Friday, 19 December 2014

Investigations in wood identification

My involvement with the Samarra project began in 2013 when I was asked to help identify the timber of some wooden archaeological elements from 9th-century Iraq. The artifacts were a combination of mostly flat planks and a few thicker, carved wooden elements. All have remnants of paint on the show surface. While historical sources say that these wooden elements are carved from imported teak, to our knowledge this had never been tested or verified scientifically. The occasion of the V&A's Samarra project seemed like the right time to pursue the most comprehensive type of wood identification analysis. We therefore contacted Dr Peter Gasson at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew.  Peter is an expert on microscopic wood identification and had previously taught me the basic techniques. Due to his extensive experience and Kew's comprehensive reference slide collection, he seemed like the best person for us to work with. Happily, he confirmed that he could analyse the samples for us.

Wood identification is done by comparing defined features of the timber with known samples. While many features can be distinguished by eye or with the help of a hand loop, the most comprehensive identification is done microscopically. While this method gives the most reliable results, it is not non-destructive and requires a sample of material to be taken from the object. The ideal sample size is about 1 cm cube.  On many museum objects, a sample this size can be difficult to justify. In this case, it was decided that the potential benefit to knowledge was worth the sacrifice of the material. We decided to take samples from the back surfaces of two representative pieces, keeping in mind that if they were ever to be placed on public view in the future, the sample sites would not be visible; potentially they could even be plugged if that was considered desirable.

The V&A's collection of wooden fragments from Samarra can roughly be divided into two types: flat, relatively thin, painted boards and thick, carved fragments with minimal paint left on the surface. One of each type was chosen for sampling based on their representative qualities of the group as a whole, and the fact they had been carved and decorated in different techniques from each other. 


A.129-1922. Photo © Wei Kao

A flat, painted piece (A.129-1922) was chosen because it had already suffered some splitting and wood loss. It also had enough thickness to accommodate the sample size required. We also selected a carved, three dimensional piece (A.134-1922) as an example of a different production technique, and because its flat reverse presented a large surface area for sampling.

A.134-1922. Photo © Wei Kao

Two protocols were tested for removing the samples. The first was to sample from the edge of the object, using a combination of hand-held drill, saw, and chisel. The second was to use a wood-boring bit in a pillar drill. The latter seemed most invasive due to the wastage caused by the drill bit. We began by testing the sampling method on a piece of ash that was not a Museum object. Both tests worked well.  Due to the different dimensions of our sample pieces we decided to use both methods; the edge sampling was chosen for the painted plank, and drilling chosen for the thick, carved piece.  

With the help of two interns, Wei Kao from the Division of Wooden Objects and Oil Painting Conservation, Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics and Museology, Tainan National University of the Arts (TNNUA), Taiwan and Hsun-Hui Hsu, MSc student in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, UCL, the two wooden objects were prepared for sampling. Here we are looking a bit nervous, about to take the samples from our two objects, with our successful test piece visible on the workbench at the right:
 

Pictured: Dana Melchar (left), Hsin-Hui Hsu (centre), Wei Kao (right). Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

We began with A.129-1922 by pencilling in the sample area on back of the plank. 



Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

With the fragment clamped firmly in place on a flat surface, I began by drilling the perimeter of our sample.  


Photo © Wei Kao

Next, I used a small saw to cut the side edges. 


Photo © Wei Kao

Then a small chisel and mallet to remove the sample, tapping as gently as possible!

Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

Here's what the object looked like after removing our sample.

Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

Unfortunately, our sample broke into four pieces as we removed it from the object: one large and three small pieces.  Luckily, our large section was still big enough for Peter Gasson to use for microscopic identification.

Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

We then moved on to sampling the thicker, carved fragment.  We clamped the fragment to the table of our pillar drill, set the wood boring bit to the correct depth, and then turned the machine on and made the hole.
 

Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

After the drilling:
 

Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

With the sample removed:



Photo © Mariam Rosser-Owen

It was a relief when the sampling was completed and we had two great samples to send to Kew! I was able to hand deliver the samples personally and fill Peter in on the research we were conducting. 

