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.).

Photographing a Bronze Age Past

Gavin McGuire considers the first phase of a photographic study of an archaeological excavation in Crete, highlighted in his book ‘Minoan Extractions – A Photographic Journey 2009-2016’

With the Sissi Archaeological Project, my seven year photographic study of the Bronze Age Minoan excavations under the auspices of the Belgian School in Athens, Université Catholique de Louvain, I have been offered an extraordinary opportunity to capture moments of human interaction during excavations as they interconnected with an ancient Minoan culture that stretches back millennia (2600-1200 BC). And there is more to come with the new dig campaign under way at a three hectare site which has been described as one of the most important Bronze Age excavations in Crete during the past decade.

Sissi Archaeological project
All Things Must Pass © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

The Minoan Extractions has also been a personal journey with the chance to pay homage to the work of influential photographers – in and out of the archaeological sector, including my mentor, the outstanding photographer – Harry Burton. During the 1920’s his iconic monochrome images of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, as well his work at other sites in Egypt, have fascinated people throughout the world, and yet only in recent years has there been a growing reassessment of his contribution to photography.

Of course photography within archaeology is not new – with its origins arising during the early nineteenth century and especially in 1904 becoming ‘official’ with Egyptologist Flinders Petrie’s manual ‘Methods and Aims in Archaeology’. For nearly 200 years in the Mediterranean and Near East in particular, photographers in conjunction with archaeologists have played a crucial role in pushing back the barriers of the ancient world for both scholars and for a demanding global general audience.

Sissi Archaeological Project
North by North West © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

With the Sissi photographic project, at a unique coastal landscape about four kilometres from Malia palace in Crete, I have continued a proud photographic tradition that is once again facing a new era of major technological change – from digital to virtual, from handheld cameras to drones and to live excavation access. It is also the age of the smartphone – easy for anyone to use, producing high quality images and ultimately engaging a wide general audience.

Needless to say these changes are highlighting the importance of imaging, especially at this time as we are seeing wanton destruction of major archaeological sites in the Middle East and of general neglect and a lack of financing. Discovery may be an over arching goal for archaeologists, but the truth is rescue and preservation dominate excavation campaigns. The past is present but the present is a very fragile one indeed.

Sissi Archaeological Project
The Restorationist © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

The photography at Sissi is simply being at the right place and at the right fleeting moment, making images that highlight motion and emotion from the 80 or so ‘players’ on the archaeological stage for their six week or so excavation during July-August. It is what the renowned French photographer and humanist, Henry Cartier Bresson, referred to as ‘The Decisive Moment’.

There are images of scientists at work – archaeologists, anthropologists, technical specialists, such as surveyors, local workmen digging (many proudly following in the wake of their forefathers) and restorers and conservators dealing with the thousands of finds housed at the apothiki or workshop.

Yet the Sissi Project encompasses not only the excavation period but includes images of the site throughout the year, showing, in part, the impact of the environment. Indeed if there is a favourite ‘out-of-dig-season’ photographic period then it must be autumn and winter, where the dominating Selinari mountain range and often violent seas and dark storms combine to conjure up a dramatic contrast to the Bronze Age remains. This is surely what the Minoans must have witnessed for more than nearly 1300 years.

Sissi Archaeological Project
Minoan Storm © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project 

I photograph in both colour and black-and-white but in recent years have preferred the latter, mainly because of what I see as the aesthetic qualities of the genre. It is a realism ensured through the subtle variations of contrast and light without the distraction of colour. In other words it comes down to getting the viewer to look into the image not at it.

The Sissi site is an ideal laboratory to test any camera and its paraphernalia – the near stifling heat, the dust, sea grit and water and general bashing about. In this respect I have stayed faithful to my favoured Olympus E-510 SLR and lately with the mirrorless OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Of the Digital ED lenses I prefer to use the 9-18 ultra-wide and 50mm. The one filter that has become indispensable is the HD digital protector screw-in filter. They are a godsend to protecting lenses from the damaging environment and I have certainly got through a few of those over the years. Post production is kept at a minimum.

I have certainly produced many hundreds of photographs at the site during the last seven years. There is never a daily schedule and time to prepare once there. My photography is on the run or more importantly on the sly – as I prefer subjects not to be aware of my efforts.

Looking back at what I would consider my favourite images I would say they reflect the work of the anthropologists in the cemetery with the excavated skeletal remains, highlighting memory, time and mortality and of their attempts to seek closure for such finds through the processes of DNA and isotopic study.

Sissi Archaeological Project
Death Under the Midday Sun I © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

But I would also confess that the photographs that have proved particularly successful have been nothing more that opportunistic, often arising from one rapid shot, almost from the hip. It happens. Nothing planned but if the brain connects with the eye then you can walk away highly satisfied. Job done – at least for the moment, for as archaeologists well know the excavation is never over until the sound of the last shovel dies away. It is generally accepted that the last 48 hours of a dig is the period in which new and sometimes site changing discoveries are made – and so it has happened at Sissi. It makes this Bronze Age settlement worth photographing. So watch this space.

9781784916367
Minoan Extractions: A Photographic Journey 2009-2016 Sissi Archaeological Project by Gavin McGuire (2017). Paperback ISBN 9781784916367. £25.00. (eBook ISBN 9781784916374, from £16.00 + VAT if applicable)

Gavin’s book will be available in July/August in paperback (£25) and PDF eBook (from £16). A special pre-order price of £20 is available for the paperback edition until 31/07/2017. To pre-order at the special price please e-mail info@archaeopress.com