The following is excerpted from Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon (Princeton University Press, 2020). It is presented here without footnotes or references, all of which can be found in the published book. Archival material and quotations are reproduced by permission of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Archives, and the Israel Antiquity Authority, as described in greater detail in the book.
Princeton University Press. https://press.princeton.edu/
By Eric H. Cline
Professor of Classics and Anthropology
Dept of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
George Washington University
Co-Director of the Tel Kabri Excavations and Former Co-Director of The Megiddo Expedition
Chicago’s excavations at Megiddo almost ended less than a week after they officially began. Just four days into the first excavation season, in early April 1926, Clarence S. Fisher, the newly appointed Field Director, sent a cable back to Chicago. In it, he stated bluntly, “higgins’ attitude makes further association impossible stop dual direction always destructive of best results stop please accept my resignation.”
It is perhaps fitting for a site that has seen so many major battles fought in its vicinity during the past four thousand years to also be the scene of a struggle for control of the excavations meant to unearth its secrets. However, Megiddo is not the first archaeological site at which such power struggles have taken place, nor will it be the last.
James Henry Breasted, Director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, cabled back almost immediately, refusing to accept Fisher’s resignation and assuring him that there was only one director. “deeply regret trouble,” he wrote. “please understand you are sole director at megiddo stop there is no dual direction am cabling higgins stating work is under your sole instructions.”
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Fisher was apparently not Breasted’s initial choice to be the first Field Director at Megiddo. Instead, he had been leaning towards putting Daniel F. Higgins, Jr., a geologist, in charge. Higgins’ credentials certainly seemed impeccable – he had been trained at the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and the University of Wisconsin, and was currently teaching geology at the University of Chicago. He had worked in Korea and China, and then for the U.S. Geological Survey, fought in World War I with the British Expeditionary Force, and conducted explorations and surveys in both the Sinai and Egypt. However, Breasted had realized that Higgins needed additional archaeological training before he could be put in charge of the entire operation. Therefore, he decided that Higgins would be second in command, under Fisher’s direction, and Fisher would train Higgins how to run an excavation.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, Fisher and Higgins disagreed on almost everything, including what time they should eat breakfast. Higgins wanted to get up at 5:30 am and eat at 6:00 am sharp, while Fisher wanted breakfast at 7:00 am. As a result, they ate separately, with the others joining along the way. Higgins also wanted to hold church services every Sunday morning, to which Fisher grumbled quite specifically that they were there to do archaeology, not to run a missionary.
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One would think that the living conditions for their team would necessarily have been quite primitive for the first few months, for they had to live in tents while the house was being built. However, the six tents were all luxuriously furnished, complete with white bed sheets, finely-woven grass carpets on the floors, and a small washstand for each of the Americans. Moreover, as Edward DeLoach, a young staff member, told his mother, the meals were better than those served at most hotels, with five course lunches and seven course dinners each day, plus tea every afternoon at four pm.
At first, they pitched their tents near the Ain el-Kubbi spring, on the floor of the Jezreel Valley just to the north of the mound. One of the tents was used as a dining room, office, and sleeping quarters for the staff; another was for the Egyptian workmen; and the smallest was for the cook and the kitchen. They had chosen a picturesque spot; from their camp they could see Nazareth, Mt. Gilboa, Mt. Tabor, and, on a clear day, Mt. Hermon off in the far distance.
Unfortunately, they were constantly visited by flocks of sheep and goats. There were also too many mosquitos. Soon thereafter, they decided to change locations and build their headquarters on the lower part of the mound itself. There they also put up another large tent, to be used as the office and dining room, so that the original first tent could be used just as a bedroom. Higgins also got his own tent, which served as his office as well as living quarters, since he was responsible for all of the equipment that was to be used in the preliminary survey.
However, the move did not alleviate the mosquito problem. By mid-December 1925, just three months after arriving at the site, Fisher came down with malaria. Within a month, everyone else on the team had contracted it as well. “Dr. Fisher was down with fever again when we left camp,” DeLoach wrote to Breasted. “He never goes more than two weeks without a spell and seldom that long. The spells usually last about three or four days, and always chills and fever about 102°F. … I have had two spells since I last wrote you, but I am following the quinine treatment given by the government as a result of a recent survey they made and it seems to be working well.”
