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A Digital Archive Platform for Research on the Danish Inter-World War Archaeological Engagement in the Middle East

New infrastructure project on archive archaeology and the inter-World War archaeological engagement in the Middle East by professor in classical archaeology and art and centre director Rubina Raja.

Photo from the Ingholt Archive taken in the synagogue in Dura-Europos some time after its discovery in 1932. From left to right: archaeologist and historian Count Robert du Mesnil du Buisson; archaeologist and philologist Harald Ingholt; archaeologist and ancient historian Michael Rostovtzeff; Mrs Janet Ingholt; archaeologist Clarke Hopkins with the oldest son of the Ingholt’s on his lap; architect Henry Pearson. The photo was first published in Raja and Sørensen 2015. Harald Ingholt and Palmyra (Aarhus: SunTryk). Courtesy of Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project.

Rubina Raja, professor of classical archaeology and art and centre director of the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions, has received funding from the Carlsberg Foundation for a new project, which will develop a digital archive platform. This platform will host several thousands of documents relating to the archaeological engagement in the Middle East in the period between WWI and WWII – a period in which numerous foreign missions, including Danish scholars and teams – worked in the region and extensively excavated and studied many of the today still famous sites, such as Hama, Palmyra and Tell Sukâs. One focus of Rubina Raja’s research in the past years has been on disentangling and disseminating the unleashed knowledge that lies deeply embedded in archival material that today is spread across the world at a variety of institutions, universities, museums and in private holdings.

In connection with her extensive work on archive archaeology, Rubina Raja has, among other things, founded an international peer-reviewed book series entitled Archive Archaeology (https://www.brepols.net/series/ARC). The series has already hosted several edited volumes, monographs, commented archives and travel accounts, and it continuously supports publication within this rapidly growing field, cementing the importance of such material being brought to the forefront of current archaeological and historical research.

The Danish archaeological engagement in the Middle East between the world wars

The increasingly critical situation in the Middle East, which has intensified over the past years, underlines the importance of archival materials, which holds information about archaeological sites, their objects, structure and history, and brings to the forefront the fact that such materials must be made available to a broader audience – both academic and public – in order to allow for new research to be performed, despite the fact that research on the ground may not be possible. The new project focuses on the Danish engagement in the Middle East in the Inter-World War period as well as in the years leading up to WWI. The Danish engagement during this period was often undertaken in collaboration with other nationals, not least since the region was under Mandate rule, and permissions to undertake archaeological work was granted by the respective Mandate authorities. Rubina Raja has in particular undertaken research on the archaeological work by Danish scholar Kai Harald Ingholt in Palmyra and other places in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s, and she has published extensively on his work in the region both in sole- as well as co-authored publications. The new project looks not only at the Danish involvement but just as much at the Mandate nations’ involvement in the archaeological work in the region and the work that various missions undertook together with other non-Mandate nationals and missions. Through such a focus, new knowledge will be brought to the forefront both about the significance of Danish archaeological research of the period, but also about social and political networks in a highly internationalized and colonialized world, which characterized the Mandate period.

The archaeological archives at Yale University Art Gallery and the Babylonian Collection at Yale University

The project takes its point of departure in two specific archives but does not limit itself to these. These archives are both located at Yale University, but in two different locations. Parts of the legacy data of Harald Ingholt are held at Yale Babylonian Collection. Ingholt held a professorship at Yale University until his retirement in 1960, but he stayed in Yale after his retirement, and at some point after his retirement, he donated material to both the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and to the Babylonian collection – and some of his materials were also donated by his wife after his death. The other archive the project focuses on is the Gerasa Archive at Yale University Art Gallery, which holds numerous handwritten documents, photographic and drawn material accumulated throughout the campaigns undertaken in the city in the 1920s and 1930s by first an American-British and later by an American team.

By studying these archives in tandem in their historiographical contexts, there is an immense potential for better understanding archaeological practices of that time, mapping research interests, as well as personal, social and political networks; for example, the Danish archaeological engagement in the Middle East was significant in exactly those years, and Danish scholars positioned themselves differently than those from the Mandate Nations.

Funders, political interests and archaeological engagement in the Middle East

The history of two Danish foundations is in this connection of particular interest: the Carlsberg Foundation, which supports archaeological research to this day, among numerous other disciplines, and the today dissolved Rask-Ørsted Foundation. The Rask-Ørsted Foundation played a significant role in the interwar period for Danish scholarship and also in the support of archaeological research in the Middle East. It was founded in 1919, but the discussions about it were already initiated in 1918, around the end of WWI. The first documents about the potential venture of the Rask-Ørsted Foundation gives insight into the Danish perception of the role of the smaller nations in the wake of WWI, nations that were not as damaged during the war as the larger nations were. These documents reveal that a group of scholars and statemen believed Denmark should play a significant role in mediating between the nations in relation to the reinstitution and building up of new relations in academia, including initiating and leading field expeditions around the world together with international colleagues.

About Rubina Raja

Rubina Raja is professor of classical archaeology and art and director of the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions. She heads several collaborative research projects focusing on Palmyra in the Syrian Desert and Gerasa, a Decapolis city in modern northern Jordan. She has published extensively on the archaeology of the Hellenistic and Roman East, and recent works include her monograph published by Oxford University Press, Pearl of the Desert. A History of Palmyra (2022). In 2024 she will be giving the Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures at Michigan University, Ann Arbor, and at the American Academy in Rome on urbanism in the Roman East, including a view on the shaping of urban archaeology as a field of study.