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From the President: Tales from the Archives Volume 46 Number 3, May/June 1993
by James Russell

The mysterious murder of Herbert Fletcher De Cou at Cyrene

[image] AIA files include a photograph of assassinated archaeologist Herbert Fletcher De Cou and correspondence related to his murder. (Archaeological Institute of America) [LARGER IMAGE]

Since its founding in 1879, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has accumulated an abundance of documents, many of which have yellowed with age or been ravaged by insects. It is ironic that members of the archaeological profession, so concerned with other people's odds and ends, should have demonstrated such little appreciation for their own.

At last, however, help is at hand, thanks to the Institute's hard-working Archives Committee and a grant from the Frank M. Barnard Foundation of Boston. With the assistance of a professional archivist the papers of the AIA--some 60 boxes worth--will be properly classified and stored in acid-free containers before being deposited in Boston University's Stone Science Library, where they will be readily available for study.

What kinds of papers do these archives contain? Many deal with mundane matters, such as lecture programs, annual meetings, and the start of new societies in different parts of the continent. When concerned with recent events such documents seem unimportant, but when they record how things were done a hundred years ago they become the stuff of social and cultural history.

To give you a taste of what our archives contain let me reconstruct something of the drama contained in our files. In 1910 the AIA received permission to excavate the ancient city of Cyrene near the coast of what is today eastern Libya--Cyrene was then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The excavation presented a real opportunity because the city had been one of the most successful Greek colonies, and its vast expanse of ruins was still largely unexplored. The project, however, was dangerous. Local tribes were suspicious of the archaeologists, and the Italian consul, irked at the American success in winning the permit that Italy was denied, spread rumors among the local people that the true purpose of the expedition was the commercial exploitation of the country.

To protect itself, the expedition operated under armed guard. By March 1911, after several months at the site, our small team seemed to be winning the trust of the locals, and the excavation was yielding impressive results. Then, on the morning of March 11, Herbert Fletcher De Cou, the site's assistant director, was shot by three assassins on his way to work. A junior member of the team, C. Densmore Curtis, captured the tragic moment in a letter written later in the day to his mother and brother: "The military guard for the Acropolis was often late in starting, and De Cou was accustomed to start off when the workmen did or go ahead of any of the rest of us or of the soldiers. The men lay in wait for him behind a ruined building above the fountain, and shot and killed him instantly as he came above the rise. I heard the shots and the rumors that came into the camp almost immediately and woke Norton (the director).... De Cou's body was brought down and lies in the ancient tomb below the Mudir's house, with soldiers on guard all the time. He will be buried tomorrow on a knoll overlooking the Sousa road."

The ensuing flurry of reports, telegrams, dispatches passing between Cyrene, the American Embassy in Constantinople, the head office of the AIA, and the State Department in Washington are all there for the reading. They include demands for immediate retribution, reassurances from the Turkish authorities that no measures would be spared bringing the murderers--believed by the Americans and their Arab friends to have been hired by the Italians--to justice, and a letter from Professor Francis W. Kelsey, president of the AIA, to Secretary of State EC. Knox assuring him in response to the malicious rumors that were circulating "that the expedition is exclusively scientific in character; that the contributors...are interested in the advancement of the knowledge of history through exploration and discovery; that no one connected with the expedition has the slightest interest in sulphur, petroleum or other natural products which have been mentioned in connection with foreign interests in the Cyrenaiea." The crisis was eventually overtaken by the outbreak of the Italo-Turkish War in September of the same year, which resulted in thee occupation of Cyrenaica by the Italians. The whole episode serves to remind us, however, that archaeologists often work in dangerous places and that devotion to science can exact a heavy price.

James Russell was AIA president in 1993, when this article appeared in the May/June issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America