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The Petra Effect: Archaeology and Psychical Research at George Horsfield and Agnes Conway’s Excavations

4pm, Thursday 6th October 2011 in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre, Clore Education Centre, The British Museum, London WC1

The Iain Browning Memorial Lecture by Dr Amara Thornton, Institute of Archaeology, UCL 

Amara thornton lectureDiscovering the existence of life beyond death was an important part of late 19th and early 20th century society. Promoted by a group of Cambridge-educated intellectuals, psychical research was firmly tied to an interest in developing new scientific techniques. It is not surprising, therefore, that archaeologists, fascinated by the remains of ancient cities and peoples, might use this form of ‘scientific technique’ - one which would cause today’s scholars howl with dismay. Agnes Conway, educated at Newnham College Cambridge at the turn of the 20th century, was introduced to psychical research through the network of Cambridge scholars involved in the Society. After conducting archaeological research at Petra in 1929 with George Horsfield, the Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Transjordan whom she later married, Conway used her contacts in the psychical research community to investigate the site’s ritual past by sending sand from Petra to a medium for analysis. Using recently discovered correspondence tying the Victorian/Edwardian interest in psychical research to one of the world's most famous archaeological sites, this lecture will explore what ‘science’ means and who ‘scientists’ are, exposing the relationship of scholarship to unorthodox techniques while charting the history of the first archaeological excavation at Petra.

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