A Chance Meeting in a Museum – Archaeology in the ‘Land of Tells and Ruins’

The volume ArchaLandoftellsandruins1eology in the ‘Land of Tells and Ruins’ is based on the photographs and accounts made by a former student of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem who, at the age of 26 in 1953-1954 visited many archaeological sites in the area of present-day Israel and the Palestinian Territories. A unique combination of written and visual documentation which gives the reader a very interesting overview of the state-of-the-art archaeological research of that time. A time when Palestinian archaeology was at the beginning of a new phase. After World War II and the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, a new generation of archaeologists, approaches and methods came into being in Palestinian archaeology. Also, several new developments marked a new phase in archaeology. By visiting numerous archaeological sites Leo Boer witnessed the results of these new approaches as is demonstrated in this volume.

It is quite remarkable that this forgotten collection was only bright to light again thanks to a chance meeting in a museum. Bart Wagemakers, the editor of the volume, explains:

“As an employee of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands, I happened to meet the late Leo Boer at the museum on an ordinary weekday back in 1999. He approached me with some questions on the exhibition he was visiting. During our chat, the subject of our conversation gradually changed, and thirty minutes later we were discussing topics such as the history of the Levant, biblical archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls. It appeared that Boer had studied for the priesthood in Rome in the mid-1950s. In the course of his studies, he had the opportunity to stay in Jerusalem at the École Biblique for one year, where he engaged in Biblical studies, joined the third excavation led by Father Roland de Vaux at Khirbet Qumran, and participated in many archaeological excursions organised by the École Biblique.

After our first meeting at the museum, he subsequently invited me to his home where I was able to ask him at length about his stay in Jerusalem and his studies at the École Biblique. During our conversation Boer suddenly produced two photo film canisters from his pocket and told me that these contained the photographs he had taken while excavating at Khirbet Qumran with de Vaux in March 1954. In his own words ‘he never had the time to do anything with them’ and that is why he had stored the film canisters in a small box in his garage for decades! However, it was not until after his death in November 2009 that I realised that there might be more photo films stored in his garage. If he shot two films in just one week of excavation, how many photographs would he have taken during his stay in Jerusalem of a whole year? After contacting his wife Annemie and asking her to search for a box in the garage – she was not even aware of its existence – another nineteen photo film canisters were found. In total we now have a collection of about seven hundred photographs taken of places in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt in 1953 and 1954. Although Boer had not developed the photographs himself, he had carefully made a list of them during his stay in Jerusalem, including the numbers of the pictures, captions and the dates on which they were taken.

Boer seemed also to have written a diary and travel accounts. After our first meeting in the museum and the subsequent conversation at his home, he became animated again about this phase of his life – which had drained away from his memory until that moment – and he decided to type up his handwritten diary and travel accounts: an entire book work, consisting of about a hundred and forty pages, including a preface and index.”

landoftellsandruins2The volume contains 70 of about 700 photographs that Boer took during his stay in the Levant. Since the entire photo collection is significant for the study of the (archaeological) history of this region, it was decided to make all the photographs accessible to the public, not just the ones selected for the volume. This is why the digital Leo Boer Archive was founded (www.leoboerarchives.com). In the database of this archive you can browse through the photographs by category – e.g. archaeology, landscape, religion, cities & villages, people – and by keywords.

Besides, Boer’s photo collection also demonstrates the significance of non-professional archaeological photography in the past for current archaeological research. Although Boer was not an archaeologist himself, his ‘amateur’ photographs are indeed of great value. As the contributions in the volume make obvious, the photographs can show details of sites that were not recorded (sufficiently enough) by the professional staff of those days. Therefore, recently, the Non-Professional Archaeological Photographs Project (NPAPH; http://www.npaph.com) has been initiated by Bart Wagemakers. This project aims to stimulate archaeological institutions to trace former students and volunteers who joined an excavation prior to the 1980s, to collect and digitize their photographic documentation, and, finally, to make it accessible to the public via digital archives. Furthermore, the project hopes to create international collaboration between archaeological institutions in order to connect these digital archives via the project’s website www.npaph.com. It would be great when other forgotten archaeological photo collections will be revealed again and made accessible to the public, like now has been done with the collection of Leo Boer.

Archaeology in the ‘Land of Tells and Ruins’: A History of Excavations in the Holy Land Inspired by the Photographs and Accounts of Leo Boer has now been published.

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All images from the Leo Boer Archive.

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