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800,000 Euro for Babylon Research at the Vorderasiatisches Museum

12.01.2016
Pergamonmuseum

Babylon was one of the most important cities of the ancient world. And one of the world’s largest and most significant collections documenting the cultural history of that city belongs to the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East). However, the holdings, located in Berlin since 1927, have yet to be sufficiently classified and indexed. For future scholarly investigation of these holdings, therefore, it is absolutely necessary that they be structured systematically and in a manner in line with contemporary collection management.

As part of a research project financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, scholars from the Vorderasiatisches Museum and the Institut für Altorientalistik at the Freie Universität Berlin will undertake a thorough analysis of the Babylon holdings. In the process, they will give structure to thousands of archaeological objects spanning three millennia—from cuneiform clay tablets to everyday ceramics and jewelry, as well as their excavation and collection documentation. These objects will be structured according to the contexts of the finds and made available for basic research into antiquity. The project is intended to lay the groundwork for more broadly conceived, longer-term, and internationally networked research projects into the cultural history of ancient Babylon.

Because of collection-sharing agreements, the Vorderasiatisches Museum’s Babylon Collection is located in Berlin. The objects were found between 1899 and 1927 during routine archaeological excavations led by Robert Koldewey. What is more, most of the excavation and catalogue documentation has survived. The archival material ranges from photographs, packing lists, maps, the estates and papers of excavators, to architectural plans. These files are dispersed between the Vorderasiatisches Museum, the Central Archive of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and the archives of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft.

This unique combination—of finds and unusually extensive, surviving documentation of the excavations—makes it possible to explore the archaeological objects with a wide range of cultural-historical considerations in mind, and to reconstruct detailed “biographies” of the objects into the present. “Our goal is to gather and structure all the information that may shed light on the path taken by the objects from their manufacture up to their present-day stowage within the museum. In this sense, our Babylon research is always simultaneously an act of provenance research, and a contribution to collections history,” says Markus Hilgert, director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum. Hilgert will direct the new project together with Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (Freie Universität Berlin).

In the first phase of the project, all the finds and archival material will be systematically indexed and digitally catalogued. Alongside this, the team will carry out case studies of the structures typical to finds and of the possibilities for presenting the research in the museum context.

The new endeavor will lay the foundation for future Babylon research undertaken by the Vorderasiatisches Museum, which is striving to forge closer long-term ties to the Babylon collections in Baghdad and Istanbul. The new presentation of the collection in the Pergamonmuseum, set to debut in 2025, will also reap immediate benefits from the results of the project.

The project will be coordinated by the scholars of Oriental Studies Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert, director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and Prof. Dr. Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum of the Freie Universität Berlin. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft is supporting the endeavor with a total of €841,600.