In 1921, Stephen Langdon of Oxford University wrote to Berthold Laufer, then Chief Curator of the Anthropology Department of The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, to propose a joint expedition to Kish, Mesopotamia. The archaeological site of Kish is located on the floodplain of the Euphrates River in modern Iraq, twelve kilometers due east of ancient Babylon and eighty kilometers south of Baghdad.
Laufer expressed The Field Museum’s interest, and in 1921-22 the expedition’s eventual chief financier, Mr. H. Weld-Blundell, conducted a survey of important sites in Mesopotamia, settling on Kish as the site holding the most interest and archaeological potential. In March of 1923, Mr. Ernest Mackay, protégé of the famed archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, began the first season of excavations of the Joint Oxford-Field Museum expedition to Kish. Excavations continued during the winter months of the next ten years, from 1923-33, under the absentee direction of Stephen Langdon who, although serving as the director of the project, visited the excavations only twice, in 1924 and 1926. Mackay served as field director through the 1925-26 season, after which Mr. Louis Charles Watelin became field director. Watelin served as field director for the remainder of the project.
The Kish Collection – the product of the 1923-29 expedition and later studies right up to a more recent project in 2004 – remains at the Field Museum; a compilation of the artefacts found on this project.
What also remains is a film reel – a 23 minute, monochrome silent film of the archaeological dig that has survived in the Field Museum archives. The footage depicts the mammoth excavation that took place, which was conducted on seventeen different mounds both inside and outside the ancient boundaries of Kish. As was the custom of the day, the excavations were absolutely enormous in scale. Both Mackay and Watelin employed hundreds of local men and boys who worked at a break-neck pace to remove soil to depths of fifteen or more meters in trenches tens of meters on a side. This is captured on film, with boys running alongside speeding tipper-trucks on rail tracks, and dozens of local people digging on site.
The film also gives a hint of the British conspicuity of the expatriate archaeologists, with a 1920s automobile stuck in the sand, and a group attempting to dislodge the vehicle – can anyone identify the car? It’s hard to imagine driving this sort of vehicle over any tough terrain: