Caitlin Clerkin is a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology and an alum of the U-M Museum Studies Program. She studies local communities under empire, especially in Hellenistic, Roman, and Parthian contexts in the Middle East and North Africa, modern contexts of archaeological knowledge production, and museums. She’s worked on archaeological field projects in Greece, Israel, Sudan, and Turkey and in various US museums. With U-M Museum Studies Program Associate Director emeritus Brad Taylor, she’s recently had an article, “Online Encounters with Museum Antiquities,” published open access in the American Journal of Archaeology.
Caitlin Clerkin was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.
N.L.: Hello Caitlin, thank you for doing this interview. To start us off, what have you been reading recently? And how is this relevant to your project if it's project related?
C.C.: I'm happy to participate—I enjoyed reading your first interview with Ghassan and look forward to reading other fellows’ interviews! I'm reading a couple of things right now. I'm reading and rereading some work on photography, archaeology and photography, and visual anthropology in preparation for writing a part of a dissertation chapter that examines (among other things) archival excavation photography to consider the role and erasure of Iraqi workers in the history of the 1920s/30s archaeological excavation (that my dissertation focuses on, at the site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris in Iraq). In addition, I'm working my way through some of the excavation director's diaries with an eye on details about workers/how the excavation was undertaken (and oh boy is his handwriting bad!).
I'm also in the middle of a recent book by Dan Hicks called The Brutish Museum: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution. This book isn't directly related to my dissertation—or maybe it is: although it is focused on the looting of the Benin Bronzes from Benin City (Nigeria), it is about the extraction of heritage resources under imperial violence for the benefit of western academics/museums/empires, the continuing complicity of western museums, and restitution.
(I'm also reading, for not-work, a novel called Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi.)
N.L.: Is there a common theme in your book selections? Do you gravitate to any book genre and if so what? Also what book or genre do you believe is underrated and what book/genre would you recommend an undergraduate student to get into early in their academic career?
C.C.: That's a big question! For my research, I gravitate toward scholarly work that will help me explore my specific inquiries (so on relevant topics, themes, methods), but I try to read a little more broadly, too. I think that not just sticking to work published in one’s areas of specialty can help keep one’s imagination open about what might be relevant or resonant. I think reading fiction also helps this (even as I mostly do it for pleasure), while also probably keeping my writing a little livelier.
Regarding recommendations to undergraduates: rather than suggest just one genre or a single book, I think I'd encourage reading all sorts of writing (whether scholarship, fiction, nonfiction, journalistic writing)—not limiting oneself by genre or discipline and including work outside one’s interests or areas of study. There’s enjoyable and stimulating creativity to be found in all kinds of writing.
N.L.: What author or book has impacted you personally or professionally? And why?
C.C.: I’ll mention two scholarly works that were meaningful to my intellectual perspective in archaeology/museum studies:
One is David Mattingly’s Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire (2011). I read it early in my grad school career, maybe in 2012 or so. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis on a late second/early third century C.E. tomb in Carthage (now Tunisia) and was trying to parse construction techniques and the complexities of how mortuary monument projects elite local and imperial identities in the capital city of the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis. Mattingly’s book brings postcolonial theoretical perspectives to archaeological analysis of the varied experiences of and inequalities in the Roman empire. Reading this book as I was forming an idea of what my research could do or look like was eye-opening.
Another one is a more recent book by Alice Stevenson called Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums (2019). Stevenson models an approach to archaeological and museological historiography that doesn’t merely recount what archaeologist worked where or what museum sponsored what excavation. Rather, she deeply contextualizes the British interest in and global dispersal of ancient Egyptian artifacts in ways that bridge British colonial/imperial and local activities, archaeological and museological developments, institutional and personal networks, funding flows, and broader cultural currents (using her notion of the "object habit," a given community's attitude toward things—what counted, valued, was collected, etc). In this way, she vividly activates how these contexts matter for the ways authority over cultural heritage has been asserted in the past and present—something essential for thinking about more equitable practices today. (And the book is available open access!)
N.L.: Can you touch a bit on the project you are working on and why it is a matter of interest to you?
C.C.: My dissertation project, Hellenistic and Early Parthian Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Revisited, focuses on U-M’s 1920s/30s excavation of an ancient city, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, located in modern Iraq. I’m interested in both archaeological evidence for daily life in that ancient city—a multiethnic urban imperial center founded in Mesopotamia in the third century B.C.E. by a Hellenistic Greek dynasty that ruled the region after the death of Alexander the Great, and then was taken over by the Parthians from northwest Iran. I'm also interested in the modern circumstances of the city's excavation and study—and how they impact what we know about the ancient city. I'm looking specifically at the artifacts and excavation archives (records, reports, memos, etc) held in the collection of U-M's Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. When I started developing a dissertation topic around this site/collection, I wanted to know about the state of the collection/records and knowledge about the site: how do we know what we know, why was the excavation never fully published, etc? This necessitated investigating the context of the excavation, American archaeological practice in Iraq and the US between WWI and WWII, and the specific ways and perspectives with which the work was undertaken.
N.L.: Is there a theme in your professional or personal life that compels you to seek out certain kinds of books, authors, entertainment, or passion?
C.C.: I like a bit of mystery, and I like to understand how individuals fit in, don't fit, and struggle against unequal systems and institutional structures: maybe this is why I like crime fiction.
N.L.: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews by. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?
C.C.: Ooof, this is a hard question! I hope no one will hold me to this answer. I might say a P.G. Wodehouse collection of novels (Norton's Just Enough Jeeves) or short stories (the Everyman's Library The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology—maybe this one because it is hardcover so might hold up to more wear-and-tear of sand from that desert island). Always re-readable and written in hilarious prose, Wodehouse's plots would be silly enough to take my mind off of whatever is the stressful work of collecting water and learning what I can eat on that desert island. (Is saying a novel omnibus or anthology considered cheating?)