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Between the Lines: Towards a Recontextualized Archaeology

Conference summary by Assistant Professor Olympia Bobou and Postdoc Julia Steding.

Speakers and opponents from the conference gathered for the reception at the Museum of Ancient Art (Aarhus University) after the two-day conference. Photo: The Museum of Ancient Art, Aarhus University.
Patrick Michel (Lausanne University) giving his paper ‘Byzantine levels in the Baalshamin Sanctuary: Dismantling and interpretation by the Swiss archaeologist Paul Collart’. Photo: Olympia Bobou.
Discussions during the conference. From the left: Vinnie Nørskov (The Museum of Ancient Art, Aarhus University), Isber Sabrine (Archaeology of Social Dynamics, Spanish National Research Council), Michel Al-Maqdissi (Louvre Museum) and Patrick Michel (Lausanne University). Photo: Olympia Bobou.

The conference ‘Between the Lines: Towards a Recontextualized Archaeology’, organized by Professor of Classical Archeology and UrbNet Centre Director Rubina Raja and Post-doctoral Research Fellow Amy Miranda, took place at Moesgaard Museum on the 13 and 14 June 2022.

The conference brought together scholars working with legacy data in order to address the ethical considerations and duties of researchers in their use of archival material, and the obligation to decolonize archaeology and history through nuanced reading between the lines. The participants highlighted how archival material can be a fruitful source of information for hidden knowledge, and how it can give voice to people usually unrepresented in academic publications.

The conference was organised under the auspices of the project Archive Archaeology: Preserving and Sharing Syria’s Cultural Heritage through Harald Ingholt’s Digital Archives financed by the ALIPH foundation, as well as the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions at Aarhus University.

The Power of Archives

The paper ‘De-neutralizing digital heritage infrastructures: Using digital humanities approaches to study the impact of databases and information topologies on archaeological knowledge production’ by Gertjan Plets and and Pim Huijnen (Utrecht University), showed how biased research questions and banal nationalism are embedded in digital heritage infrastructures. They propose relearning digital source criticism as a solution for decolonizing and unpacking these inherent biases. Hiba Alkhalaf (King’s College London) gave a paper on ‘Unpacking the values of heritage sites through local lenses’. Using Palmyra as a case study, she showed how the site has multiple values that are interconnected with its functions during different points of time and the changes in the dominant collective knowledge system, and that for Palmyra to be decolonized, it is imperative that the local voices and perspectives are included in any future plans for the site. Zena Kamash (Royal Holloway, University of London) demonstrated in her paper ‘Disruptive archives: Using the ASOR CHI archives to challenge mainstream narratives of cultural heritage destruction in Syria’ how mainstream narratives of the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria between 2014 and 2018 simplified a very complex situation. The ASOR CHI archived reports can be used to challenge these narratives.

Archives and the Mandate Period

Juliette Desplat (The National Archives of the United Kingdom) highlighted how the material in the National Archives can give a nuanced picture of the history of archaeological research in Iraq when one reads between the lines of the archived material in her paper ‘Beyond the official narrative: Archaeology in Iraq 1917-1945’. Michel Al-Maqdissi’s paper ‘’Le Service des Antiquités’ at the time of the French Mandate and ‘la Question Archéologique Syrienne’: Some preliminary aspects’ demonstrated the trajectory of archaeology in Syria in the period and how it can be divided in different phases. Sarah Irving (Staffordshire University), in her paper ‘Unsettled responsibilities’: Antiquity, resistance and rubble in Mandate Palestine’, showed how the archives reveal the competition of the different stakeholders in the community of Nablus on the matter of the reconstruction of monuments after the Jericho earthquake of 1927. The paper ‘Palmyra under the French Mandate: ‘Excavating’ new narratives in the Ingholt Archive’ by Rubina Raja (Aarhus University), showed how Harald Ingholt treated his scientific publications differently from his excavation diaries and personal photographic archive, and from his publications for general public, taking into account the different intended readers.

The Hidden Knowledge in Archives

Jen Baird (Birkbeck College, University of London) presented a paper on ‘Notable finds: Field diaries of Syrian archaeology’, contrasting the excavation diaries of Clark Hopkins and Harald Ingholt, with a particular emphasis on the excavators’ choices about the information they recorded. Vinnie Nørskov (The Museum of Ancient Art, Aarhus University), Troels Myrup Kristensen (Aarhus University) and Gönül Bozoğlu (Newcastle University), presented ‘The hidden producers of archaeological knowledge: A century and a half of archaeological exploration of the Maussolleion of Halikarnassos (Bodrum, Turkey)’, on the impact that the excavations had on the locals and the different levels of local engagement with the monument. Isber Sabrine (Archaeology of Social Dynamics, Spanish National Research Council) in his paper ‘Palmyrene Voices Initiative’, focused on a project created for showcasing the perspectives, memories, and creativity of the Palmyrenes and for supporting them. Patrick Michel (Lausanne University) showed in his paper ‘Byzantine levels in the Baalshamin Sanctuary: Dismantling and interpretation by the Swiss archaeologist Paul Collart’ how the Paul Collart archives have been used for recreating a monument with multiple phases that is now destroyed.

The two-day conference was a success that truly testifies to the importance of the research conducted within archive archaeology. Furthermore, it was a pleasure to get people together physically in the wonderful settings of Moesgaard Museum post Covid-19 for some highly interesting and thought-provoking scholarly discussion about the sensitive readings of archival material from the last two centuries. After the conference, all participants were invited to join a reception at The Museum of Ancient Art at Aarhus University to celebrate the recent opening of the virtual exhibition ‘Excavating Archives: Narratives from 20th-Century Palmyra’. The exhibition, whichi s curated by Rubina Raja, Olympia Bobou and Julia Steding, contextualizes the legacy data of the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt.