Friday, March 3, 2017

Motion Picture Aerial Archaeology

An earlier blog looked at the flights and photography of archaeological sites in Transjordan and Iraq of Robert Alexander MacLean in Summer 1922. Three years later (1925) MacLean joined a Franco-American expedition excavating at Carthage. One of the Co-Directors was a man with the memorable name of Count Byron Khun de Prorok. Thanks to 35 years of research by Michael Tarabulski, it is possible to trace the life and career … and transformation of Francis Victor Kuhn (= Cohen) (1896-1954) from his birth in Mexico City to prosperous Central European immigrants through the adoption of a name from his favourite romantic poet, the more Hungarian-sounding spelling of his surname to Khun and the doubtful claim to a title. After education in France, Britain and Switzerland, he had worked on excavations in Italy, visited Carthage in 1920 and then in 1922 (still just 26) began the first of three seasons of excavation there. He soon also made a reputation as a galvanizing public lecturer and toured widely, but was eyed with suspicion by professional archaeologists who regarded him as a “showman, dabbler, and dilettante” and ultimately his conduct led to academic scandal and discredit as a tomb robber and to his conviction Atlantis lay beneath the Sahara. There may have been some further personal scandal as his first father-in-law (he married four times) succeeded in ensuring that when his daughter - after just 4 years, separated from then divorced him, de Prorok gave up not just care of the two children but never saw them again; indeed the children even had their personal names changed when adopted by their grandfather (all this from the research of Michael Tarabulski).

De Prorok’s reputation as a public speaker was founded in part on his use of motion pictures taken on his fieldtrips and excavations, a technique then in its infancy. More than that, however, he was a pioneer not just in taking aerial photographs for recording and discovery at and around Carthage, but using a movie camera in the air as well. Whether he was the first to do so in the Middle East and North Africa region is unclear. Some of his film was broadcast from time to time by Pathe as part of its popular cinema News programmes. For example, Pathe Review No. 46 of 1926 included “The Lost Empire of Africa: A camera chronicle of the American excavations at ancient Carthage led by the Count de Prorok”.

Neither the Pathe material nor de Prorok’s own copies - perhaps sold-off or discarded in his last years when he was in serious financial difficulties, seems to have survived.

What he did and was trying to achieve is explained in some detail by de Prorok in his 1926 book, Digging for Lost African Gods (40-41) where he differentiates between films (moving pictures) and photographs (still shots) and introduces he nearly as enigmatic colleague:
We took films of what we were doing. It was the first time that archaeological research had been filmed, and the idea did not meet with very great favour at first. Since then, however, the value of the step has been recognised, and it is a common practise in many universities to-day, to use films for instruction. Our photographer was the young Prince Edgard de Waldeck, who had spent a fortnight of intensive training in Paris, preparatory to this task. 

Later (71-2):
These are the things we talked about on the voyage, because we were all  keyed up by the prospect of a great advance. We talked about what we had done, and what we were going to do. Of all our future plans, perhaps two stood out most vividly
The first was the use of the Aeroplane in archaeology. That venture, as an experiment, materialized three years ago [1922], and since then we have continued, year by year, our prospecting from the air.
In 1922, we took our first films and photographs from different heights, which resulted in our being able to trace the great submerged walls of ancient Carthage. Flying above the Gulf of Tunis, we were able to film clearly six miles of submerged wall, showing constructions a hundred and fifty yards from the present shore. I can still remember the interest with which the news was received by the Royal Geographical Society, when I lectured to them on the subject in London.
… Our use of the aeroplane this year is to be more varied. At the moment we are using it to film the whole coast line, especially at a spot where we have located a sunken galley a stupendous find, of which I shall say more later and at the legendary island of Djerba, where we have located a city under the sea

And later still (181):
            The sea has also made a great deal of change on all this peninsula, but it is very difficult to ascertain at what period it encroached on the land. From the splendid film taken from the air by the late Prince deWaldeck, who was killed on his way back from Carthage this June, it is possible to perceive constructions as much as 100 yards out to sea.
This film is a unique documentation in archaeology, it being the first attempt to film submarine ruins and record their position. The film and photographs were taken at a height of 1500 feet and again at 400 feet, and are superior to any record we could have made on the sea surface. One can trace not only the ancient sea-wall, which in parts is at a depth of 30 feet, but one can study the topography of the peninsula to an extraordinary extent. The bed of the Mejerda is clearly outlined, the wall of Theodosius can be followed approximately, and even the Roman allotments are defined. Soundings off Carthage were undertaken in 1898 by M. de Roquefeuil, but only in that portion of the coast where Roman Carthage was built, that is between La Goulette and Cap Carthage.
That there was a port at La Marsa is certain from the film (“el Mersa” means a port). The constructions we perceived underwater are of vast dimensions, and stretch from Cap Carthage north-east to Cap Kamart; but those at Cap Kamart have not been marked on any map. There appears to have been a great port here, recalling that of Alexandria, with an opening, and breakwater at right angles to the present village of La Marsa. There was a port here in Arab days, but the jetty was certainly earlier, either Roman or Punic. We have followed these walls in a small boat as far as Cap Kamart in continuous zigzag lines. From the aeroplane we could distinguish another line farther out at sea at a depth of about 30 feet, but it is difficult to ascertain, until our final soundings are completed, whether this was a part of the first constructions. The authorities of the French Oceanographic Museum at Carthage will charter a special ship to make soundings along the coast to verify the measurements of these constructions for future investigation.
Cicero mentions a fact that historians of Carthage seem entirely to neglect, that the city “which Scipio destroyed was surrounded with ports.” From the air one can easily get an idea where ports may have been, in the Sebkha of Sukhra (Salina of the Ancients), at La Marsa, and lastly in the Lake of Tunis (Stagnum of the Ancients). We also photographed from the air the sunken galley found in 1908 by sponge divers, from which a rich spoil of marbles and bronzes has been recovered for the Museum of Bardo. We hope to examine the Gulf of Tunis this winter on the chance of finding traces of other ancient ships, five hundred of which were known to have perished during the Punic wars.