We heard the results from Peter a few weeks after he had received the samples. Based on the features he observed, the clear result was teak: specifically, the Tectona species, which is native to South and Southeast Asia (it grows in Central South Asia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia: see here for more information). This confirms the information provided in the historical sources and makes sense in terms of trade routes at the time.

Peter noted that the sample from A.129-1922 was very typical in appearance for teak. It showed narrow growth rings, indicating that the tree was grown in an area or time period without much annual rainfall. This results in a denser wood, with a less porous surface. This makes sense of the fact that this wood was selected for painting by the Samarra woodworkers. As we learned through the pigment analysis that we also conducted - together with our V&A colleague Dr Lucia Burgio - no base or primer layer was used for the painting, and the pigments were painted directly onto the surface of the wood.

On the other hand, the sample from the carved object  (A.134-1922) appeared more like intentionally cultivated wood. It exhibited more widely spaced growth rings, indicating that water was more readily available wherever this tree grew, and that it may have come from a faster-growing tree, possibly a younger tree that was cut down before it matured. This results in a less dense wood, which would be easier to carve. 


It is intriguing that the Samarra woodworkers seem to have been experienced enough in handling teak to know its characteristics, especially its density, and to have selected exactly which timber would be better suited for painting and which for carving. It gives us another insight into the craftsmen who built the palace-city.

With all best wishes to the Samarra blog readers for the holidays! We look forward to sharing more insights and discoveries here in 2015!


Dana Melchar
Senior Furniture Conservator, V&A

Monday, 8 September 2014

Scholars and their Intellectual Resources: Document Spotlight from the Metropolitan Museum Herzfeld Archive


I am writing today to share an announcement and some related thoughts about the utility of archival resources for the study of Samarra and Islamic art.

First the announcement:
The Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is very happy to announce the online release of the first series of drawings from our portion of the Ernst Herzfeld Papers. For readers who may be new to the subject, Ernst Herzfeld was a German archaeologist who held the first large scale excavations at Samarra between 1911 and 1913. His archive is now dispersed, much like the Samarra Finds themselves, between several institutions, chiefly the Archives of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C., the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
 
In August, the Met placed over 150 drawings of monuments in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Egypt made by Herzfeld and a small number of drawings made by his colleague Carl Theodor Brodführer online in a searchable database. Herzfeld published some of these drawings in articles and books, but an equal number represent alternate or pre-publication forms of the drawings and some are unpublished altogether. Researchers can access the material through the Met’s Watson Library Digital Collections Website, where a finding aid detailing the contents of the Islamic Department’s papers is also available. The Department of Islamic Art intends to eventually publish all of its holdings and next in line are Herzfeld’s watercolors and line-drawings of architectural ornament from Samarra, so stay tuned! Here is the link to the documents currently online:

http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16028coll11

Along with the announcement, I wanted to take the opportunity to spotlight a group of documents from the first released series that I found to be particularly interesting. Needless to say, there is much of interest in the Herzfeld Papers. Many drawings, for example, document buildings that have been altered or even destroyed, providing valuable data on endangered cultural resources. Others are simply beautiful to look at in and of themselves. Herzfeld’s talents as a trained architect come through strongly in his meticulous renderings of ornamental details and his analytical sections and plans. The group of drawings I want to showcase, however, is neither particularly pleasing to the eye nor contains information about a specific monument or object. In fact, they do not illustrate Herzfeld’s findings at all, but rather document Herzfeld’s interest in the work of another European scholar.

Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh444


Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh606


Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh608



Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, eeh605

The four pages shown above are torn from an 8 x 12 cm notebook. Each contains a sketch of a vegetal motif along with Herzfeld’s shorthand notes and references to page and figure numbers. All are copied from the same source: a book written by the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl (d. 1905), entitled Stilfragen.

