o Carney Gavin, curator of Harvard University's
Semitic Museum, the bomb that exploded in Harvard's Center for
International Affairs in 1970 was "a moment of light" For although it
was undoubtedly an act of violence, the explosion unearthed one of the
great photographic collections of all time: some 28,000 photographs of
the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centurie$ including 800
lovely - and historically valuable - photographic prints by a family
of photographers called Bonfils. Acquired by the Harvard Semitic
Museum (HSM) starting about 1892, the photographs had firstbeen
forgotten and then lost.
The bombers - thought to be two young women - apparently wanted to protest the alleged involvement of Henry Kissinger and his Harvard think tank, the Center for International Affairs, in plans to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Though Kissinger by then had left Harvard to become President Nixon's Special Advisor on National Security, the center, reportedly, was still working with him on defoliation and was still renting space in the HSM building on Divinity Avenue, a quiet corner of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A venerable Harvard institution - it was founded in 1889 to provide "a better knowledge of Semitic history and civilization" - HSM had fallen on hard times during and after World War II. First commandeered as a school for U.S. Army chaplains, it was later turned into a U.S. NavyJapanese language instruction center and then taken over by Kissinger's group. By the time Dr. Gavin came as assistant to the curator in 1970, most of the museum's collections - including cuneiform tablets, Sumerian glass, Palestinian costumes and other artifacts from digs in Cyprus and North Africa - had been relegated to basement and attic store rooms or lent to other museums.
But then, on October 14,1970, the bomb exploded and things began to change. Planted in the center's third-floor library and apparently timed to go off at midnight so no one would get hurt, the bomb, according to Dr. Gavin, blew out a skylight, charred a few beams and scattered plaster all over the fourth-floor attic. Dr. Gavin, assessing the damage, noticed, for the first time, "hundreds of crimson boxes, covered in dust and tucked under the roof's eaves". In the boxes were more than 28,000 photographs, slides and stereoscopic views - among them 800 golden-hued prints made by the amazing Bonfils photographers.
For Middle East archeologists, these photographs were to be important; astonishingly clear and detailed, they handed archeology a new tool to study Semitic history and civilization - and to an extent revitalized HSM just as Dr. Gavin came aboard.
Before he accepted the post of assistant to the curator, Carney Gavin had already worked as a "dirt archeologist" on digs as far afield as Germany, Austria, Britain and Jordan - some of them sponsored by HSM. He knew, therefore, the value of HSM's collection and was delighted to find among the photographs a tin box containing records of the museum's treasures.
But it was the Bonfils photographs that began to engage the attention of Dr. Gavin and his staff of dedicated professionals and volunteers whoburrowed into the crimson boxes found under the attic's eaves. "The realization of what we had was a gradual one,' Dr. Gavin said. "I recall bringing Adnan Abou Odeh, Jordarl's Minister of Information, down to Boston City Hall in January, 1976, for Arab-American Ethnic Heritage Month -we had lent portraits of people of the Levant for the exhibit - and as he stood before the images he began to get excited, saying things like, 'that lace comes from a village in the foothills near Damascus ' He really began to dig into each picture".
In Jordan that same year, while Dr. Gavin was attending an international conference on the restoration of Jerash, something similar happened. Various experts had presented their carefully researched findings, Dr. Gavin said, including reports on probes and soundings and speculations on whether there had been a wall here or there and whether this find was part of a temple or a colonnade. Then Dr. Gavin produced photographs of Jerash more than 100 years ago - when it was still relatively intact- and suddenly all the experts realized that they had a new and highly effective archeological tool to use in answering just such questions.
That was just the beginning. As the conference went on, leaders of the Circassian community of Amman came forward to inspect the photographs and pointed at a group of men standing in the middle of the Roman stadium. "See their Astrakhan caps, their Cossack-like dress? "they said excitedly, "they are the Circassian scouts to Jerash to see if the water was drinkable".
The Circassians, the leaders explained, had been granted the land around Jerash by the Ottoman sultan-Jordan was then part of the Ottoman Empire - as they fled a massacre in Russia. And when their scouts found that the water was drinkable the Circassians moved there in 1879.
As this information came pouring out, elicited by the sight of the photograph, Dr. Gavin and the other experts at the conference saw that something very important was happening. "We suddenly realized we were into something that was the other side of history- something not found in any written report"
It was about then too that Dr. Gavin and his staff began to think more kindly of the two women suspected of planting the bomb in the museum building. "They were never caught", he said, "and who could wish for that today in light of their inadvertent gift? In fact, some people around here think we ought to put up a little plaque to them".