Long before the publication of this book – re-issued in 2004 with a lengthy biographical essay on de Prorok by Michael Tarabulski, de Prorok had published several articles, gone on an extensive lecture tour (including in 1923 as Norton Memorial Lecturer of the Archaeological Institute of America) and a lecture to The Royal Geographical Society in London on 27 November 1923 on his excavations (published in The Geographical Journal 63.3 (March): 177-187). The last is important, providing further references to his flying and filming and the statement that the lecture was “illustrated with kinematograph films taken by the late Prince de Waldeck” and one photograph of “The exacavation of Thuburbo Majus” captioned as “Enlarged from kinematograph film by the Prince de Waldeck”.
Michael Tarabulski has generously shared his 3+ decades in pursuit of de Prorok including his aerial photographs and aerial movie films. Despite the role of digitization in revealing the contents of old archives, nothing has so far emerged from this flying in Tunisia. No further success has attended a Spanish researcher whose articles have appeared just recently (Garcia Sanchez 2014 and 2016). Nevertheless it seems unlikely all copies of all of these early aerial movie films are lost.

‘Count’ Byron Khun de Proprok is a fascinating character. Even some of those who were most critical of his conduct found him personally charming. Plainly audiences were enchanted – perhaps in part because the tall, handsome and self-confident young man sometimes chose to present himself in pith helmet and fieldwork jodhpurs. His lectures regularly merited reports in The New York Times. Whatever his standing as an archaeologist – mere self-publicising tomb-raider, given to grand-standing perhaps, he was swift not only to apply the very new technique of aerial reconnaissance and photography (at least 3 years before Poidebard commenced his pioneering aerial reconnaissance in Syria) but to take it further with motion pictures which could exploit a growing public taste for cinema and raise awareness of archaeological research.

Many thanks to Michael Tarabulski for generously sharing so much of his research and a detailed correspondence.

Garciá Sánchez, J. (2014) “Las excavaciones del conde Byron Khun de Prorok en Cartago (1920-1925): la colina de Juno y la difusión cinematográfica de la arqueología cartaginesa/ The Excavations of Count Byron Khun de Prorok in Carthage (1920-1925): The Hill of Juno and the Cinematographic Dissemination of Carthaginian Archaeology”, Boletín del Seminario de Estudios de Arte y Arqueología 80: 129-163
Garciá Sánchez, J. (2016) “Regreso a la tumba de Tin Hinan: nuevas fuentes en torno a las excavaciones de Byron Khun de Prorok en Abalessa (Ahaggar, Argelia)/ Tin Hinan’s Tomb revisited: new sources relating to the Byron Khun de Prorok’s excavation in Abalessa (Ahaggar, Algeria)”, Cuadernos de Prehistoria y Arqueología Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (CuPAUAM) 42: 187-208
Khun de Prorok, Comte Byron (1924) “Recent researches on the Peninsula of Carthage”, The Geographical Journal 63.3 (March): 177-187
Khun de Prorok, Comte Byron (1926) Digging for Lost African Gods. The Record of Five Years Archaeological Excavation in North Africa, New York and London (Putnam)
Tarabulski, M. (1989) “Recording the past: capturing the history of archaeology on videotape”, in A. L. Christenson (ed.) Tracing Archaeology's Past: The Historiography of Archaeology, Carbondale (Southern Illinois University Press): 179-186
Tarabulski, M. (2004) “The life and death of Byron Khun de Prorok”, in B. Khun de Prorok, Digging for Lost African Gods. Five Years Archaeological Excavation in North Africa, Santa Barbara (The Narrative Press) 251-267.

Of interest are the recent fictionalised account of de Prorok:
Turmel. W. (2015) The Count of the Sahara, London (The Book Folks)
… and an nterview with the author on 18 November 2015

1 comment:

  1. David, thanks for sharing this article. De Prorok, was indeed, a fascinating character. Even writers who admire him, like me, tend to focus more on his colorful personality and quirks, rather than his actual accomplishments... By the time he appears in The Count of the Sahara, he'd already become the showman he was fated to be.
    Wayne Turmel,