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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Exploration, Failure and Perception

The 1926 Expedition to Mointfort Castle [courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Israel Antiquities Authority, Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem]

I have a great affinity for William Louis Calver, the intrepid amateur archaeologist whose reputation was such that he was occasionally referred to in the United States as the "Grand Old Man of Urban Archaeology". At the time of his expedition to Montfort he was the same age as I am today - an age that in 1926 was regarded as being a time in life when one ought to be taking things rather more slowly. Yet here was Calver, a "Twentieth Century Crusader" as he enthusiastically titled himself in a letter to Bashford Dean, the expedition's organiser from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, setting off on what may have been his first experience of overseas travel. He was on his way to direct an excavation at a site belonging to a period about which he initially had absolutely no knowledge, and on a scale entirely different from any fieldwork he had participated in previously. This was no Indian encampment or Civil War battlefield. It was a vast, monumental ruin, and here he would be dealing with Gothic architecture, medieval sculpture and stone fortifications, rather different from the humble remains of camp sites. The material finds would be a world away from the primitive Native American pottery, stone arrowheads and century old military uniform buttons of which he was regarded as a great expert.

For four weeks in the spring of 1926 the tiny staff of the Montfort Expedition aided by about fifty local Christian and Muslim Arabs (some of whose grandchildren and great grandchildren have participated in the current excavations at the castle) exposed a large central section of the main buildings in the upper ward. They had a very specific aim - to recover a suit of thirteenth century chain-mail for the Metropolitan's arms and armour collection. The degree of success (or rather lack of success) in this endeavour, was bluntly summed up by a headline in the New York Herald of 19 September 1927 - "Museum Quest for Crusaders Relics is Failure". Dean, who had almost singlehandedly built the Met's armour collection, had his heart set on finding the desired armour, and thus expressed his disappointment even more strongly, describing it as "a dismal failure".

Where had they gone wrong? As any archaeologist knows, excavations often exceed the archaeologist's expectations, and equally often fall short of them. There is no way of knowing in advance whether you will find what you are looking for. But a sensible understanding of the location and conditions can help to reign in unreasonable prospects. Without any previous similar experience, Calver can hardly be criticised. He soon enough arrived at an understanding, after having observed the badly corroded condition of most of the iron finds in the castle, that armour was not likely to be found, and we must give him credit for his insight. He observed in his notes the extensive use of fire by the Mamluks to burn the castle's stonework, and perceptively concluded that the lime slake formed by the burnt stone and subsequent rains would have corroded any iron objects it came into contact with, including chain-mail.

Despite Dean's disappointment in the quest for armour he did appreciate the considerable value of the expedition's other discoveries, notably those relating to the daily life of the castle's garrison, and his high regard for Calver was expressed both in letters and in his almost verbatim use of Calver's report for the publication in the museum's Bulletin the following year. Calver may have been "too old", as the head of Palestine Antiquities Department wrote confidentially to Dean, noting that they would not agree to issue a second permit, but he was clearly an astute and keenly perceptive man.

Other than our ages, Calver and I are of course worlds apart. For one thing, I cannot see myself wearing a three-piece suit and tie in the field, nor even the pith helmet, although that was at least appropriate for the local conditions and at the time was standard gear for a Westerner travelling in the East. In the photograph we see that he has at least made a concession to the heat by removing his jacket, which in 1926 was perhaps remarkable in itself. But what I particularly like is the way he has stepped back somewhat, as if to be to be closer to the local workers, rather than appropriating the distinct separation set by his two team members. I like to think that this was intended to blur the line they had instinctively set, as members of British colonial society, to distinguish between rulers from ruled. But, of course, it may have been entirely coincidental.

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