche vicinorientali della Collezione Popolani by Stefano Anastasio and Lucia Botarelli. Archaeopress Archaeology, Oxford, 2016.

170x240mm; vi+200 pages; illustrated throughout in colour and black & white. Italian text with English summary.

Paperback: ISBN 9781784914646. £34.00.
eBook: ISBN 9781784914653. From £16.00 (+VAT if appl.).

9781784910587Archeologia a Firenze: Città e Territorio Atti del Workshop. Firenze, 12-13 Aprile 2013 edited by Valeria d’Aquino, Guido Guarducci, Silvia Nencetti and Stefano Valentini. Archaeopress Archaeology, Oxford, 2015.

210x297mm; iv+438 pages; illustrated throughout in black & white. Italian text. Abstracts for all papers in Italian & English.

Paperback: ISBN 9781784910587. £58.00
eBook: ISBN 9781784910594. From £16.00 (+VAT if appl.).

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