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The Danish Work

The Danish Archaeological School

Danish archaeological & historical research in Syria: an example of non-colonial archaeology 

This brief overview aims to provide information on the history of the Danish archaeological and historical research in Syria as well as of the different excavation methods and techniques and approaches applied by Danish scholars in Syria throughout the history of the Danish activities.

Scientific debate about the Danish contribution to the archaeology of Syria goes back to Herald Ingholt, who directed the first Danish excavation at Palmyra in 1924. A group of sculptures from the site, stored at the Carlsberg Glyptothek, inspired him to travel to Syria in order to study the city’s architectural remains. Ingholt’s excavations, which focussed on statues from Byzantine tombs, lasted for a relatively short period between 1924 and 1927, but included important documentation and restoration activities. Ingholt also set up initiatives dedicated to Syrian archaeology and heritage, including the establishment of an oriental section at the American University of Beirut and the issuing of an archaeological bulletin dedicated to the archaeology of Syria and Lebanon. In 1991 the Ingholt family handed back a very rare sculpture fragment, depicting the Palmyran gods, to the Syrian minister of culture

Despite favouring further research at the site of Tell al-Nebi Mend near Homs, Ingholt applied to the French authorities for permission to excavate in the region of Hama in 1930, and was soon attracted by the ruins at the citadel mound of Hama, locally known as Qalʿat ḥama. Mentioned in the Bible as Hamath, the site is situated in central western Syria in the Orontes Valley and has a strategic position on ancient trade routes running north and south, controlling access to the ports on the Mediterranean coast. Nowadays almost nothing is visible there besides a modern amusement park.

The initiative for the Hama expedition came from a Johannes Pedersen, a professor of Semitic philology at the University of Copenhagen, and after permission for the excavation was granted by the French authorities, there was a long period of Danish excavation lasting from 1931-1938. The research at Hama is considered very important as it was carried out by a team from very different scholarly backgrounds who employed a holistic and multidisciplinary approach. This represented a significant methodical innovation compared to other professional archaeologists at that time, not only in Syria but also in the whole of the Near East.

 The excavation revealed artefacts and monuments which represent at least 8000 years of human occupation on the upper mound. The earliest evidence dates to the Neolithic period, around 6000BC, but major study and analysis has focussed on the impressive Bronze and Iron Age remains. One of the richest Early Bronze age pottery assemblages yet discovered in north western Syria was unearthed, including the diagnostic ‘goblet de Hama’. From later periods, the Iron Age Aramaic kingdom of Hama left massive sculptural remains, in particular the lion-based columns which were stored at the National Museum of Copenhagen, and a lion statue made of basalt. A very rich Islamic material culture was also revealed at Tell Hama, and the city remained inhabited until its destruction during the Mongol invasion led by Tamerlane, in 1400 AD.

The major result of these excavations was the discovery of a stratigraphic sequence demonstrating around 8000 years of human occupation in the city of Hama. Objects and artefacts discovered during the excavations are displayed in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen as well as the Museum of Hama built thanks to the generous help of Danish colleagues and sponsors in 1999. Thousands of additional objects, as well as all of the original excavation documentation, are located in storage rooms at the National Museum in Copenhagen and include the records of many historic buildings situated in the lower part of the town. During this project, the Danish scholars set out an agenda for later work, forming a methodology for research and excavation. Paintings, photos, and drawings produced during the fieldwork are a rare source since they provide a unique record of the urban landscape and the population of Hama from the 1930s to the early 1950s, prior to the tragic events that took place in the early 1980s.

The Danish excavation team at Hama initially occupied an Ottoman period house, before settling in a khan (traveller’s inn). Recently, the National Museum of Denmark launched a website where one can virtually visit the wonderful places in Hama, and meet the members of the excavation team, as well as learn about their life in the field as well as leisure time in 1930s Syria.

The discoveries from Hama were published in several volumes in a series by the National Museum.

Another site excavated by Danish archaeologists is the coastal site of Tell Soukas, situated on the Geble plain. In 1956 P.J. Riis undertook a series of soundings in order to better understand the relationships between coastal cities in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Phoenician period. P.J. Riis, a professor of classical archaeology and member of the pioneering excavation at Hama, also carried out some preliminary excavation work at ʿArab el-Mūlk as well as a systematic survey on the plain of Geble. The Danish scholars published an impressive 13 volume report covering the excavation techniques and results, providing information on various sites dating from the Bronze Age to late Antique period including a significant study of the sacral architecture at Soukas.

The tradition of a Danish contribution to archaeological research in Syria continued in the 1990s, with the excavation of Tell Mashnaqa, located on the Khabour River, a tributary of the Euphrates, about 30 kilometres (19 mi) south of Al-Hasakah. The Syrian authorities launched this rescue project in 1990 due to the construction of a dam, and a Danish mission under the direction of  Ingolf Thuesen carried out excavations from 1990 to 1995. Tell Mashnaqa was already known to contain archaeological remains dating to the Ubaid period of c.5000 BCE and the project aimed to investigate aspects of Syria’s contribution to the formation of early complex societies in Mesopotamia. In particular, it planned to investigate the ecological conditions of the area since the Ice Age and how these had both affected and been affected by human activities, especially in respect of the transition to sedentary societies. Most of the finds from Tell Mashnaqa are now under investigation, although a small number of well-preserved finds are currently on display in the Museum at Deir ez-Zor.

