C.S. Fisher

Fisher portrait photo from ID cards-Colorized

Clarence Stanley Fisher was born in Philadelphia in 1876.  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1897 with a degree in architecture; he never had any formal training in either archaeology or Egyptian history. In today’s world he would not be called an archaeologist or an Egyptologist, possibly an archtectural archaeologist.

In 1898, he joined the University’s Penn Museum excavations at Nippur, in today’s Iraq. He was employed as an architect, creating drawings of ancient structures. But he had to have been a quick study in archaeology. In 1905 he had his first book published, “The Excavations at Nippur.” He was twenty-eight. In 1909 he joined the Harvard Expedition at Samaria, Palestine.

Fisher subsequently worked in Egypt, at the early and crumbling pyramid Zawyiet el-Aryan, under the tutelage of famed archaeologist George Reisner. The dig had been funded by Harvard University. Working together, they described a new approach to excavation, later called the Reisner-Fisher method. Instead of digging a trench straight down through multiple levels of civilization, as had been the practice up to then, Fisher, based on his training as an architect, insisted that large open areas be excavated so that objects could be uncovered and documented in their architectural setting.  Clarence must have convinced his mentor at the time, George Reisner, that his method was better. And because of Reisner’s name being on it, the technique was adopted.

In 1914, after he impressed many as an archaeologist, and despite having no formal training, Clarence Fisher was appointed Curator of the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. His first assignment, given a concession to land by George Reisner, was to excavate in cemeteries to the west of the Giza pyramids, outside Cairo.

He also was very ambitious. For the Penn Museum, he worked two sites at once: Memphis, which is south of Cairo, and Dendara, which is north of Luxor. Later, he excavated at dra Abu el Naga, which is across the Nile from Luxor, and Beth Shan, which is in today’s Israel. One leg of that triangle is 400 miles, another 500 miles, and Luxor to Beth Shan is more that 800 miles. He did have use of a big boat on the Nile, the Hapi, which he used to travel between Luxor and Cairo. Those are tough trips today; just imagine in 1915!

At Memphis, he excavated the throne room of the pharaoh Mereneptah and transported much of the materials back to the Penn Museum. At the time, the discovery made headlines around the world due to the belief that he had excavated the site where Moses pleaded with pharaoh to “Let my people go.”

 In 1924 he published his massive “The Minor Cemetery at Giza,” which is used as a reference at Penn today. In 1925 he was awarded a doctor’s degree by his alma mater. He found clay jars at Dra Abu el Naga, which contained papyrus scrolls tightly rolled together, all written in demotic. Lists of accounts, legal transactions, marriage contracts, housing contracts; all really boring, and from the time of Ptolemy, 1200 years after Tutankhamun.

He attended the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb and made the following two entries in his journal:

"28 November, Tuesday. In late afternoon Lord Carnarvon came to invite me to a new tomb they have found in the Tomb of the Kings. He says it is one of the most magnificent yet found and full of beautiful stuff. Lunch is to be served in the Valley near the Tomb."

“29 November, Wednesday. Went to the Tombs of the Kings, where luncheon was served to a party of about thirty, including local officials. After luncheon two by two Lord Carnarvon and Mr. Carter took us into the tomb."

His ambition was remarkable, but he couldn’t keep it up. His health got to him, including a bout of Malaria, and the combination of exhaustion, health issues, frustration, and his temperament led him to resign from Penn in 1925. And possibly caused him problems at subsequent sites as well.

He then assumed leadership of the University of Chicago’s expedition to today’s Megiddo in Israel, better known as Armageddon. He developed the initial plans for the dig and later published “The Excavation of Armageddon.” In the forward to that book, famed archaeologist Dr. James Breasted states that on his first day at Fisher’s excavation at Megiddo, Fisher showed him a fragment of a stela that he thought had the hieroglyph of pharaoh Shishak I on it. Much more versed in hieroglyphs, Breasted confirmed that it was, indeed, Shishak I, also known as Shoshenq I or Sheshonk I. Breasted follows this with a quote from 1 Kings 14:24-26, wherein Shishak conquered Jerusalem and took away all of the treasures from King Solomon’s Temple. The stela, or stone slab, was called the Shoshenq I stela, because it tells of that pharaoh’s conquests in Palestine.

Clarence Fisher again suffered from illness and fatigue and was replaced as leader at Megiddo, although he remained on the excavation. He later assumed the role of a professor at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem.

As the 1940s approached, Fisher seemed to be spending much more time with his charities, which included the Jerusalem YMCA and the Jerusalem representation of the Lutheran Church in America. As permanent professor at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, he had been working on his “Corpus of Palestinian Pottery,” a massive project to catalog, photograph or draw, and date pottery shards from many biblical archaeological sites. He had finally finished volume one of his massive project "Corpus of Palestinian Pottery"; another three volumes had to wait for someone else.

Dr. Clarence Stanley Fisher died in Jerusalem in July 1941, at the age of sixty-five. His death was ruled to be by edema (swelling) and purpura (purple coloring beneath the skin) but no real cause was ever concluded.

Strangely, Fisher was given a full military funeral with a British flag over his coffin, but no reason was ever given for the presence of a British, not American, flag as his coffin proceeded from the hospital. Was it due to his service in World War I as a captain in the Red Cross? As an advisor to the British authorities on Arab affairs? Or was it because he had served as a spy for the British from the beginning of World War I and through the beginning of World War II?

His coffin was borne by an open British military truck through the streets of Jerusalem, on its way to burial in the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion, overlooking Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock. One year later, Sir Flinders Petrie was buried on the same row, directly across a narrow path from Clarence.

Shaker Ahmad Suleiman was a close friend of Fisher’s and served as a trusted manager and teacher at the Dar el-Awlad school in Jerusalem. More of an orphanage than a school, Fisher had organized it two years before for poor Arab orphans.

Shaker Ahmad wrote to Fisher’s widow, Florie Carswell Fisher, “All the highly esteemed and honored faculties of humanity were embodied in him. May I assure you that what I have said and what I may say later comes straight from the bottom of my heart and feelings. One person I have ever known, honest, generous, sympathetic in all human race, that is Dr. Fisher.”

Today, Dr. Clarence S. Fisher has never been given credit for his many contributions to archaeology, due to his lack of publication of sites for which he was responsible, and his lack of then-popular speaking engagements; he suffered from stuttering.