Lost cities and found documents: do we ever discover in archives?

Kalahari panorama, COPY 1/373/473

Kalahari panorama, COPY 1/373/47

I like a good lost city. Found cities are interesting (Troy, for example) but lost ones are even better. Here’s a picture (possibly) of one, taken by the cross dressing acrobat and photographer Lulu Farini, protégé of the Great Farini.

The two were crossing the Kalahari desert in 1885 when they came across piles of rocks which Farini declared were ‘either a city or a place of worship, or the burial ground of a great nation’. Today the site is entirely lost – assuming that Farini, a showman as his name suggests, didn’t simply make the whole thing up. What makes a lost city lost? We need to be half aware of its existence but tantalisingly vague about its precise location and nature.

Henry VIII image, COPY 1/556/340

Henry VIII image, COPY 1/556/340

Here’s another loss. A frame from the eight held at The National Archives from the 1910 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, directed by William Barker. It’s estimated that 80% of silent films made in Britain have been destroyed. But this film is generally regarded as being more destroyed than most because Barker announced that in order to maintain the quality of the prints (which wear out through use) the film would be available strictly for six weeks, whereupon the prints would be destroyed. He burned them in the grounds of Ealing Studios in front of the press and the film is regarded as lost. Perhaps a copy exists in a basement in Australia somewhere but it is unlikely. But then we might have said that about George Pearson’s film ‘Love, Life and Laughter’ were it not for the fact that it turned up about three weeks ago, having been found in a disused Dutch cinema in Gelderland. This was a real find, particularly as only one other complete film directed by Pearson, once one of Britain’s most esteemed directors, is known to survive. But if this is a real find, what is a fake find?

In 2012, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project announced that one of its researchers, Helena Papaioannou, had made an exciting discovery; a medical report by Charles Leale, the first doctor on the scene when Lincoln was shot, fatally as it turned out, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln, 1846, Nicholas H. Shepherd, Wikimedia Commons

Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln, 1846, Nicholas H. Shepherd, Wikimedia Commons

But, writing in The Atlantic, Suzanne Fischer of the Henry Ford Museum disputed the find declaring that the document had not been discovered because it was ‘right where it was supposed to be’, namely in a file of Surgeon General’s correspondence at the National Archives in Washington. The comments on this article make interesting reading. One commenter compared discovering a document in an archive to ‘finding wood at Home Depot’, presumably because archives are where documents live and so finding them in their place is not a discovery.

To return to media examples, two episodes of the still mostly missing Doctor Who story The Daleks’ Masterplan were famously (if you like Doctor Who) found in the basement of a Mormon church in Clapham in 1983. Was this discovery different from the two Who stories tracked down by Philip Morris, the director of a TV company, in Nigeria last year, just because Morris found his tapes in storage at a TV station?

Or to put it another way, when archaeologists find things in the ground, do we decry them because the ground is a rather obvious (even prosaic) place to look for artifacts? Oh, you found Richard III under a carpark? How expected. It’s not like he was excavated on Saturn. Now that’s a discovery! So in principle it’s not clear that a document has to be found in an unlikely setting to be ‘discovered’.

Herself a trained archivist, Papaioannou argued the point in her own article insisting that the key issue was that ‘no one alive today knew that a copy of Leale’s report was in the records of the Surgeon General’. Fischer had already made the point that the documents were not catalogued to item level. They were probably in a box of correspondence with a catalogue description something like ‘In letters 1860-5, F-M’ which we can all agree is not as informative as perhaps it could be. But was Papaioannou right to imply that no one alive had seen the report? An archivist had perhaps seen it at some point. But, seemingly, they had not made a discovery. ‘I don’t discover my shoes each morning’, said a commenter, presumably implying that what we (as archivists) have placed we cannot ‘discover’. Does the archivist make the discovery? Are our cataloguers discovering? They might be. Many staff at The National Archives come across interesting and significant things. Sometimes they talk about them on this very blog. But what happens if they don’t?

In January of this year, the Guardian reported that a researcher had ‘chanced’ upon unpublished letters by Mary Shelley.  The researcher called it ‘a lucky find’ but their luck was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity: the letters were in Essex Record Office and had been spotted online (the Guardian called it ‘an unpromising website’ which is just mean). The implication was that this was discovery via Google. Again the comments were lively: ‘funny sort of ‘discovery’ when the letters were in a public record office, have been catalogued by an archivist, and put in an online search engine’, wrote Technopeasant. ‘This was catalogued and described and ready for the researcher without any particular effort. Any credit for ‘discovery’ goes to the archivist’, insisted Kate 2468.

But I don’t agree. What lost cities and found documents have in common is that someone other than their creators (or residents) comes to understand that they exist. Joshua Ranger has suggested a thing ‘cannot be lost if no one is missing it‘ and went as far as to argue that tales of ‘discovery’ harm the archival profession because they imply we’re not doing our jobs. This seems rather alarmist. Does interest and excitement cause harm?  The implication in his argument is that if archivists weren’t goofing off drinking tea and building state of the art digital preservation environments we’d see to it that everything could be found, is permanently available and then nothing would be discovered.

I have to say that this thought depresses me. The day all collections are completely digitised (to do this in Europe would cost billions so I’m not panicked) will be simultaneously cool and a bit dull. But it won’t stop discovery because discovery is an intellectual process. People will still find new knowledge in collections even if they aren’t physically discovering new documents. Because it isn’t objects, documents or films which change, it is our state of knowledge about them. This is true of a lot of discovery – gravity was working perfectly well before Isaac Newton noticed it.

