Saturday, 16 January 2016

Hello Stockholm!

Approaching Stockholm; nice crisp transparent ice

This week has been one of those after which you feel absolutely drained. It was not only finishing my tax return and submitting it while managing several other things. It was not only the RAI meeting in London and the fact that after it I managed to get my credit card blocked. It was not only flying to Stockholm and the first thing after landing running to my bank and handing in the form that will guarantee that my salary from Stockholm University will land on my bank account. It was not the tasks that were waiting me at Stockholm. No, it was all those together and more.

Stockholm is brilliant because of the combination of cold and sunshine. The sun feels good after the dark Christmas time. I am also exploring a new neighbourhood while trying to find a proper room to stay. However, due to the hurly burly of this week and the holiday season still being so close, I am planning to start the hunt either the coming week - or wait for the news from the Researcherhousing, even if they may still take some time. Nevertheless, now I learn to know the Norrstull area better.

The Beauty from Palmyra (photo: Wikimedia, C. Raddato)

The day I was flying was planned on the basis of the visit of Professor Rubina Raja from Aarhus University to Stockholm. On Thursday evening she was giving a talk on the Palmyra Potrait Project and its database that has been constructed at Aarhus in recent years in the Medelhavsmuseet in central Stockholm. The reason Denmark is the country where this database has been realised is that the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek has the second largest collection of the Palmyrese portraits outside Syria (the largest is in Istanbul). Therefore, there was an interest not only join the other main collections of known portraits to a single database but to digitise some of the archives created by the collectors and researchers.

The number of the portraits has struck all by surprise and the database hosts now more than the expected a couple of thousands portraits. The project has just received four more years’ worth of funding and it will continue its valuable work. The digitised archives allow giving provenance to some of the objects that have gone unprovenanced in the museum catalogues. The most notable of such reattributions is the so-called the Beauty from Palmyra that was actually found from excavations. It also lists all known collections, which helps acknowledging any dodgy attempts to bring artworks to the market from the war-ridden Syria.

This talk took place on Thursday and on Friday Rubina came to the Section of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History in order to give a talk of the other large project she runs at Aarhus. This project is UrbNet, i.e. Center for Urban Network Evolutions, that has funding for nine years from the Danish National Research Foundation. It tries to better understand urbanism by taking ‘high-definition’ approach. This basically means trying to recalibrate the generalisations of urban process in the historical era by exploring a series of case studies in depth, combining both scientific and humanistic methods with field projects. Rubina’s own work is on Jerash and she co-organises the North-Western Quarter excavation project there studying the late antique densification of the urban structure. The case studies cover periods from the Hellenistic times to the Medieval Scandinavian towns. This project not only breaks the geographic and chronological disciplinary boundaries in Europe but also involves projects as far afield as Africa. Truly World Archaeology.

The talk concentrated on Jerash/Gerash and the German-Danish excavations there. The most interesting findings related to the maintenance of urban infrastructure, mainly road network, during the period when the city states were supposed to be in decline. Nevertheless, there are clear signs of gardening inside the city walls, so the civic city was denser than the previous Roman one. There have been wide discussions on the nature of walled Roman cities in the past, not least related to Roman provinces, first and foremost Britain. Thus, gardening in a city is not a surprise. Another interesting development there was the transformation of a synagogue to a Christian church – something that may have something to do with the military establishment next door.

The most interesting digital application was the specialised CAT scans of a rolled magic text within a silver amulet found in the excavations. The project could collaborate with a firm that rescues materials from earthquakes and such catastrophic events and the specialists of the team there could digitally unroll the piece of text. Interestingly, it turned out to be in mock Arabic. It is not known, if this was supposed to be more powerful – or could do when an illiterate client asked for an Arabic verse.

The visit was most pleasant and the talk was preceded by a nice meal in the Faculty Club at Stockholm. Maybe next time we will also hear about the Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning Cults and Polis Religion project or about the Ceramics in Context project. Fascinating times ahead. May be a trip to Aarhus will be on cards to see old friends and meet some new ones.

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