Unboxing Palmyra: the archive of Harald Ingholt

The cardboard sheets, photographs, and handwritten notes compiled by Harald Ingholt bear a wealth of information about Palmyrene sculpture and architecture. As his archive in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is reopened, Olympia Bobou, Eva Mortensen, and Rubina Raja reveal some of the secrets within.


We are in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark, at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek – a beautiful, and architecturally eclectic building full of art and archaeology. It is also here that you will find the archive of the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt (1896-1985). It is kept on rolling shelves in the library storage at the museum. Several metres of blue file holders with Ingholt’s notes, records, and photographs await, once the correct shelf has been located and rolled into position (for your own safety, be sure to fasten the shelf before entering the narrow aisle).

An aerial photograph of Palmyra taken in the 1920s, when Harald Ingholt worked at the site. His archive preserves a wealth of information about the site. Image: Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project, courtesy of Mary Ebba Underdown

Unboxing the thousands of archive sheets contained in the files leaves us with a magnificent dossier of legacy data about sculpture and architecture from the ancient desert city of Palmyra, in Syria. The files were created by Ingholt throughout his career. His connection to the site can be traced back to the 1920s and 1930s, when he conducted fieldwork in Palmyra, cementing his interest in its sculpture. Ingholt realised that, if he analysed the Palmyrene sculptures stylistically, it would be possible to determine a chronology for their development. He duly wrote his higher doctoral dissertation on this subject (published in Danish in 1928), and kept gathering information on the sculptures and the monuments they came from long after he moved on to other research areas.

Unknown, damaged, and lost artefacts

Palmyra flourished during the first three centuries AD, until it was sacked by the Roman army. Its fame, though, endured and has successfully captured both public imagination and academic interest in modern times (see CWA 111 and 114). Since 2011, the civil war in Syria has brought human tragedy and devastation to the site, with archaeological objects also damaged or lost, and it has become near impossible to conduct fieldwork there.

The Ingholt Archive at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Image: Rubina Raja

There is another way of engaging with the cultural heritage of Palmyra: by reopening archive boxes and unpacking the knowledge that lies preserved within these legacy data. Sure enough, recent examination of the Ingholt Archive has demonstrated that it is an invaluable resource for researchers working on the archaeology of Palmyra, and for those studying art and sculpture of the Roman-period Near East. Among Ingholt’s photographic recordings are unique and detailed images of both well-known and lost artefacts. He also documented pieces circulating on the art markets of Syria, Lebanon, and Europe, most of which have never been seen again.

Row upon row of sculpture fragments

This archive sheet is just one of the treasures in the archive. It dates to 1937, by which time much had changed at the site since Ingholt’s 1920s campaigns. An energetic Ingholt was equipped with a camera and notebooks, allowing him to capture the archaeological work under way at Palmyra as it played out before him. Together with his Canadian friend Dr Douglas Cruikshank, who volunteered as another photographer during this campaign, Ingholt recorded archaeological finds as they were excavated, as well as sculptures that were usually inaccessible and kept out-of-sight in the storage rooms of museums and excavation houses.

Near the ancient high street running through Palmyra, French colleagues had established a new dig house that Ingholt’s team was able to use. This was located within the Sanctuary of Bel, once the main religious focus for the oasis-dwellers of ancient Palmyra. It was most likely in the headquarters of the French Archaeological Mission that Ingholt and Cruikshank were able to photograph a series of objects: to be precise, 118 fragments of sculptures, reliefs, and inscriptions. On this archive sheet, we see one of the photographs documenting them.

Image: Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project, Ingholt Archive, courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Although the fragments were neatly lined up in rows by the dig house, they did not make their way into scholarship – until now, via our new study of Ingholt’s archive. Indeed, his records present the only known proof of their existence. All these fragments add to our knowledge of Palmyrene sculpture and the society that produced them.

Unravelling the history of the archive

It was in 1981 that Ingholt donated the archive to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. By then, he had retired from his position as a professor at Yale University, and made the necessary arrangements to ensure that his work would live on in the future. Although a selection of his surviving records relating to Palmyra were deposited in the Yale Babylonian Collection, his archive and his fieldwork diaries ended up in the museum in Denmark. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek was no doubt chosen as the keeper of his records due to its large collection of Palmyrene sculpture and other finds from the city. Indeed, Ingholt personally acquired several of these pieces for the museum during his fieldwork.

Part of the large group of Palmyrene sculpture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’s study collection. Image: Rubina Raja

The archive arrived in Copenhagen in 1983. It was then reorganised and studied by Gunhild Ploug (1937-2005), who planned to use it as the basis for a book on Palmyrene sculpture, but this never saw the light of day. Instead, in 2012, the Palmyra Portrait Project (headed by Professor Rubina Raja at Aarhus University) started unboxing the archive anew.

Harald Ingholt, working with his camera in Palmyra. Image: Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project, courtesy of Mary Ebba Underdown

It contains 2,380 cardboard sheets, with photographs inserted into grey or transparent mounting squares or photocopies taped on to yellow, brown, or grey cardboard. Today, the archive is arranged according to Ploug’s reorganisation. She sorted 1,877 of the sheets, all of them relating to sculptures, into 19 blue file holders, arranged partly according to sculptural type and partly by chronology, with the last two file holders reserved for the sculptures in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. This organisation hints at the structure of her lost book on Palmyrene sculpture. The remaining 503 sheets held photographs of architecture, small clay tablets, and other Palmyrene artefacts, which were placed in a large moving box together with a few note cards and postcards that belong to the archive as well.