Another Danish expedition went to Syria in 1993 under the directorship of Jesper Eidem, an Assyriologist and research fellow at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute. The mission worked at Tell Jurn Kabir on the Euphrates, which predominantly dates to the Iron Age, in particular the 6th-7th centuries BC; the period immediately following the conquest of the Neo-Assyrian kings. At least three expeditions were conducted, and a large complex was discovered and identified as a fort. A large number of ceramics and terra cotta, which included a horse figurine and a vessel for burning incense were also uncovered. Like the work at Tell Mashnaqaa, this excavation was part of a lager salvage project and was funded by The Carlsberg Foundation.

In 2000 a Danish mission, again directed by Jesper Eidem worked at Tell Aushariye in northern Syria and the project has a dedicated website hosted by the University of Copenhagen. Tell Aushariye is an ancient fortress, strategically located on an important route across the river Euphrates. The excavation unearthed a significant Iron Age settlement and evidence for occupation going back to 4th millennium BC, which demonstrated its importance during the neo Assyrian period. Further excavations in 2005 revealed Early Bronze Age fortifications and remains dating from the Middle Bronze to Iron Ages.

In 2008-2009, the joint Syro-Danish mission stared its work at the site of Qalat Halawnji, which is located on the Al-Saǧur River, one of the tributaries of the Euphrates in northern Syria. The site is 5 hectares in size and was identified as a large fortress dating back to the Middle Bronze Age. The excavation unearthed the remains of brick walls which survive to a height of 3 meters. Jesper Eidem was the Danish representative for these excavations.

There is a long tradition of Danish scholarly contributions to the study of the history and archaeology of the Arab and Islamic world starting with the mid-18th century ‘Arabian Journey’ of pioneer historian Carsten Niebuhr. More recent activities include the ambitious restoration of Bayt alʿAqqād in Damascus restored by a Danish team in the 1990s. Bayt al ‘aqqād is a large house in Sūq al- Sūf in central Damascus and was built in the late Mamluk period, around 1470, with several modifications in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The building later became the Danish Institute in Damascus. Restoration work showed that the building had been constructed on the remains of a large Roman building, identified as the Damascene theatre of Herod the Great.

Danish archaeological research techniques at three of the sites mentioned above- Palmyra, Hama and Tell Soukas- can be used to highlight Danish methodology or the so-called “Danish archaeological school” which consists of the following elements:

  1. Perform limited field excavation, usually deep soundings, to provide a full stratigraphic sequence and allow full understanding of the historical background of the site itself, as well as its position in relation to other sites. The best example of this approach is the 28- metre deep sounding in the heart of the city of Hama.
  2. Perform a daily detailed record of the excavation phases, including photos and drawings of the discoveries and their contexts.
  3. Construct a multidisciplinary team of scholars, such as archaeologists, architects, historians, numismatists and pottery specialists in order to analyse all the aspects of the site.
  4. Provide a detailed and exhaustive program of publication on the excavations, including the finds. This has been a leading point in the case of Hama and Soukas.
  5. Danish scholars in Syria aspired to an approach based on objectivity and scientific judgment, attempting to avoid any biblical, colonial or post-colonial ideas which have sometimes marred research in the area.

By assisting local Syrian authorities for art and culture such as the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), establishing the Danish institute in Damascus and the museum of Hama, Denmark has demonstrated a clear concern for mutual respect and collaboration within the field of archaeological and scientific research in Syria. Furthermore, Danish archaeological research has contributed greatly to the knowledge and practice of history, archaeology and heritage management in Syria, as well as strengthening relations between the two countries.

Danish archaeological excavation methods and tools have also undergone significant development since the first excavations by Harald Inghold which has increased the precision and amount of data recovered. In Hama a staff of about eight Danes led a workforce of 400 local workers but by the 1990s the Tell Mashnaqa team consisted of 14 specialists, of whom eight were archaeologists, helped by 12 to 15 workers from the local village. This is due to a change of focus of the work, which has shifted from the excavation of monumental buildings and graves to more scientific studies, such as DNA analysis carried out at Tell Mashnaqa. The Danish Archaeological School is increasingly using modern technology in its archaeological survey and excavation, and a highly qualified Syrian workforce offers the highest chance of scientific collaborations.

Danish scholars have often emphasised the overwhelming generosity, hospitality and support of the Syrian people, and one excavator stated “excavation in Syria was for me and for my friends more than a professional stage; it has been a memorable experience for life”

The Danish research in Syria covers a vast geographical and chronological range, contributing information to all time periods and areas of Syria, from the coast to the Jazeera. This has allowed Danish experts to become familiar with all aspects of Syrian heritage and they hope, alongside their Syrian academic colleagues to contribute to a recovery from the effects of the conflict as soon as the security situation stabilises.