The history of archaeology at Princeton University formally begins with Howard Crosby Butler (class of 1892), who joined the faculty in 1895 and in 1899–1900 directed the first expedition sponsored by the University. As a Princeton undergraduate, Butler became interested in the explorations of Syria conducted by the Marquis de Vogüé in 1860–1862. Encouraged by his predecessor, Butler embarked on a journey to revisit and restudy the region first explored by the marquis.
Funded by a group of New York businessmen, Butler organized the American Archaeological Expedition to Syria in 1899. Princeton graduates William Kelly Prentice (class of 1892) and Robert Garrett (class of 1897), along with Enno Littmann, an expert in Near Eastern languages and Semitic philology, joined Butler on his journey. Accompanied by a contingent of armed soldiers that was provided for their protection, the four-man team and 80 pack animals set out from Iskenderun (Alexandretta) in October of 1899. Guided by de Vogüé’s maps and notebooks, the group traveled from site to site in northern and southern Syria, measuring, drawing, and photographing buildings, inscriptions, and sculpture. The work of the expedition focused on surveys, maps, itineraries, architectural monuments, and inscriptions.
Littmann and Prentice joined Butler four years later, in 1904, when he organized the Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions to Syria. Frederick A. Norris (class of 1895) replaced Robert Garrett as architect and surveyor. The aim of this expedition was to study in greater detail the monuments visited by the American Expedition to Syria and to explore additional sites in the region. Motivated by the continuing population expansion and the consequent dismantling of ancient monuments, the team was eager to return and document the monuments of ancient Syria. Architectural monuments dating from the first century B.C. to the beginning of the seventh century A.D. were drawn, studied, and photographed. In addition to these studies, Norris kept a journal in which he vividly portrayed the daily life of the group as they explored the region. Inclement weather and food shortages forced the team to abandon their journey in 1905.
In March of 1909 Butler headed a third campaign, with the goal of completing the archaeological survey of southern Syria that he had begun in 1904. Reprising his role as overseer and architect, Butler invited several Princeton friends and colleagues to join the expedition. Setting out from Jerusalem on March 15, the group traveled along the Roman road from Amman to various sites where the work of the 1904–1905 expedition had been interrupted by snow. Traveling throughout the spring, the team arrived at their final destination, Damascus, where the caravan disbanded on 30 April 1909.
Butler’s three expeditions met his original goals, one of which was to revisit the sites first explored by de Vogüé. Taking more than 1500 photographs, Butler also fulfilled his aim of providing thorough photographic documentation. Extending de Vogüé’s survey of eighteen monuments, Butler eventually documented over 200 buildings.