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Frankfort, Henri


FRANKFORT, HENRI (18971954), was an archaeologist and historian of religion. Frankfort began his studies at the University of Amsterdam, where he studied history, but he transferred to the University of London in order to work under Flinders Petrie in Egyptian archaeology. He always preferred, however, to designate himself as a historian.

In 1922, Frankfort became a member of Petrie's expedition to Egypt, and from 1924 to 1925, he studied at the British School of Archaeology in Athens. He obtained his M.A. from the University of London in 1924 and his Ph.D. from the University of Leiden in 1927. From 1925 to 1929 he served as director of the excavations of the Egypt Exploration Society at Tell al-ʿAmarna, Abydos, and Erment. In 1929 he accepted the directorship of the Iraq expedition of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which he held until 1937, when excavations were discontinued. In 1932, Frankfort was appointed research professor of Oriental archaeology at the Oriental Institute and associate professor of the ancient Near East at the University of Amsterdam. He served as acting chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago during World War II. In 1949 he accepted the post of director of the Warburg Institute in London and was appointed professor of the history of preclassical antiquity at the University of London.

Frankfort's first major work, Studies in Early Pottery in the Near East (19241927), was of fundamental importance for Near Eastern archaeology. He was the first to classify and date ancient Near Eastern ceramics and thus to make it a basic means of periodization and relative dating. Of similarly fundamental importance was his later study of cylinder seals, for which he identified characteristic features for successive periods, thereby establishing a relative dating system for this important and very numerous class of objects. The resulting study, Cylinder Seals: A Documentary Essay on the Art and Religion of the Ancient Near East (1939), is not only important to archaeologists but also presents the student of religion with a wealth of data on mythology and ritual.

The results of the various expeditions directed by Frankfort in Egypt and Iraq were published in a series of preliminary and final reports, partly by Frankfort alone, and partly by him and members of the staff. Among the former, the valuable volumes Sculpture of the Third Millennium b.c. from Tel Asmar and Khafajah (1939), More Sculpture from the Diyala Region (1943), and Stratified Cylinder Seals from the Diyala Region (1955) should be mentioned. Of more general purview are the important studies Archaeology and the Sumerian Problem (1932) and The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (1951). An overview of ancient Near Eastern archaeology is given in his The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (1954).

Of special interest to historians of religion is The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946), which was later reissued under the title Before Philosophy (1963). The lecture series on which this book is based was organized by Frankfort, and he and his wife contributed the introductory and concluding chapters, "Myth and Reality," a penetrating and clear analysis of the logic of mythopoeic thought, and "The Emancipation of Thought from Myth," which traces the road from mythical to genuinely philosophical thought. During the time that Frankfort initiated and contributed to these lectures, he finished the two larger studies, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation (2d ed., 1949), and the influential Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (1948). Frankfort's method of approach is that of phenomenology of religion, which respects the religious commitment and values reflected in the data studied. The aim of the latter work is well expressed in the subtitle, and the treatment of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian materials, with attention both to their characteristic similarities and to their differences, lends depth to the study. Frankfort was deeply aware that an understanding of religious data can be gained only in terms of the general culture in which the religion in question is embedded and from which the specific meanings of its symbols are derived. This position is given its most complete methodological statement in his Frazer Lecture of 1951, published as The Problem of Similarity in Ancient Near Eastern Religions (1951), where he argues cogently against a comparative method that would emphasize general similarities and neglect specific differences, for it is the latter that hold the true clues to understanding: "Once again, then, our danger lies in the similarities themselves, for it isas alwaysthe cultural context which holds the secret of their significance."


In addition to works cited in the text, see Frankfort's lectures published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes: "State Festivals in Egypt and Mesopotamia" (vol. 15, 1952, pp. 112), "The Dying God" (vol. 21, 1958, pp. 141151), "Heresy in a Theocratic State" (vol. 21, 1958, pp. 152161), and "The Archetype in Analytical Psychology and the History of Religion" (vol. 21, 1958, pp. 166178). For an obituary notice written by Pinhas Delongaz and me, see "Henri Frankfort, 24 II 189716 VII 1954," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 (1955): 13; this piece is followed by a bibliography compiled by J. Vindenaess.

New Sources

The three lectures mentioned above have had a seminal influence on the comparative study of Near Eastern religions. They have been collected together and published in a book, Henri Frankfort, Il dio che muore. Mito e cultura nel mondo preclassico (Florence, 1992), Italian translation by Gabriella Sacandone Matthiae, with an important introduction by the archeologist Paolo Matthiae.

Thorkild Jacobsen (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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