Call for Papers – Digging up the Past: Exporting Antiquities in the Ottoman Empire from the Late 19th to the Early 20st Century

Until the de facto dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the balance of power in the various provinces was asymmetrical. A large part of the empire was under Ottoman rule, which was perceived in many places as foreign rule. European powers were also present in the region and pursued their own imperial interests in a variety of ways, including the establishment of institutions that carried out archaeological excavations throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Many of the artefacts from these European campaigns found their way into local Ottoman museums, and – as a result of partage – also into the museum collections of the involved European nations. Beyond, they entered collections worldwide via the art market.

Recent research has shown that Ottoman laws and regulations on the allocation and export of artefacts were not always obeyed. In these cases, not only the foreign archaeologists are under suspicion: Local networks, corrupt supervisors, financially dependent excavation labourers, art dealers or “ambitious” diplomats have played roles, too.

In most cases, the illegal translocation history of these types of objects remains unknown. The topic has only recently come into focus in the wake of broader debates concerning problematic provenances of objects in museum collections. Tracing their pathways can be a difficult task, especially as systematic research is still in its early stages on the examination of the circumstances surrounding excavations, partage, and acquisitions, as well as clandestine shipping practices and the changing and complex situation of power relations between Ottoman and international institutions.

The aim of this digital workshop is to open an international dialogue on problematic provenances of antiquities in international museum collections, with a focus on historical excavation campaigns and the trade and export practices of their time. We look forward to discussing methods, challenges, and results of provenance research on archaeological objects from the Ottoman Empire. We welcome contributions that shed light on the broader (cultural-)political, economic, and/or legal contexts of western European archaeological fieldwork in the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th to the early 20th century, as well as the problematic trade of archaeological objects and the art market mechanisms in this time. Also of interest is to bring together different sources and perspectives on the historic cases and to show by which methods this can be achieved. We also look forward to papers discussing current museum practices in identification, research, or exhibition of archaeological objects with uncertain provenance.

The workshop is organised by the research project “Legal – Illegal? The Circumstances of the Excavation and Export of Archaeological Objects from Sam’al, Didyma and Samarra in the Ottoman Empire to Berlin in the Early 20th Century”, which is funded by the German Lost Art Foundation and conducted in collaboration with ANAMED, the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations at Koç Üniversitesi, İstanbul, Türkiye. The project is headed by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Zentralarchiv and is being carried out in collaboration with the Antikensammlung, Museum für Islamische Kunst and Vorderasiatisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. The discussions at the workshop will also contribute to a guideline being prepared by the project team on how to research archaeological objects with problematic translocation histories from the Ottoman Empire in museum collections.

We are especially looking forward to contributions that fall into one or several of the following subjects:
– (foreign) archaeology in the Ottoman Empire: political dimensions and legal frameworks
– key actors / locations / objects
– problematic exports: means and methods of illegal removal and transport of archaeological objects from the Ottoman Empire
– the interplay, influences, and dependencies between foreign excavations and the local art trade and its dealers
– archives and sources: how to bring together different perspectives
– criteria and methodology: how to detect problematic collection holdings in western museums today
– transparency and exchange: best practices from museum and research projects

We encourage papers by presenters from all nations, especially papers including Ottoman perspectives. We invite both early career and established professionals to submit a 15-minute presentation. Please send a 250-word proposal and a 150-word professional biographical statement as a single word document to by January 31st, 2024.

We will notify selected speakers by mid March, 2024. Preference will be given to proposals that stimulate dialogue and engage with broader topics. The conference will be conducted in English and via WebEx. If you have any questions or need more information, please contact Dr. Christine Howald and Birgit Sporleder: ; .

See further information about the project here.


20. Dezember 2023