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Interview: Dr Edmund Richardson

In the latest of our New Generation Thinker interviews, Dr Edmund Richardson talks about becoming entangled with adventurers and con-men, why time-travel always ends badly and an accidental archaeologist.


Edmund is a lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University. He is working on a book about the lost cities of Alexander the Great and the history of their discovery by adventurers and tricksters rather than scholars. His first book was on Victorian Britain and the ‘lowlife’ lived by magicians, con-men and deserters. His latest project is on Victorian ghost-hunters and their obsession with the ancient world which led Houdini to fight against the con-artists making a fortune from fake ‘spirits’.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on the role of explorers and tricksters in the discovery of the lost cities of Alexander. Can you explain more about this cultural history of Victorian times and why you decided to research more about it?

ER: I’m fascinated by the people on the edges of conventional histories: the prophet who couldn’t get the end of the world right; the bitter former child prodigy; the opium-addicted burlesque writer. But not because they’re marginal – curious characters and amusing tales – but because, when you look straight at them, they’re actually central to so much that’s going on. So when you look at, for instance, what we know about Alexander the Great, it’s worth asking where that knowledge comes from. And the answer is not always from scholars, sitting quietly in their studies – it’s from adventurers and con-men, dubious characters doing dubious things. The practice of history is altogether stranger than historians like to admit.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?

ER: I suppose it would be a bit flippant to say: when I read about the failed Victorian scholar who bludgeoned his wife to death, then sat wearily back down to his Latin, then died in prison from an accident involving a chamber pot. But that certainly helped. There’s no Eureka moment – I suspect there rarely is, except in hindsight. I just found myself falling more and more deeply for the worlds I was exploring, for the characters I encountered, and becoming more and more tangled up in them, and unable to let go. I certainly didn’t mean to keep going all the way to academia. But so far, it all keeps getting stranger, which has got to be a good thing.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?

ER: I’ve become a bit obsessed with someone called Charles Masson. You might call him the Victorian Forrest Gump: someone who’s in the background of every picture you thought you knew. Or you might call him one of the most accomplished con-men of the nineteenth century: fooling British officers, Afghan princes – and scholars, for hundreds of years. Or you might call him the spy whose reports started the first war between Britain and Afghanistan. But perhaps it’s best to call him an archaeologist – an accidental one, who solved a magnificent mystery.

In 1833, he was hiding out near Kabul, on the run from the British East India Company, which had a death-sentence out on him. There, he discovered a lost city, founded by Alexander the Great: Alexandria of the Caucasus. Tens of thousands of ancient coins, vases, statues, the traces of centuries of inhabitants – all were lying hidden on the plains of Bagram. This was a city where Greek, Afghan and Indian cultures collided, and learned from one another.

Then Masson became a spy, and inadvertently helped start one of the most disastrous wars of the nineteenth century – the first Anglo-Afghan war, where all but one of the British expeditionary force were either killed or taken prisoner. And Alexandria of the Caucasus? Today, it’s buried deep underneath Bagram air base: below the wrecks of Soviet aircraft, and the ruins of CIA prisons, lost and found and lost again.

I’m in the midst of reconstructing the story of the liar and the lost city – a journey that’s taking me to the back-streets of Indian cities, meetings with American soldiers who’ve served at Bagram, and an archive hidden in a Mughal courtesan’s tomb in Lahore, Pakistan.

AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for the cultural history of the ancient world?

ER: I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Alexander Romance lately. It’s almost a set of ancient fairy-tales about Alexander the Great, and it turns history on its head. In the Romance, Alexander’s father turns out to be an Egyptian magician, not a Macedonian king. Alexander flies up into the clouds, carried by eagles. He hunts sea-monsters on the bottom of the ocean. There are Amazons, giant spiders, magical cities, elephants, and a search for the end of the world. What you might not expect is that, for centuries, the Alexander Romance was the most widely known history of Alexander. It was translated and adapted into dozens of languages – there’s an Icelandic version, a Balinese version, an Ethiopian version, and many more. Its incredible journey tells us where our understanding of the past comes from – not just from straightforward histories (inasmuch as a straightforward history even exists), but also tall tales, myths and legends. That’s as true today, arguably, as it has ever been.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

