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Founded in 1848, the Collection of Classical Antiquities at Heidelberg University is one of the largest archaeological university collections in Germany. Around 9,000 original Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts and 1,200 large-format historical plaster casts are used for teaching, research and public relations. The majority of the objects in the collection were acquired between 1880 and 1920 – in some cases only the historical labels and inscriptions on the artefacts reveal this, but some of the correspondence still exists. The letters and other documents form an eclectic collection of information on the history of the antiquities collection and the provenance of its objects. The “Object & Provenance” blog analyses these sources and makes them public; it acts as a communication and coordination platform for further work on the high-resolution scans of the sources, which can be viewed online via Heidelberg University Library.

Project “Research network archaeological provenances: Trade in antiquities, actors and contexts of archaeological objects in the Collection of Classical Antiquities at Heidelberg University in the late 19th and early 20th century” (2024–2026)

Building on the sources made available online in this blog, these are to be further processed and made usable with the help of digital tools and via the Heidelberg University Library. As an example of best practice (“Heidelberg model for provenance research”) for other university collections, the aim is to create a model that is as easy to implement as possible to make historical sources available quickly and for future related work. Only by cataloguing as many sources as possible from different collections and museums can common provenances be reconstructed:
A large proportion of the archaeological university collections in Germany date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a time when major excavations such as those at Troy, Olympia or Pergamon took place and the antiquities trade around the Mediterranean flourished.Certain locations, dealers and auction houses in Rome, Paris, London and elsewhere served as transhipment points for the antiquities trade: freshly excavated objects were resold from these hubs and via certain middlemen/ agents to a wide variety of collections and museums. As a result, groups of related objects that actually came from the same context – i.e. were excavated in the same place – were often torn apart by sale and are now distributed over different collections and museums. Tracing the paths and “biographies” of these objects is an important part of provenance research, as well as for future archaeological research on the objects.

It is often only possible to reconstruct where certain objects were found by identifying related objects in other collections or museums, so that individual pieces of information can be put together like pieces of a puzzle. Research into collection and object histories is therefore dependent on larger research networks and the exchange of information between different collections and museums. This is why the current research work of collection curator Dr Polly Lohmann is focusing on personal networks and object labels – hoping to get researchers and colleagues from other collections engaged as well.

Project “Object & Provenance” (2021– )

The blog project “Object and Provenance”, which began in 2021, combines provenance research on the Heidelberg Collection of Classical Antiquities with a citizen science approach that allows interested parties to participate in the transcription of historical sources on the history of the collection. The subtitle “Fragments from the Heidelberg Collection of Classical Antiquities” refers both to the fragmentary nature of the surviving documents and to the actual objects to which the documents relate. Each collection object and each text source, like a piece of a puzzle, shows a piece of the overall picture of the history of the Collection of Classical Antiquities, which is to be explored and shown step by step in the blog.

On the one hand, the blog serves to publish newly produced transcriptions of the documents, which are to be made accessible to researchers. On the other hand, the project combines the work of experts and amateurs by allowing the interested public to contribute to the research. Precisely because archaeology and history are of great social interest, the project can benefit from the help of the “crowd”: Anyone who is interested in or perhaps even already has experience in transcribing old manuscripts can support the project and thus also participate in research work. The transcriptions will be checked and quality assured by the project team at the Collection of Classical Antiquities.

Provenance research is lengthy and time-consuming. Since the networks of research and the antiquities trade were very dense in the 19th century, the history of many collections and museums is interwoven. With the publication of the transcriptions and additional information gathered, material is thus made available online that can also be helpful for provenance research in other collections and museums. Conversely, the Heidelberg Collection of Classical Antiquities can also benefit from archival material published by other institutions for its own research. Only if the existing archive material is successively made accessible everywhere in museums and collections can provenance research take place comprehensively and systematically. The archaeological university collections in Germany are still at the very beginning of this process, which is why this blog is intended as a pilot project.

The blog aims to set a good example for the archaeological university collections and thus help to raise awareness of provenance issues, but also of the often lengthy research required. Against the background of current debates on the appropriation, looting and restitution of cultural heritage, the investigation and disclosure of object provenances is a necessary and correct step for the museum landscape, but one that each institution must initiate itself. For the Heidelberg Collection of Classical Antiquities, the current redesign of the entire collection offers the opportunity to make the provenances of its objects transparent – digitally in the blog and analogue in the future permanent exhibition

[ All images in this blog are by Polly Lohmann and are subject to copyright. ]

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