Ingholt kept diaries when working in Palmyra. The diaries are rich in details about the everyday life during fieldwork: incidents among workers, visits to local houses, guided tours, just to mention a few things. They also contain information about and measurements of the tombs he excavated. All these details are lacking from the archive sheets, which on the other hand contain images of what was found. Images: Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project, field diaries and Ingholt Archive, courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
On this diary page, Ingholt describes two reliefs found in Tomb AK. A sheet in the archive has a photo and additional information on one of the reliefs (no.2 on the diary page). Thus, the archive material and the diaries offer complementary information. The diaries have been published in R Raja, J-B Yon, and J Steding (2021) Excavating Palmyra (Turnhout: Brepols).

Unique views of a tomb

This unnumbered sheet found in the archive shows two views of a tomb. It is known by several different names: ‘Tomb no.186’, the number it received when it was surveyed in 1917; ‘Tombe de l’aviation’, because it lay just next to the early 20th-century aviation camp at Palmyra; and ‘Tomb Duvaux’ after Captain Duvaux of the French Aviation du Levant. He cleared the burial chamber in 1923, before turning it into his home and a depot for storing sarcophagi from neighbouring tombs.

The two views of the tomb interior show a sarcophagus box with busts of priests (upper photograph) and a sarcophagus lid with a reclining man and woman (lower photograph). From other sources, we know that these objects were already in place when Captain Duvaux rearranged the space to suit his own needs, so the sheet reveals part of the original interior décor of the tomb.

Image: Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project, Ingholt Archive, courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

According to Ingholt’s note on the archive sheet, the photographs were given to him by the Polish archaeologist Michał Gawlikowski – still a leading expert on Palmyrene archaeology. This sheet carries a quote, too, from Gawlikowski’s 1970 publication Monuments funéraires de Palmyre. Through this, we glimpse Ingholt’s collegial manoeuvring in the wider academic network. It is noticeable that he takes care to credit a colleague in his own private files, and goes to great lengths to be thorough with his note-keeping.

Colourful discoveries

Although Ingholt was equipped with a camera that took black-and-white photographs, he found other ways to illustrate colourful discoveries. In one of his first campaigns in Palmyra, in 1924 or 1925, Ingholt excavated a large underground tomb, where he found sarcophagi rich in preserved traces of ancient pigments.

Image: Rubina Raja and the Palmyra Portrait Project, Ingholt Archive, courtesy of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

The tomb had originally been constructed by an individual named ‘Atenatan in AD 98, but in AD 229 his descendants sold off a section of the tomb to one Julius Aurelius Maqqaî. The tomb has a long corridor with burial shelves on each side and two exedrae (square recesses). The exedra near the tomb entrance is the section bought up by Maqqaî. He furnished it as a banquet hall with what – at first sight – look like couches along each wall. Closer inspection, though, reveals that these are sarcophagi with elaborately sculpted lids showing his family in reclining or seated positions.

In Ingholt’s archive, we find drawings of these sarcophagi. On a piece of graph paper somebody (perhaps Ingholt) meticulously indicated the different colours of the sarcophagi, mostly blue and red. It is likely that these pigments have faded on the real sarcophagi by now, although it is some time since they have been seen: the tomb was sealed off long before the civil war, as it was unsafe for visitors. As such, the archive sheets offer the only available way to study the sarcophagi.

Unveiling the original archive

The Palmyra Portrait Project scanned all of the archive material, and only then was it possible to rediscover and digitally recreate how Ingholt had originally organised this material. The result of this effort is presented in a four-volume work, The Ingholt Archive, which has just been published and includes transcriptions of and commentaries on the individual sheets.

The original arrangement of the archive was quite different from that created by Ploug. The first 527 sheets, for example, represent the material collected by Ingholt while undertaking research for his doctoral dissertation. The remaining sheets were not arranged according to sculptural groups, and male heads and reliefs with busts can be found side by side. This indicates that Ingholt recorded the pieces as they came to his attention. The annotations, however, show that this was not a static collection. He continued to revisit the sheets until the 1970s, improving his transcriptions of the inscriptions, adding bibliographical references and comments, and thus keeping this important research tool up to date. Being able to trace Ingholt’s original organisation of the archive shines a light on his research-processes, and the more recent histories of the single objects. Collection histories and practices, research agendas, as well as 20th-century excavation approaches can be explored through the archive sheets, and, thanks to this, we can see not only what was found at Palmyra, but also how it was studied, allowing a key strand of its research history to be uncovered – and unboxed.

Image: courtesy of Brepols Publishers

Further reading and information

O Bobou, A C Miranda, R Raja, and J-B Yon (2022) The Ingholt Archive: the Palmyrene material, transcribed with commentary and bibliography, Archive Archaeology 2, Turnhout: Brepols.
O Bobou, R Raja, and J Steding (2022) Excavating Archives: narratives from 20th-century Palmyra. Aarhus: UrbNet.

Find the archive Open Access on figshare. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.c.5509725.v1. And visit this online exhibition on the archive material: https://projects.au.dk/archivearcheology/cultural-heritage-resources/virtual-exhibition-excavating-archives-narratives-from-20th-century-palmyra.

Research on the Ingholt Archive has been conducted within the framework of the Palmyra Portrait Project (funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, 2012-2020), the project Preserving and Sharing Palmyra’s Cultural Heritage through Harald Ingholt’s Digital Archives (funded by the ALIPH Foundation, 2020-2023), and the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (a Danish National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence, 2015-2025; grant DNRF119).