ER: This is a weird and complex question – and answering it tends to go very badly for academics. Of course, almost all of us want (even if we’d never admit it, certainly not in print) to find some sort of fundamental connection between ourselves and the past we’re studying. But those connections often live in our imaginations more than in reality. Let me give you one example: when the classical scholar W.F. Jackson Knight was working on his translation of Virgil (it would sell about half a million copies, and become one of the bestselling classical works of the twentieth century), he sent a number of questions on the Latin to another classicist in South Africa, Professor T.J. Haarhoff. Haarhoff put them to the ghost of Virgil in a séance. He was pleased to report to Jackson Knight that: ‘He [Virgil] is much interested in your Penguin effort and praises your industry. He thinks very highly of you.’ Of course we want to feel this intense connection with the past – the ghost of Virgil, or Alexander the Great, nodding approvingly at our words. But much as I’d love to give in to this feeling, I tend to think it’s better to stand back and take it to pieces, and think about why we want to identify with a particular figure: what’s at stake for us in making (or breaking) that connection?

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

ER: To be honest, I’m the last person who should be giving career advice – I owe my current job more to a series of strokes of luck than any elaborate scheme. But, for what it’s worth: during your PhD, aim to get as wide a range of teaching experience as possible. Pitch your work for American audiences as well as British ones. Don’t be afraid to move around a fair bit – I barely unpacked, for a few years after I finished my PhD. Get a really strong publishing house interested in your first book as soon as possible. Apply for the weird jobs as well as the more familiar ones. And go to lots of conferences, and build up connections with lots of people – the more colleagues you have on the lookout for jobs for you, the better. Serendipity will probably do more than scheming, here. I actually got my first job offer when I was in a particularly desolate bit of Nepal: I was sitting in an internet café (remember them?), and an email came through from an unknown sender, with the subject ‘Congratulations!’ I was about to delete it as spam. It was a fellowship offer from Princeton.

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

ER: The lessons of history are what we make them. Every culture mines the past for the messages and morals it wants: ancient Rome could be a symbol of democracy for America’s Founding Fathers, and a prototype of the Fascist state for Hitler and Mussolini. So I’m always rather suspicious of academics talking about ‘the lessons of history.’ An old saying about Alexander the Great was that he was ‘a barrel that could be filled with any wine.’ I tend to think the same way about the ancient past: it’s been used to support literally every political opinion going, from imperialism to decolonization, warfare to pacifism, misogyny to feminism, racism to multiculturalism. So if there’s a lesson from history, it’s to look closely at the statements which people in positions of power (political, social, academic) make, hold them up to the light, and figure out where the history stops and where the baloney starts.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

ER: I’m so tempted to say Alexander the Great’s deathbed (was he poisoned? did he drink himself to death? what were those famous last words?). But this is another trick question, actually – one that tends to tell you more about the person answering it than about the past itself. To be a classicist is to chase ghosts – something like 97% of ancient literature is lost. So of course, the dream of seeing the ancient world ‘as it really was’ is an enduring one for me, and for many of my colleagues: every lost text recovered, every fragment made whole. But what happens when we let it take over?

The great German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was particularly susceptible to this dream of time-travel. In 1871, near the Turkish village of Hisarlik, he went hunting for the site of Troy. He worked on a brutal scale, throwing gigantic trenches across the hillside, and tunnelling down in search of Homeric Troy. Soon, gold, jewels and marvellous finds were piling up: he named them ‘Priam’s Treasure’ after the legendary king of Troy, and dressed his wife in them. (There are some deeply strange photographs in circulation.) So, time travel accomplished? If only. There was a small problem: Troy II, which Schliemann called Homer’s city, was an early bronze age city, from around a thousand years before any historical Trojan War could have taken place. Schliemann had, essentially, dated the Vietnam War to 960 AD. It is now thought that another layer of the city, Troy VIIa, is closest to ‘Homeric’ Troy. Unfortunately, Schliemann blasted straight through it in his search for a ‘proper’ Homeric Troy (jewellery included). He may, indeed, have done more lasting damage to Troy than Homer’s Greeks ever did. The promise that we can glimpse the past ‘as it really was’ tends to do far more harm than good, unfortunately. Time travel stories, alas, always end badly.

AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

ER: I’ll have to get back to you on that one – at the moment, I feel like I’m mostly in search of those tips myself.

AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

ER: It’s terrifying. (Everybody says that, right?) But also quite wonderful. As an academic, you become so used to your work being seen by miniscule audiences (I open my book royalty statements with excitement, then come back down to earth when I see the columns of zeroes marching across the page) – so it’s a huge privilege, and a real delight, to be able to talk about what I do to a wider audience. I certainly feel like I’m a long way from finding my voice, but it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to talk about my research in such a different way.

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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