Historic photographs offer a glimpse into the past – personalities, places, sartorial choices – but the pertinent details about the image, like the who, where, and when, are not always recorded. With these details lost to time, the bigger questions related to these photographs remain frustratingly difficult to answer. In fall 2023, a little international detective work solved the mystery of six unlabeled photographs in the Vindolanda Trust’s collection.

As part of my dissertation research into the structural changes at Vindolanda’s Stone Fort II, I turned to the archives to study the 1930s excavation of the principia (hear more about that work at the Digging in the Archives online lecture).While the archives contextualised the architecture, they also centred the people doing the archaeology: their thoughts, notes, and experiences intertwined with the findings they recorded. The archive allowed me a glimpse of how Prof. Eric Birley approached his ‘works in progress’ (with a pipe in hand) and what shaped his perspective on frontier studies in his first years at Chesterholm-Vindolanda. E. Birley sought to study Hadrian’s Wall in its larger context and, from 1928 onward, he cultivated connections with archaeologists and historians in Germany working on their stretch of the Limes.

Eric Birley with the excavation team standing in turret 7B.

Eric Birley (left) with the excavation team at Turret 7B, c.1929 (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

With the support of a research fellowship (Forschungsstipendium) from the German Archaeological Institute (Deutsches Archäologische Institut, DAI), I spent the fall of 2023 working on the project “Eric Birley and the RGK. Roman Frontier Research Networks between Britain and Germany, 1929-1959.” The project explored E. Birley’s academic and social networks from both sides of the Channel, drawing on archives in the collections of the Vindolanda Trust and the Roman-Germanic Commission (Römisch-Germanische Kommission, RGK).

While World War II immeasurably changed the lives and careers of his generation, E. Birley rebuilt his former research connections in its aftermath, shaping Roman Frontier Studies into the international and collaborative field that it is today. The archives at Vindolanda and the RGK cover the decades on either side of the war and include correspondence, photographs, memos, and offprints. These collections make it possible to trace some of the research and personal relationships that would influence E. Birley’s career and the larger field.

I set out to review E. Birley’s archives at both institutions, comparing the whos, whats, and wheres, to trace the narrative from each collection’s perspective before putting their stories together. The project’s larger results will be discussed in a forthcoming article, but for now, one of the most interesting stories from the archives.

The Vindolanda Trust is in the early stages of organizing its archival collections, at the moment, research access is very limited, in part because it is not possible to pull material specifically focused on a period or topic. Instead, a researcher would need to review the complete collection and identify the relevant pieces within it. For the Eric Birley Archive, that review involved carefully leafing through 12 file cabinet drawers, 13 large tubs, 3 magazine boxes, and 46 box files.  

In a folder labeled ‘Old Photos,’ there was a set of six photographs which seemed promising for the topic of British-German networks. They appeared to be taken somewhere German-speaking, from the edge of a sign reading “alten-Burg,” and appeared to date from the 1920s or 30s, from the style of clothing. Unfortunately, no information was included with the prints, though I recognized Eric Birley and Ian Richmond amongst the people. I scanned them, finished reviewing the collection at Vindolanda, and made the trip to Frankfurt – as E. Birley himself had done on several occasions in the 1930s.


The RGK building at Palmengartenstraße 10-12, Frankfurt am Main, Germany as Eric Birley would have seen it in the 1930s and as it looks today (Photographs: DAI/RGK)

At the RGK, I had three large folders to review for E. Birley, plus many more for his colleagues. One of the great joys of the RGK archive is its thoroughness: incoming post was stamped with the date received, outgoing post was written on carbon-copy and coded for its file number, year, and author. The result is a rare complete correspondence record, with the contributions of both sides, extending across decades of collaboration.  

In one of E. Birley’s folders, there was a formal letter written to Ernst Sprockhoff, the First Director of the RGK. Dated 10th October, 1937, E. Birley expressed his thanks for the opportunity to join a study field trip (Studienfahrt) along the southern German Limes (DE DAI-RGK-A 373 - Prof. Eric Birley, 53a-b). He also mentioned that he was enclosing a set of six photographs:

“I enclose prints from some of my negatives…The titles, so far as they have been invented, are as follows…

(1) D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. 

(2) ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’.

(3) ‘Look what I’ve found!’

(4) ‘Jetzt können wir weiter fahren, nicht?’

(5) “The Forest Lovers”.

(6)  is easily the best; I can’t think of a good enough title for it; perhaps you [Sprockhoff] or Merhart will be able to invent one.”

No prints were preserved in the RGK archive. However, a closer look at the ‘Old Photos’ set from Vindolanda and a careful reading of E. Birley’s characteristic wordplay suggests that they might just be the same photographs. 

(1) D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers.” (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

The first title references the story of the Three Musketeers and their leader. The corresponding photograph could be the group of four men, with Hans Zeiss, one of the organizers of the Studienfahrt, alone to the left and the Musketeers – an unidentified man, Ian Richmond, and E. Birley – on the right.

“(2) ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’.” (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

The second refers to the phrase supposedly uttered by Stanley after searching Africa for missing explorer Dr. Livingstone upon finding him in a crowd. In the photograph, E. Birley, emerging from the shadows in the fedora (and one of the few non-Germans on the Studienfahrt), looks questioningly into the crowd.

“(3) ‘Look what I’ve found!’” (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

The third title expresses the spirit of exclamation and finding, captured in a group photograph with Paul Reinecke at the center, gesturing to the map. Other key figures visible are Gustav Behrens (far left, with the fedora and looking at the camera) and Gero von Merhart (back center, without a hat).

“(4) ‘Jetzt können wir weiter fahren, nicht?’” (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

The German phrase for the fourth title translates as “Time to get going, isn't it?” – maybe with a hint of exasperation. It likely refers to the photograph of the Studienfahrt bus with a woman, perhaps Frau Sprockhoff, looking directly into the camera. She embodies what must have been a frequently-uttered phrase as the archaeologists investigated every last stone at every last site.

“(5) “The Forest Lovers”.” (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

The fifth references Maurice Hewlett’s 1898 novel of the same title, which recounts the adventures of Prosper le Gai through the dangerous forest, facing blood and battle. This has the most tenuous link to the set of photographs, but might reference the danger imagined on the Limes, on the line between civilization and barbarians (as they thought).

“No. 6 is easily the best; I can’t think of a good enough title for it; perhaps you [Sprockhoff] or Merhart will be able to invent one.” (Photograph: Vindolanda Trust)

The sixth, though untitled, is the clearest connection between the letter and the photographs. It captures Sprockhoff, the addressee of the letter, and von Merhart, smiling together in the forest.

Though the physical prints are not numbered or annotated, after teasing apart the titles E. Birley gave in his letter, it does seem that they refer to the same set of photographs. This discovery is exciting not only because it answers basic who/what/where questions for the archival record, but also because it provides far more context about E. Birley’s experiences in Germany before the war. The photographs show whom he met, beyond those known from his correspondence, where he traveled, and expand the list of participants on the 1937 Studienfahrt.

Perhaps the best part of this story is that it was only possible though international collaboration. First through a partnership between the Vindolanda Trust and the RGK, and then through personal conversations. Without the knowledge of Herr Prof. Dr. Siegmar von Schnurbein, First Director of the RGK 1990-2006, many of the people in the photographs (and the details of the Studienfahrt) would remain unidentified. I like to think this is exactly what Eric Birley hoped for frontier studies: careful attention to the research, always in conversation with colleagues around the world.