John Garstang, director of the brand-new British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and of the newly-established Department of Antiquities in British Mandate Palestine, said much the same a few days later, ending with a dire warning: “My dear Breasted. I have just returned from Megiddo after an adventurous ride. … Fisher is ill, & at the time of our call none of his staff was there. Higgins [is] in Beyrout, having had malignant malaria, & the other two in Haifa. All have had malaria: I cannot explain that. Fisher has had malignant malaria on & off with a spell in hospital for about 6 weeks. He is very run down & if he doesn't stop work he will collapse. … Now he must knock off or you will bury him.” In fact, Breasted himself later noted that when Lord Plumer, the British High Commissioner, came to visit the site, “every member of the staff was in bed with malaria and there was no one to receive him.”
It wasn’t until much later that Fisher could be persuaded to go to Jerusalem for convalescence. He spent two weeks there and eventually looked much better than he had upon arriving. However, he returned to Megiddo shortly thereafter and never fully recovered.
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In early April, as mentioned, the power struggle between Fisher and Higgins finally erupted into the open. Instead of having it out with Higgins on the spot, Fisher fled to Jerusalem. From there he sent the cable to Chicago, resigning his position as Field Director and citing irreconcilable differences with Higgins. As we have seen, Breasted refused to accept the resignation and confirmed instead that Fisher was the sole director at Megiddo. Breasted also cabled Higgins at the same time, “giving him a fairly sharp rap on the knuckles,” as he later told Luckenbill. The terse message read simply, “work at megiddo must be done under fisher’s sole instructions loyal cooperation with him indispensable.”
Eventually the details began to emerge as to what had happened. According to letters sent by various staff members, it was hard to say who was more to blame. While Higgins was extremely tactless and had antagonized everybody since his arrival, Fisher had his own faults, including some which probably made him unfit to serve as Director. “Dr. Fisher certainly is a good technician,” noted John Payne Kellogg, a Yale graduate now studying at Chicago who had joined the team for the Spring season, “but absolutely without a practical hair in his head and with no ideas at all of organization, and because of temperament unable to assume a dictatory attitude.” Kellogg’s further assessment was blunt and straightforward: “Fisher has too much reticence and Higgins too much of the opposite. He (Higgins) has a good deal of ability and great breadth of interest which however should be kept a good deal of the time within narrower limits. Fisher isn't the man to see that this is done.”
Those back home in Chicago clearly agreed with the appraisal. Luckenbill later told Breasted, “Of Fisher’s lack of executive ability I have been aware for twenty-five years. …And it is true that Higgins has the American bluff that puts things over. Allah be with us and them!”
However, in the meantime, Breasted’s reply to Fisher had the desired effect. Reassured as to his status, Fisher cabled back, “every effort will be made to insure megiddo success.” Indeed, Breasted’s cable gave Fisher sufficient courage to come back to the dig and resume his duties.
The cable sent to Higgins had the opposite effect, though. He was not happy in the least. In his opinion, Fisher was simply a spoiled child who shouldn’t have bothered Breasted with their trivial differences. Feeling that he was blameless in all of this, and that Fisher was the one who was actually at fault, Higgins sent back a snarky reply to Breasted. That was not a good idea, for Breasted did not appreciate getting such a letter in response to his “knuckle-rapping” cable, even if several of the points that Higgins made did have merit.
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As the weeks wore on, Higgins, who should have been occupied with surveying the top of the mound so that they could begin digging there, instead filled his days by photographing some of the pottery and other objects, as well as the details of the excavations. He was also frequently gone for a week or more at a time, visiting his family in Beirut and taking on external projects, which frustrated Fisher to no end. DeLoach was kept busy doing the real drafting work, drawing and planning the tombs as they were excavated. Moreover, with the amount of pottery that was coming in, and with no one else available to help him but his nephew Stanley upon occasion, Fisher was soon overwhelmed and rapidly fell behind in drawing and recording everything.
Fortunately, everything suddenly slowed down in early June, due to a temporary lack of workmen. Soon thereafter, another cable arrived from Breasted. Without preamble, it simply declared: “university is relieving higgins by cable today of all further duty immediately you are authorized [to] pay him return travelling expenses when he leaves.” Fisher’s relief was palpable.
