The Canon under Threat

The Canon under Threat: Archaeological finds between the Middle East and Europe

Mirjam Brusius


Classifying the bricks from Babylon in the colonnades of the Alte Nationalgalerie, 1927/1928 (© Staatliche Museen Berlin)

My project investigates the potential of archaeological objects excavated during European expeditions in the Middle East as raw material for scholarly activity and their visual registration in the 19th century. Taking the excavations by Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) in ancient Mesopotamia as a starting point, I look at the transit of objects between different canonical spaces, that is, the relationship between archaeological objects found at the excavation site and attempts to shift and incorporate them into European canonical and scholarly traditions in London, Paris and Berlin. The historiography of archaeology as a deep-time science has hitherto failed to help us understand how European canons and values are the result of a complex transfer in which archaeological objects move from one canonical space to another. Due to their undefined and yet versatile potential they have as raw archival data they are facing semantic difficulties during this process. Research on the excavations and their reception in Europe, however, has mostly drawn a picture of a well-organised, purposive and logical enterprise in which finding objects and depicting them had a clear purpose. Little attention has been paid to the fact that the excavated items were initially objects without a clear status, even once they arrived in Europe. The goal of my project is to show how archaeological objects came to gain meaning as archival data for knowledge production and the formation of canonical traditions at European museums and universities. It will explore how the application of visual media in the field and the museum was both a reflection and a means of this enterprise. With my project I aim to shed light on a shady and undefined time period between two apparently stable components in the historiography of these expeditions.