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Turning the Page: Archaeological Archives and Entangled Cultural Knowledge

Conference summary by Research Assistant Katarína Mokránová.

Fig. 1: Courtesy of Katarína Mokránová.
Fig. 2: Courtesy of Katarína Mokránová.

The conference ‘Turning the Page: Archaeological Archives and Entangled Cultural Knowledge’, organized by Olympia Bobou (Aarhus University), Rubina Raja (Aarhus University) and Maria Stamatopoulou (University of Oxford), took place at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen on 23 and 24 November 2023.

Scholars from different disciplines were brought together to discuss the role and significance of archaeological and historical archives and to reflect on past archival practices and their importance for today’s scholarship. A central theme addressed at the conference was the power structures inherent in the accumulation and structuring of archives, particularly in colonial contexts. The conference also underscored the role of archives in understanding the formation of collections.

In the introduction to the conference, Rubina Raja and Olympia Bobou spoke on archival theory and practice, discussing ‘the archival turn’ and how archives can no longer be viewed as neutral repositories of knowledge but instead as sites of contention. Maria Stamatopoulou stressed the importance for collaborations in the field, not only between archaeologists, but also between historians, archivists and archaeologists, in order to uncover both hidden knowledge in archives, but also their uses.

Morgan M. Kersel (DePaul University) started the first session of the conference with a paper on how archival resources and ethnographic interviews help us tackle the issues of erasure, evidence, gatekeeping, objectivity, and knowledge loss that surround them. The case was exemplified through the study of grave goods, especially pottery, from the site of Bâb adh-Dhrâʿ, Jordan.

Maria Stamatopoulou (University of Oxford) then delved into the archives of Apostolos S. Arvanitopoulos, the region's first director of antiquities (active 1905–1926). She showed how his official reports, excavation diaries and his personal archive, together with finds photographed or drawn during excavations and now dispersed around the world, led to a recontextualization of thousands of artefacts, offering a fresh perspective on Thessalian archaeology.

Ensuing talk by Jon M. Frey (Michigan State University) discussed the challenges (such as intellectual property, publication rights, and the transfer of copyright) faced by the Michigan State University Excavations at Isthmia, Greece, in digitizing and openly sharing its archaeological archive since 2008. His paper shed light on the complexities of adhering to contemporary archaeological ethics within an archival context.

Miriam Kühn (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst) examined the impact of political and social conditions on the 1911–1913 excavation of the Abbasid capital Samarra through the lens of Ernst Herzfeld's letters and diaries, making us rethink how archives help us understand the past power dynamics and colonial contexts.

Olympia Bobou and Rubina Raja took the stage with their talk on the Palmyra archive of Harald Ingholt, initiated in the 1920s and expanded over his academic career until he donated it to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in 1981. They addressed the complexities and issues of Ingholt’s archive, stemming from its creation process and development.

Rubina Raja also presented the archival material of the 1928 joint American-British excavations in Gerasa stored at the Yale University Art Gallery. She discussed its potential and showcased her recent application of archival material in recontextualising the archaeology of the churches in Gerasa.

The second day of the conference opened with a talk by Kostas Paschalidis and Chrysanthi Tsouli (National Archaeological Museum of Athens), who presented on the activities of the Archaeological Department of Smyrna during the Greek occupation of the region (1919-1922). They highlighted the establishment of the department, and its efforts in excavation, preservation, and collection management. They also showed how the valuable archival records shed light on the role of military personnel and the Greek archaeologists in the excavation amidst the political turmoil of the time.

Next, Athina Chatzidimitriou and Maria-Xeni Garezou (Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sport) discussed the Historical Archives of Antiquities and Restorations, revealing the state's efforts not only to safeguard cultural heritage but also to address the social and political challenges posed by the refugee crisis of the 1920s.

Transporting us from Greece to Albania, the paper by Oliver Gilkes (independent scholar) and Milena Melfi (University of Oxford) illuminated the competing geopolitical ambitions of Greece and Italy present during the archaeological exploration of ancient Epirus. They showed the complex cultural appropriations and interpretations of the region's history done by the Greek and Italian missions in Albania throughout the early part of the 20th century, such as the survey sponsored by Greece and conducted with the intention of finding the Greek origins of the local population.

Nassos Papalexandrou (University of Texas at Austin) introduced us to the practice of presenting antiquities as diplomatic gifts between Greece and the United States during the Cold War era, revealing a lack of scholarly attention due to the artefacts' often unknown provenance. His paper highlighted the power differentials reflected in the scarcity of Greek archival records compared to the rich information in U.S. archives, emphasizing the intentional elimination of archival habits in post-WWII Greece.

Christina Avronidaki and Giorgos Kavvadias (National Archaeological Museum of Athens) showcased a complex investigative enquiry into the fate of antiquities from the collection of Athenian art dealer Antonios Papademos, acquired by the National Archaeological Museum in 1900 under the Law 2646 of 24 July 1899 ‘On antiquities’. They demonstrated how their use of the archival material aided in the identification of the so-called "useless" artefacts (i.e. useless to the state museums) dispersed to various locations across the world as a result of Law 2646. Moreover, their archival enquiry revealed the intricate connections between art dealers, collectors, and museums.

Michael Loy (University of Cambridge), Sharon R. Stocker and Jack L. Davis (both University of Cincinnati) exhibited their innovative approach to utilizing excavation archive, specifically that of Lord William Taylour whose meticulous recording methods and granularity of documentation allowed for spatial 3D reproduction of the findspots from Tholos IV of the Bronze-Age Palace of Nestor and made us ponder about the intentionality behind and specificities of archive making.

Turning to a private archive of the Gilliéron family, famous for their artistic representations of archaeological artefacts, Christina Mitsopoulou (University of Thessaly) traced the creation of this archive through the family’s collaboration with archaeologists. Mitsopoulou discussed the personal and deliberate selection processes employed in making the archive and exemplified how a family archive might facilitate the association of scattered collections, rediscover lost links, and re-evaluation of untold stories.

The conference concluded with a talk by Marie-Dominique Nenna (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), who discussed the intertwined history of Alexandrian archaeology and its archives in 1850-1950, closely connected to the historical trajectory of the city and its institutions, and the shift from amateur-led excavations to a more organized approach like rescue archaeology.

The value of archival material as a rich source of information for uncovering ‘lost’ knowledge echoed in all presentations of the two-day long conference, with speakers each addressing their specific challenges associated with working with archives further ensuing in thought-provoking discussions. During the conference, the participants also visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

We thank all the speakers and participants for their stimulating contributions. The conference proceedings are to be published by Brepols in the series “Archive Archaeology” founded by Rubina Raja. We would also like to thank the Danish National Research Foundation and the Carlsberg Foundation for their generous support of the conference.