Nippur: The First Great Discovery

Theodore Van Loan; Halpern-Rogath Curatorial Seminar

The photographs of John Henry Haynes taken at Nippur engage with the site in multiple ways. They provide documentation of the archaeological excavations over the four seasons of digging, showing the progress made as the successive strata were uncovered and record various artifacts in situ and other small objects extracted from the site. The photographs also convey Haynes’ skill as a photographer; his adept sense of composition and harmony of forms indicates a distinct artistic outlook. Within Haynes’ vast corpus of photographs from the Nippur expeditions are a substantial number of portraits. These portraits fall into four rough categories; workers posed next to monuments and artifacts, documentation of the workers both at rest and going about their daily tasks, ethnographic studies of the local population in surrounding villages, and portraits of the families of local sheikhs, site foremen, and domestic servants. This body of work can be engaged on several levels: as documentation of Haynes’s relationship to the local population and its evolution over the four seasons of excavation, as visual articulations of power relations between Haynes the photographer and his subject, and finally, as a means by which to interrogate the various temporalities inscribed on the site.

Haynes’s interest in the daily life and building practices of the locals was intertwined with his interest in the archaeological site. When the locals are posed alongside the ancient artifacts in his photographs, they connote a kind of communion with the ancient sites. Haynes spent his day photographing views of architectural forms, the stories of which had faded into the past. Bringing these forms into contact with living people offered compensation and context. In images without people, the viewer is permitted to play freely, to illuminate details within the forms. Yet, when called to engage with the both the human object and the artifact, the viewer develops an awareness of narrative and temporal structure. Perhaps Haynes was struggling with the very replication and repetition inherent in photography. By posing people next to monuments, he may have sought to construct a kind of authenticity that would have otherwise been lacking.

In other settings Haynes poses workers, attempting to quell anxieties of another kind. The many photographs depicting the workers going about daily tasks are emblematic of an imposed disciplinary structure. Workers appear with their burdens, their bodies rigid; they stand at attention in front of the camera, positioned at a lofty distance. These images simultaneously capture both a candid view of work in progress, and an overt display of the workers’ submission to Haynes’s authority. Considering the history of the relationship between the expedition leaders and the local population, these images could be thought of as wishful thinking on the part of Haynes. From the first season onwards, the expedition had been burdened by local unrest. Through the camera’s lens at least, Haynes was able to exert control over his workforce. In advice given to other members of the team during the first season, he emphasized the importance of demonstrating self-control, boldness of nerve, and absolute authority over the native population. In this unstable environment, he utilized his role behind the camera as a means by which to enact an imagined dominance over the site, and perhaps to quell his own anxiety.  Indeed for the workers, the sight of a solitary man viewing them through a strange device, literally standing over them as they work, must have been a constant reminder of his authority. This authority was not only made material by the constant presence of armed guards, but also by orders to stand still and pose for photographic documentation.