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AusLese. Objects from the Oriental Collection of the University of Jena

Artefacts from museum collections are carriers of information, and can be “read.” They are, therefore, valuable sources for our research questions. As museum objects have a material reality, they also possess aesthetic appeal, which influences their role in the transfer of knowledge.

There are five musuem collections in Jena which contain Oriental artefacts, of diverse types. This exhibit presents a selection from the range of material culture they offer: historical photographs and antique notebooks, sequences of Islamic coins, barely decipherable mini-Korans, reconstructed cuneiform tablets and papyri.

These objects have in common the fact that a deeper understanding of them is only possible through a synthesis of material and form, image and text. The exhibition AusLese (SeLection) will provide examples of the scholarly investigations undertaken on these artefacts from the past.

Many of these objects are not normally publicly accessible. Making them visible and attempting to express the ongoing research undertaken on them is an important means of public engagement. It should be noted, however, that the results of scholarly research are no longer confined to exhibition rooms. Through the introduction of modern imaging techniques, artefacts have become available, and readable, in new “knowledge spaces” via online digital collections.

Main Building ("Universitätshauptgebäude")
Fuerstengraben 1
07743 Jena
Room 025

Opening hours:

18.-22.09. mo – fr 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. 
16.-26.10. mo – fr 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.


One of the tasks of the Hilprecht Collection is to make 4000-year-old cuneiform tablets and tablet-fragments readable again, through the use of various methods, in order to place them in a larger context. Crucial to this endeavor are strong networks between museum collections, as well as the availability of high-quality scans and photographs of tablets in online databases.

It was due to scans of tablets available online that Elyze Zomer (Leipzig) recognized that the fragments numbered N 1338 and N 4026 (now in Philadelphia) actually belong to the larger tablet numbered HS 1885 [1] in the collection of the University of Jena. These tablets were broken into fragments in antiquity and had been divided by the excavators of the ancient city of Nippur between the Hilprecht Collection and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The virtual assembly of these fragments made possible the reconstruction of a hitherto unknown Royal Epic from around 1500 BC. In this account, Gulkischar, king of the First Sea-Land Dynasty tells of his battle against Samsuditana, the last king of the First Dynasty of Babylon, whose best-known predecessor was King Hammurapi.

In the case of HS 2536 + HS 2714 [2] Jana Matuszak (Jena) was able to reconstruct fragments which had been catalogued under various inventory numbers into one tablet, with the assistance of unpublished pencil copies by Johannes J. A. van Dijk (1915-1996). Carmen Gütschow (Berlin) restored the tablet, so that its original form can now be seen. This tablet contains the important manuscript of a Sumerian literary debate between two women, which offers a unique insight into the conception of female roles circa 1800 BC.

In order to facilitate such discoveries in the future, 3-D scans of all objects within the Hilprecht Collection are currently being developed in co-operation with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin).

The Papyrus Collection of the Institute of Ancient History at the Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena is one of the larger German collections, comprising over two thousand papyrus fragments and ostraca. This collection was founded before the First World War, with most artefacts added between 1904 and 1913, brought to Jena by the German Papyri Trust. Smaller pieces arrived later as donations; special amongst these are artefacts which came from the private collection of classicist, papyrologist, and long-time Rector of the University, Friedrich Zucker.

The Jena Papyrus Collection contains texts written in numerous languages. Ancient Greek texts outnumber those in other languages by far, but Demotic, Coptic, Arabic and even a very few Latin manuscripts are represented. By far the most common genre of texts seen in this collection are those which fall under the label “documentary” (Edicts, Contracts, Invoices, Private Letters etc.). Literary texts are, as in almost all other papyri collections, comparatively rare.

Exhibited here are two examples of papyri, one Literary and the other Documentary in content. The Literary text is written in legible, rather luxurious script. It contains verses 64-69 of the Bacchae, the last tragic play of Euripides, who died in 406 BC. A possibly “old” word-choice in line 67 (εὐκαμέτη instead of εὐκάματον) and a certain banalizing mistake in 64 (γᾶς instead of γαίας) suggest it is much older than other manuscripts of the same play (which continued to be copied for a thousand years) and gives this fragment immense value for textual criticism.

The Documentary papyrus presented here shows that during the official division of objects by the German Papyri Trust, papyri were sometimes torn into separate pieces (see illustration). The sender’s name (ΖΗΝΟΒΙΟϹ = Zênobios) is attached to an administrative letter dated to the 14th of January 231 BC. Part of this letter was allotted to Jena and the rest was sent to Halle. In this letter, Zenobios states that a man from Syene (Assuan) who pretends to be nightblind, and therefore cannot perform his required service, should be investigated.

Since the middle of the 1990s, the Arabic Department of the University of Jena has worked intensively with Arabic manuscripts housed in libraries across Thuringia. Among the Arabic materials in the Research Library of Gotha and the University of Jena Library were found a comparatively large number of copies of small-format religious texts.