Stilfragen, often translated to English as Problems of Style, was published in 1893 to much acclaim. Its subtitle, Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Laying the Groundwork for a History of Ornament), speaks to Riegl’s ambition to encourage a new type of art history that focused on vegetal ornament: the flowing vines and blossom motifs found on column capitals and the spaces between figural scenes on Greek vases that his colleagues had largely ignored. Riegl’s theories have received a great deal of scholarly attention over the last two decades, and for more information about him and his intellectual milieu I will point readers to Margaret Olin, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art (University Park, PA, 1992), and Jaś Elsner, “The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901,” Art History 25 (2002). Both offer excellent analyses of Riegl's scholarship and its impact.
In addition to opening up a new field of inquiry for the discipline, Riegl’s Stilfragen also made what was at the time a bold argument: that both the Islamic arabesque and its Western-European counterpart were descended from the Greek acanthus motif, which was in turn descended from the Egyptian lotus. Throughout the text, Riegl used line drawing illustrations like the ones Herzfeld copied onto his notepads above to demonstrate the links between different vegetal elements from disparate Mediterranean artistic traditions. The result was a dense but powerful argument for the origins of an important ornamental style.
A glance at Herzfeld’s publication of the vegetal ornament from Samarra is enough to show that he was inspired to achieve a similar goal. In his Wandschmuck der Bauten von Samarra und seine Ornamentik (Berlin, 1923), Herzfeld classified the architectural fragments bearing vegetal motifs found at the site by style and, within style, by motif. Each pattern recieved a detailed formal analysis. Herzfeld's work was not simply a catalog of his finds but rather an attempt to describe the nature of the city's architectural ornament and make a case for its historical and geographic origins.
I am not the first to point to the importance of Riegl’s ideas to Herzfeld’s methodology or to the study of Islamic art in general (see Barry Flood’s essay “Faith, Religion and the Material Culture of Early Islam,” in the exhibition catalog for Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, for example). However, the evidence from the archive is significant as tangible proof of what sorts of topics sparked the interest of Samarra’s first major excavator. These documents also raise several questions of interest to Samarra studies: What did Herzfeld himself believe about the way that architectural ornament evolved over time? What about Riegl’s work particularly interested Herzfeld or resonated with his aims as an archaeologist? And most importantly, how might these ideas have affected the way that Herzfeld excavated and published the Samarra Finds?
In her article “Between East and West: The Wall Paintings of Samarra and the Construction of Abbasid Princely Culture” (Muqarnas vol. 25), Eva Hoffman asks similar questions about Herzfeld’s analysis of Samarra’s wall paintings, examining the intellectual context in which the material was published along with the resources available to Herzfeld at that time. The items spotlighted here and the light they shed on Herzfeld's intellectual background suggest that her line of inquiry might be fruitful for the carved stucco from Samarra as well.
Such archival snippets allow us to understand some of the intellectual resources Herzfeld had at his fingertips when processing and publishing his own archaeological finds. They thus provide insight not only into the history of Islamic art, but also into the history of the history of Islamic art.

Matthew Saba
Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Samarra in Boston


Dear Samarra-Finds Readers,

In 1923 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston accessioned a type-set of finds from Ernst Herzfeld’s excavations at Samarra that it had purchased from the British Museum’s Department of Ceramics and Ethnography. Now housed in the Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, the Samarra finds in the MFA include a range of ceramics and glass objects, including lustre ware tiles, mosaic tesserae, and imported Chinese wares. Given the recent centennial of the Herzfeld excavations, and the efforts – by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, the Freer/Sackler in Washington DC, and others – to bring to light the material and documentation from this great site, Dr Laura Weinstein, the Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the MFA, hopes to begin a similar project on the Samarra finds in Boston.

During the spring of 2014, this type-set was studied and re-incorporated into the Museum’s comprehensive database system. The aim was to augment the objects’ catalogue information, especially given the great deal of scholarship devoted to the field since the set had come to the Museum. The objects were measured and photographed and their descriptions, provenance, and dating were completely updated, with relevant citations to similar objects or related finds from excavations in the region being added to this information. 

As Oliver Watson has argued in a recent article on Islamic glazed pottery, the Samarra material is hardly the result of Iraqi merchants simply imitating imported ceramics from East Asia. The development of Islamic ceramics in the 9th century CE is a much more complicated process where both ideas, techniques, and styles were exchanged back and forth between East and West, and throughout Central Asia and the Mediterranean. The ceramic sherds in the MFA type-set are a great example of this variety and diversity. Certainly some Chinese celadon and white wares can be identified as imports. But a variety of green splashed, blue-on–white, and tin-glazed sherds, likely produced in Basra, are also represented. A large number of the possible Chinese imports exhibit a honey-brown glaze. As more and more research has come out in recent years on Chinese kiln sites from the 9th and 10th century, it may be possible to identify the exact locations of where this material originated before reaching Samarra. 

