Archival Archaeology: Digging for Hidden Connections in a Box of Old Photos

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Corrie Commisso at work in the ACOR Library. Photo courtesy of Commisso.

In this post, ACOR archival intern and junior archivist Corrie Commisso discusses her experiences helping to launch the new ACOR Library Photographic Archive project, a four-year initiative that will bring ACOR’s rich photographic collections to the world.

Full disclosure: I’m not an archaeologist. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Bronze Age and Byzantine pottery. I probably wouldn’t meet the qualifications for consideration as an academic, I’ve never given a lecture attended by very important people, and I don’t speak Arabic. Before I touched down at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, the closest I’d been to the Middle East was a restaurant where guests smoked fruity-smelling hookahs and I developed a fierce affinity for shawarma, falafel, and garlic sauce.

But I’m fairly well traveled outside of the Middle East — my family and I have lived in West Africa for five years, and I’ve been in some pretty unusual places — enough to be comfortable with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. I didn’t know what to expect from Jordan, but I did know one thing: being invited to join the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) as one of the first archivists to work with a significant historical photo collection of the region’s cultural heritage and archaeological sites was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I’m completing my Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, specializing in archival work, and I knew this would be one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to work on an archival project that would blend my love for history and cultural heritage with my academic pursuits.

Things you might miss unless you visit sites with someone who knows: This delightful African “giraffe” in a mosaic in Madaba — clearly someone had tried to describe a giraffe to the artist as a sort of “camel with spots and a long neck.”

I was fortunate to arrive at ACOR while British photographer Jane Taylor — whose collection is one that we are working with in the archive — happened to be in town for several weeks. A spry, white-haired woman with an infectious smile and the energy of someone half her age, Jane has been photographing Jordan and the surrounding region since the 1970s and has an intimate knowledge of Jordan’s culture, history and geography. Visiting archaeological and cultural heritage sites is always fascinating, but visiting them with someone who can tell you all the things you won’t find in a guidebook is a completely different experience. For two weeks, Jane generously introduced me to Jordan, inviting me to accompany her as she photographed sites like the desert castles Amra and Kharanah, mosaics in Madaba, and the remains of Herod’s summer castle perched at the top of Machaerus. She introduced me to fascinating people — art collectors, conservationists, archaeologists — and recounted many stories from nearly 50 years of working in Jordan.

Jane Taylor at work, Qasr Al-Kharanah. Because nobody ever photographs the photographer.
Photo by C. Commisso

Having the opportunity to observe Jane at work — and listen to her talk about her work — gave me more than just an appreciation for the rich history of the region. It gave me a small window into the person behind the photographs. And when your job is to figure out how to preserve, organize, and share someone’s work with the world, those little insights are invaluable. I watched the careful manner in which she set up a shot; observed the angles, colors, and features she felt were important to capture. I noted the photos in her collection that she felt indifferent about — “The sky is too drab” — and the ones she lingered over. As we flipped through one of her series, shot in an Iraqi hospital shortly after the Gulf War in the early 90s, she paused on a photo of a little boy. “He was the most delightful child,” she recounted. “Although I expect he is probably gone now.” He was in the hospital for complications related to diabetes, she explained, and in the aftermath of the war, there was simply no medication available to treat him.

Coming from a previous career as a writer, designer, and creative director, someone once told me they were baffled by my choice to pursue archival work in my graduate studies, given my hands-on, creative bent. “Isn’t being an archivist just, like, organizing and filing stuff?” they asked. “Don’t you find it boring?”

Let me tell you right now: if being an archivist meant I had to spend all day bent over a filing cabinet alphabetizing manila folders, you might find me banging my head against the wall. But to me, the fascination of archival work is in uncovering the hidden connections that tell interesting stories and connect the past to the present — that’s the creative part. (Plus, it means I get to mess around with old-school technology like slide projectors. It’s making me nostalgic for the 70s, minus all the polyester.)  Yes, it means you have to organize your material so you can find those connections. But every photo, every hastily scribbled field note, every crackled interview recorded on a cassette tape is part of a bigger picture…and I love discovering what that picture looks like and then coming up with meaningful ways to share it with others.

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Donate to the ACOR Annual Fund and help ensure that historical records, published and electronic resources, and images about Jordan and the region are freely available to scholars in Jordan and via the internet around the world.
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Palmyra in 1956; much of the site is now destroyed. Photo by George Bass.
A brochure and some of archaeologist George Bass’s handwritten notes about conflict in the Middle East, from 1956.

One small collection I’ve adopted as a side project is a notebook full of photographs and letters written by archaeologist George Bass — one of the early pioneers of underwater archaeology — documenting a trip he took to the Middle East in 1955. Among the letters are his handwritten notes on the volatile political situation of the area (reminding us that some things never change) and a handful of spectacular photos of Palmyra, the Syrian World Heritage site that has recently been reduced to a pile of rubble by ISIL (reminding us that some things will never be the same).

And that’s why this project, at this moment, is so critical. Every photo holds a piece of the region’s story — past, present, and future — and I’m honored to be playing whatever small role I can in sharing that story. I may not be an archaeologist, but I am an archivist, and the job description is pretty similar. There’s just a lot less dirt in the archive.

Written by Corrie Commisso

Corrie Commisso at work in the ACOR Library. Photo courtesy of Commisso.

Corrie is the first official archival intern on ACOR’s photo archive project. She is currently completing her Master of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, specializing in archives and special collections. Her research interests include cultural heritage preservation, digital archives, and conservation of book and paper materials, and she has studied book history and book arts at the University of London Rare Books School. Corrie holds undergraduate degrees in Journalism and Spanish Language and Literature, and brings nearly 20 years of professional experience as a writer, designer, and creative director to this project. She and her family reside full-time in Dakar, Senegal, where she freelances as a communications expert for the non-profit/NGO field. When she is not studying, writing, consulting, or bargaining with local vendors, she occupies her time perfecting her French and wondering where in the world she will end up next.

1 COMMENT

  1. What a wonderful article and Corrie seems to be an ideal “first”! Thank you for this story!
    Best to all in Amman, Anne

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