Breasted also sent a second cable that same day. This one went directly to Higgins. We do not have the original, but a handwritten draft in the Oriental Institute archives states bluntly: “University will not require your services after July thirty-first and you are hereby relieved of further duty as of this date. Your return travelling expenses will be paid by Doctor Fisher who is in no wise responsible for nor until today aware of this action. Please cable date leaving and balance salary to end July will be deposited immediately [to] your bank account.”
It is quite clear from the extant letters exactly why Higgins was suddenly fired, for his snarky response to the earlier cable had antagonized Breasted, as mentioned. Breasted had responded immediately with a letter berating Higgins for his lack of loyalty and obedience, which Breasted valued above all else in his team members. He ended the letter by telling Higgins how disappointed he was in him. Then, on 16 June, the same day that he sent Higgins the cable telling him that he had been fired, Breasted sent him another long letter that itemized, point-by-point, exactly how Higgins had disappointed him and the reasons for which he was being fired. Such a letter, it seems, was typical of Breasted, for he eventually sent a similarly detailed letter to Guy, when he fired him almost exactly six years later, in August 1934.
In the long letter to Higgins, Breasted concluded, “What you have failed to see is that it is just as important to maintain successful working relations with other members of an Expedition as it is to know how to do the work at all.” In that, Breasted was absolutely correct, for the same still holds true on archaeological excavations today.
However, there was one other episode that Breasted did not mention in his letter, but which likely also contributed to Higgins’ firing. It is only alluded to in passing, in various places, beginning with an aside that Kellogg made to Breasted in mid-July. While discussing, after the fact, that they were lucky to be rid of Higgins, for he wasn’t the type of man whom they wanted associated with the work that they were doing at Megiddo, Kellogg also said that Higgins had created “quite a mess between Luckenbill and Albright.” He didn’t elaborate further on what had happened, but then again, he probably didn’t need to, for Breasted was undoubtedly all too well aware of what had transpired. It had taken place months earlier, soon after the men arrived at Megiddo.
Albright, director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, had come to visit the dig back in mid-October 1925 but, as later biographers of Albright have delicately put it, there was “a misunderstanding…and Albright was forbidden access to the mound…” Outraged, Albright sent a letter to Luckenbill, telling him what had happened, but Luckenbill – thinking that Albright was traveling in Mesopotamia – didn’t answer for nearly six months. When he did reply, in mid-April 1926, Luckenbill said that he had no idea why anyone at Megiddo would “exclude Albright from the site.” Albright, in turn, wrote back two months later, saying that he had long since decided that it was all the result of a misunderstanding and that he was certain that neither Luckenbill nor Breasted had meant for him to be denied permission to see the site. Higgins also confirmed that, by then, the “Albright matter,” as he called it, had gone quiet. In the meantime, Fisher, who apparently was not there at the time, also tried to smooth things over, telling Albright that he was always welcome at the site and that he would show Albright around himself.
But who would have denied Albright access to the site? We know that there were only four staff members present in October 1925 -- Clarence Fisher, his nephew Stanley, Edward DeLoach, and Daniel Higgins. Of those, both Ed DeLoach and Stanley Fisher were young and very junior; they would never have done such a thing. It could only have been Clarence Fisher or Daniel Higgins who denied entry to Albright, but based on Kellogg’s letter, it appears that it was Higgins. However, in his defense, Higgins may not have been acting entirely on his own, because back in June, even while they were still appointing the staff members, Luckenbill and Breasted had discussed the fact that “the Oriental Institute was not ready to have any supervision of its work by Dr. Albright.” Luckenbill, in fact, said that he had made it clear to Fisher that “we could not be expected to do much cooperating with him [Albright].”
So, even if Higgins had denied entry to Albright, he might not have been completely out of line. Still, as one biography of Albright notes, the incident “nearly shattered the expedition.” Thus, the firing of Higgins, even so belatedly – eight months after the event – will have begun to set things right and to patch up what could have been a professional disaster pitting some of the most well-known names in archaeology and Assyriology against each other just as the excavation at Megiddo was finally getting underway. …