Many of these pieces came, directly or indirectly, into the collections of Gotha and Jena as part of the so-called “Turkish Plunder.” This gives a clue as to their original use: these books were likely carried by religious officials and other learned persons in the Ottoman armies, a task to which they are specifically suited due to their small size. Of course, other groups might also have appreciated these little books; Examples 1 (Ms. Prov. o. 225) and 2 (Ms. Bos. o. 18) may well have belonged to civilians.

In view of texts such as Example 3 (Ms. G. B. o. 26) with its highly-miniaturised script, it has been suggested that these small books might not have been used only for reading and reciting, but may have served as talismans in and of themselves. An almost two-and-a-half meter long scroll inscribed with Arabic and Persian prayers would seem to support this idea (Example 4, Ms. Prov. o. 225a), as it fits comfortably in one hand.

Further work on the contexts of text-miniaturisation and their use as talismans, suggested in part by the objects on display here, is currently being conducted in Jena under the auspices of the larger Hamburg Project SFB 950 “Manuscript Cultures.” The first results of this research show a strong formal differentiation between small-format texts, as well as the unexpected widespread use of special octagonal Korans in the region of Iran.

Islamic coins are both sources for reconstructing ancient political history, as well as being three-dimensional objects which served a practical purpose. The study of ancient coins, known as Numismatics, seeks to organize sequences of coins in relation to the time of their minting, or to the archaeological context from which they were recovered. Established sequences of coins can aid historians to understand the development of ancient politics and commerce, technology and settlement structure.

On the occasion of the first annual meeting of the DMG in Jena in 1846, coins from the Archduke’s Oriental Coin Collection (founded in 1840) were first exhibited. Johann Gustav Stickel, the curator, presented an overview of the collection as it existed at that time. In his introduction he mentioned the recent acquisition of an Arabo-Sassanid coin.

In order to perform scientific research on coins without having access to the original objects, the coins had to be reproduced in some way. From the outset Stickel was interested in refining coin-illustration techniques, and initially tried the most difficult forms, including engravings in copper or steel. In order to heighten the colour of the coins in the printed version, they were covered with silver or copper foil. It was eventually noticed however, that prints produced this way tended to darken to illegibility over time.

In the 1853 edition of the Journal of the German Oriental Society, Stickel experimented with a new technology: coins were reproduced in embossed cardboard to give a three-dimensional effect.

Scientific exchange among colleagues and the organization of new collections both required three-dimensional reproductions of objects. Various forms were introduced between the 18th and 20th centuries: the foil print, the Galvano-print and the plaster impression. Plaster impressions remained the most common form of physical reproduction until the end of the twentieth century and continued to be used alongside the developing technology of photography.

The Internet made possible a great leap forward for historical work on coins, with several Museums and collections available to reference from any location. Since 2012, the Oriental Coin Collection of Jena has participated in the online portal entitled “Cooperative Development and Use of the Object Data of Coin Collections (KENOM)” an initiative of the Common Library Network (GBV). This service has been available for general use since May 2015. Today there are ten collections available which include various types of numismatic objects. We invite you to scan the QR code associated with each individual coin, and learn more about them!

The classical mode of museum presentation of historic photographs shows the exposed print (Example 1): The image is presented mounted and in a frame, which suggests a certain reading – photography as a work of art. However, if the focus is placed on the artefact itself, other readings become possible: the context of the image comes into view. It is only by treating photographs as artefacts that the traces of the acquisition and use of the prints become clear.

Numerous examples of the photograph-as-artefact approach are provided by the Alphons Stübel Collection of Early Oriental Photographs, whose nearly 600 exemplars were collected between 1857 and 1890 by Alphons Stübel on journeys in the territory of the Ottoman Empire as well as on other occasions. Two objects from this collection can be used to clarify our suggested approach the photo-artefact:

In the case of Exhibit 2, the print appears as a single image on cardboard. One may see the partial Roman temple in today's al-maḥarraqa, as indicated by the inscription on the print: “Nubia / Maharaklia / Temple romain.” This alone is enough to explain the picture as a classic travel view; the self-confident signature of the photographer also contributes to this reading. 
Only the note on the reverse, by the collector himself, shows the complete acquisition context. For Stübel, an amateur Volcanologist, the ancient architecture is important not only as a reference to the cultural history of the visited country, but also as it shows traces of a long-ago earthquake.

In the case of Exhibit 3, Stübel has arranged two prints of different sizes one above the other.
Both show the stone formations of the riverbank in the region of the Upper Nile. Below the small print it is possible to read: A. Stübel fec. Stübel signs his authorship and thus invites comparison with the lower shot. Captioned “Zangaki 735” the lower print is known to have been taken by one of the most successful photographers of the day as a professional album photo. In his own album, Stübel juxtaposes professional and amateur photography; with the gesture of signing his own work he toes the line between arrogance and self-irony.