There are also some examples of polychrome lustre, often in an olive and brown sheen. One fragment of a cup in ruby red lustre is nearly identical to one shown in a plate from Friedrich Sarre’s publication of the Samarra ceramics. The finest examples of lustre use can be seen on the large earthenware tiles. In gold, green, and ruby red and brown polychrome, these were truly impressive tiles used to decorate very ornate and lavish rooms. 

Res 23.106 Ceramic tile fragment with green glaze (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

Res 23.109 Ceramic tile fragment with lustre decoration (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

There is also a nice variety of unglazed pottery, including the typical incised, moulded, and stamped wares, and sherds of the Sasanian-Islamic dishes that are sometimes described as semi-glazed for their gold-yellow sheen. A few of the ceramic sherds, however, were less predictable.

Some earthenware sherds with brown and black painted geometric designs were described in earlier MFA documentation as having been excavated “below the Islamic city.” Whether this was part of Herzfeld’s original notes or a later indication of the pre-Islamic nature of the pottery is unclear. Surely though, these examples of what is often termed “Samarra Fine Ware” by archaeologists working on Late Neolithic Mesopotamia, are a fine example of the Samarra region’s incredible history of human occupation. Of course we celebrate Samarra for the way the site has revolutionized our understanding of Islamic history, architecture, ceramic traditions, and more. But it’s a tribute to Herzfeld’s efforts that finds from other periods, in this case circa 6000 BC, were also collected and saved for further study.

Res 23.114 Ceramic sherd of ‘Samarra Fine Ware’ (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

The glass objects in the collection include a variety of fragments of flasks, bottles, bowls, and saucers, with many parallels to those in the Samarra glass publication by Carl Johan Lamm. A few shards are likely from modern vessels, but many objects were in surprisingly good condition, especially a group of very small clear flasks. 


Res 23.15 and Res 23.16 Moulded glass fragments used in decorative wall panels (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

In addition, the collection includes a wealth of decorative pieces and architectural fragments. There are a large group of glass window shards, often in blue or brown. But there are also several transparent, moulded glass ornaments for decorating walls, along with a group of black and green glass mosaic tesserae. Finally, the collection includes some fragments of millefiori glass which also decorated the palaces of Samarra. While finds of smaller glass vessels and window glass are to be expected at any site of this period, it is exceptional and very telling of the grandeur of Samarra that so many intricate decorative pieces and fragments also remain.

Res 23.39 and Res 23.40 Glass fragments in millefiori style (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

In all, the type-set of Samarra finds at the MFA provides an excellent sampling of finds from Herzfeld’s excavations with many parallels to other museums’ collections and the early publications. The vast majority of the finds still exhibit their original red Herzfeld number, and it is our hope that through the larger collaboration of this international Samarrafinds effort, some site provenance can be ascertained for these objects in the future. 


Greg Williams
Freelance archaeologist specializing in Islamic ceramics,
previously intern in the Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A plea for the future of Samarra

Dear Colleagues, 

Iraq is a very strong country. Her cultures need to be preserved for future Iraqi generations. They need to be preserved for the sake of all humanity, discoveries still to be made, and future stories to be told. Three years ago, in 2011, my colleague Rachael Woody and I were allowed to attend the meeting of the Ernst Herzfeld Society in Berlin. We reported on the first results of an ongoing collaborative digitization project of the Samarra records. I was very proud to have had the opportunity to meet everyone and speak among such a group of distinguished and learned scholars. 

Even though Iraqi colleagues were not present, it is my strong wish that this will happen at future events. All of us will study this world cultural heritage site together.  I remember listening to Arzu Terzi’s report on the remarkable discoveries made in the archival materials in Istanbul, the overview of the impressive work conducted by the team of Alastair Northedge, and our wish, to repeat such meetings. A wonderful exhibition was curated by our colleagues Julia Gonnella and Stefan Weber in Berlin. The Samarra Finds Project Blog is so masterfully maintained by Mariam Rosser-Owen and Rosalind Wade Haddon. Matt Saba has finished his dissertation. The recently published volume on the history of the people of Samarra, edited by Julia Gonnella, Rania Abdellatif and Simone Struth included the long overdue report by Jens Kroeger on the history of the excavations. It contained Alastair’s recommendations for the future for the safeguarding we need to make sure that the past is protected for a strong Iraq. 