Discovery is not about seeing something but about making a connection. Researchers look at documents every single day which might be thrilling if read by someone else but aren’t the thing they personally are looking for and so are passed over. The real myth about discovery in archives is not discovery itself – it happens! – but that the discoverer is solely responsible. But this myth is widely peddled all over the place. The myth of the lone scholar is as tired as that of the lone entrepreneur: research and innovation are collaborative. No one ever does it by themselves nor have they ever. In order to make your discovery you first read quite a lot of books by quite a lot of people, used catalogues and online systems they built, bounced ideas off your colleagues, partner, friends, pets and therapist.

In his 1925 book The Death of Christopher Marlowe, Leslie Hotson describes how he found the inquest record that significantly resolved the mystery of Marlowe’s death; he used ‘as a last resort…the modern manuscript calendar of the Miscellany of the Chancery’. He basically Googled it. And that means today you can make a discovery in your dressing gown – after all if Archimedes could have a eureka moment in the bath, why shouldn’t you? (Don’t drop your smartphone!) Good luck.


  1. Paul Tombleson says:

    I think this sums up nicely why there is a need for Archives…

    People will still find new knowledge in collections even if they aren’t physically discovering new documents. Because it isn’t objects, documents or films which change, it is our state of knowledge about them. This true of a lot of discovery – gravity was working perfectly well before Isaac Newton noticed it.

  2. David Matthew says:

    To date a recent case (in the last few days) the BBC reported on the case of the publication of the history of Hut 6 at Bletchley Park was reported in their news, yet the file was at TNA with the 1982 transfers a year ago, so it wasn’t hidden but had not been picked up. It is of course difficult to find everything in a document which everyone might want to see, it is just a case of documents being used for purposes other than the reason they were created, the Census is an obvious case. Some years ago I ‘discovered’ a set of photographed copies of documents at TNA, which had been donated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland (with the originals in Vienna archives) which has been with them since the 1920s relative to Jeanne d’Arc (Joan or Arc) with almost a first-hand account of the Battle of Patay in July 1429 following the raising of the Siege of Orleans and en-route to Reims. Yes it was mis-described, which is how I found it, but it was just one of 20 million plus documents. If people want more ‘discoveries’ then give the archives sector more money.

  3. Sam Riley says:

    The media are the ones perpetuating the myths of ‘discovery’ and ‘dusty forgotten archives’ they also are responsible for a large part of ‘everythings available online’

    Perhaps the archive community needs to do more to reveal the truth and highlight how much is already available for a small bit of effort on the researchers part rather than hpoing that google will know the answer.

    Often so much that is done for the first time has already been done before

    1. Jo Pugh says:

      Sam, I’m afraid I can’t agree with you. Firstly, because as I’ve argued above I don’t believe discovery is a myth at all but secondly because it’s not the media that announces discoveries it’s generally researchers. They are the ones who write press releases declaring their finds. Archives do it too and I’m glad they do because that’s how the news gets out of the exciting collections they hold. I accept it has to be couched in terms of ‘newness’ which is a little distorting but that is, after all, what news is about!

      I also think that (like TNA’s catalogue) all collections should be googleable simply because it makes them easier for users to access. We might feel certain things about Google but they’re the game in town and we have to engage with them. Asking the right research questions can be the toughest part of research. Just because something is easy to find does not mean it’s easy to understand. But it is true that archives need to work harder to explain what can and can’t be achieved online.

      Finally, the bugbear of the dusty archive. There are two things I can say about this. One is that I’ve handled documents which are absolutely caked in grime. TNA’s repositories are immaculate but sometimes the actual documents are filthy. That’s just a fact. But if archives are worried about the word ‘dusty’ as a synonym for ‘boring’ then they should solve the problem by being less boring. NARA in Washington have taken to organising sleepovers. Let’s have a bit more of that.

  4. […] Lost cities and found documents: do we ever discover in archives? | The National Archives blog […]

  5. […] Lost cities and found documents: do we ever discover in archives? | The National Archives blog […]

  6. David Matthew says:


    I agree with you to a point, the decision to highlight and release the 20-year releases at a set date to just two departments (PM and Cabinet Office) has led to many records not reaching the ears of journalists, unless they know what is coming out then the documents do not get highlighted. It is a matter of regret that TNA has stopped highlighting files on a monthly basis, albeit (I presume) because of the staff cuts at TNA. Perhaps TNA should involve researchers, not just ‘academic researchers’. Does TNA have a need to inform and educate the general public on what files there are that have been released?.

  7. […] Lost cities and found documents: do we ever discover in archives? — “discovery” is a tremendously challenging term, in this context and others. I’ll be reflecting on this post (among other things, naturally) in some upcoming speaking […]

  8. seabee says:

    Ref: `lost` cities, tribes,as in Brazil,Belize,Guatemala for instance are not really lost in the sense of `lost,`cities are abandoned by their inhabitants for various reasons,such as disease,famine,war the area reverts back to the original state and nature reclaims what was natures in the `beginning` before the creature called MAN claimed the area for himself and desecrated it. Hundreds if not thousands of years later was `re-discovered`and declared `found`.So, was `it` or `they`lost?

  9. […] Lost cities and found documents: do we ever discover in archives? | The National Archives blog […]

  10. […] Lost cities and found documents: do we ever discover in archives? | The National Archives blog […]

  11. Allison Kirchner says:

    This article describes perfectly what I love about my job as an archivist. I come across materials every day that seem unimportant because it doesn’t connect to any information contained in the small database that is my brain. Someday, I will learn something new that triggers a memory of an item encountered hours, days, months, or even years earlier and the connection is made! And maybe not. Maybe it is for future generations with their own “mind-databases” to make the connections. And maybe, I will be that future generation to make the connection with an item stored years before by someone with no knowledge of its significance. I see my job as a constant treasure hunt!

Leave a comment

Visit this page for family history and other research enquiries. Please do not post personal information. All comments are pre-moderated. See our moderation policy for more details.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *