Jacobsthal’s Dissertation

by Francesca Anthony

Over the last few weeks of volunteering in the Institute of Archaeology’s Archive, I have been attempting to sort the 1908 dissertation of the scholar Paul Jacobsthal. Jacobsthal came to Oxford in the mid 1930s after the Nazi regime legislated to bar Jewish people from public offices, which included university professorships. He is well known for his comprehensive work Early Celtic Art, one of only four books published by Oxford University Press in 1944. His fascinating story has been disentangled from his archive, which was found in the Institute in 2009, by Sally Crawford and Katrina Ulmschneider and is featured in their forthcoming book Ark of Civilisation: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945. Before Jacobsthal became a prestigious Celtic specialist he started his academic career as a Classical Archaeologist. His dissertation, completed at the University of Bonn under the supervision of Georg Loeschcke, is entitled ‘Archaeological Studies in the Pediments of Grave Monuments’.

The dissertation was discovered in the depths of the Institute as a disordered brown box of original drawings with annotations, pages of rough notes, large photo boards and the bound handwritten dissertation. My first job was to clean the material, which was unfortunately covered in a thick black dust reminiscent of Victorian London smog. I had never previously attempted to clean paper or photographic records. This was done by gently using an archival dry cleaner, rather like soft putty, to pick up the dust, avoiding removing any of Jacobsthal’s pencil annotations. As the dust was lifted, the quality of some of the photos became evident, with the inscriptions clear. These photos are important as it is not known if the grave monuments have been eroded over time, or are even still extant.

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The battered box housing Jacobsthal’s dissertation in its cleaned state

It quickly became apparent that there was sense to the chaos in the box. Annotations reveal that the hand-drawn inscriptions and stelae were from Thebes and Tanagra, perhaps made by eye from the ancient sites themselves. Many of these drawings had codes that referred directly to the figure list within the dissertation, and the photographs on the large boards. The folder pages and boards show architectural elements, predominantly focusing on the pediments and inscriptions of these grave monuments. Many were ornately carved and Jacobsthal seems especially interested in those with floral and vegetation motifs, such as lotus flowers and vines. Only two of the images had the addition of colour, in red and blue, perhaps as an experiment for the drawings used in the dissertation figure list.

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One of the photo boards showing Jacobsthal’s figures. These beautiful photographs show grave monuments in situ in Tanagra.

p1080134p1080135Details of Jacobsthal’s photographs

I was especially interested in the limited pieces of correspondence with Jacobsthal, as an insight into the scholarly community at that time, and the transmission of academic information across countries; Jacobsthal was communicating with a director of a French museum, for example.

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A page of correspondence between Jacobsthal and F. Hiller von Gaertringen.

Most striking of all in the box was a number of pages of mathematical proofs. These extremely complicated calculations were likely made by Jacobsthal’s brother, Ernst Jacobsthal. This is quite extraordinary. Ernst was a famous German mathematician credited with inventing the ‘Jacobsthal numbers’, a specific integer sequence, which like the Fibonnaci numbers was a type of Lucas sequence.

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Although the foundation of Ernst’s work had been laid by his own dissertation in 1906, these pages might represent some of his earliest thinking, perhaps unpublished. I think this really exemplifies the joy of archives: you can never be sure what sort of material will emerge, and how significant it may be for understanding the developments of any number of academic disciplines and the lives of remarkable people.

Jacobsthal’s writing is difficult to decipher (and in German), so my engagement with the dissertation was limited to an organizational and visual capacity. I managed to work out thematic patterns from the material, but was sadly unable to read all of Jacobsthal’s annotations, which must surely provide an interesting insight into how the man thought and developed his own work. Some of the rough sketches are beautiful and indicate real artistic talent. It was also interesting to consider the process of writing a dissertation in the early 20th century, which must be vastly different to my experience using computer technology.

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One of the annotated sketches found in the box of Jacobsthal’s dissertation

I urge anyone who has an interest in Greek epigraphy, or Jacobsthal himself, to come look at the dissertation!

Francesca Anthony
Mst in Classical Archaeology
Brasenose College, Oxford

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About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
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