It is important to show strength and solidarity. It is our responsibility to help our Iraqi colleagues to make sure there will be a Samarra to be studied by future generations in Iraq. I condemn the military destruction and the destabilization of the political infrastructure. I condemn looting. I condemn the illicit trade in antiquities. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your continued attention to the future of Samarra.

Sincerely,
Dr. Alexander Nagel

Disclaimer: Please note that these are my own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institutions for which I work.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Congratulations are in order!

Congratulations are due to two members of the worldwide Samarra community, Julia Gonnella and Matt Saba!

Julia Gonnella has edited the just-published and much-anticipated proceedings of the 7th meeting of the Ernst Herzfeld Gesellschaft, held in Berlin in 2011. Scholars gathered at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin celebrated the 100th anniversary of the German excavations of Samarra by Ernst Herzfeld and Friedrich Sarre.



http://reichert-verlag.de/en/magazines/bika_zeitschrift/9783895009631_beitraege_zur_islamischen_kunst_und_archaeologie-detail
Julia Gonnella with Rania Abdellatif and Simone Struth, Hg. von der Ernst-Herzfeld-Gesellschaft. Beiträge zur islamischen Kunst und Archäologie. Jahrbuch der Ernst-Herzfeld-Gesellschaft e.V. Vol. 4: A Hundred Years of Excavations in Samarra (Wiesbaden, 2014). 17.0 x 24.0cm, 352 p., 85 illustrations b/w, 72 illustrations color, hardback. ISBN: 9783895009631. 79,00 €

Today, a hundred years later, our knowledge of Abbasid art has widened immensely. The papers gathered in this volume bring together the latest research on the Abbasid city and its impact on Islamic art, and touch on the history of the German excavations, the city of Samarra itself, its various finds as well with other, more recently explored Abbasid sites. It features articles by many of the key scholars working on Abbasid history and archaeology, including Alastair Northedge, Matthew Gordon and Jens Kröger, as well as emerging scholars. Articles cover such subjects as archival research, the international dispersal of the small finds, the city today (a particularly relevant topic), Chinese ceramic trade, Abbasid palace cites and their decoration, and a magisterial article that chronicles the 1911-1913 excavations. This volume is surely the most comprehensive publication on the history of Samarra’s discovery, excavation and impact, on the art of its own day as well as on modern scholarship.

Further details, including a full Table of Contents, can be found here.

Our other congratulatee is Matt Saba, who has just been successfully awarded his PhD from the University of Chicago, entitled  Impermanent Monument, Lasting Impression: the Abbasid Dar al-Khilafa Palace of Samarra. We are very excited to read this! On the basis of his past research and publications, his arguments are innovative and stimulating, and Matt will certainly be making a major contribution to the Islamic art field as his career progresses.

Indeed this is a double congratulations for Matt since he has also been awarded The Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York! From September, for two years, he will assist the Department of Islamic Art to catalogue and digitise departmental archives, especially their Herzfeld Papers, and to find ways of making these more accessible through online tools.

The first series of these papers has recently been launched online - the link to the finding aid is here - and researchers can now view select documents from the Islamic Department’s
archive of Herzfeld's papers. This first release consists of architectural drawings and plans made of monuments in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and over the next two years the Met will continue to release new material. The next series of documents planned for posting online are original watercolours and drawings related to Herzfeld’s excavations at Samarra in 1910-1913.

As Matt says, the digitisation of the Herzfeld Papers is a work in progress, so any feedback from users on the online content is very welcome.

We also hope that Matt will soon be writing a
blog post here about the progress of the Herzfeld Papers digitisation project, and generally keeping us updated. Look forward to reading from him soon!

Mariam Rosser-Owen

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Report on the Ernst Herzfeld Gesellschaft in Hamburg

ISLAMIC ARCHAEOLOGY, MATERIAL CULTURE, AND ART HISTORY INTERSECTIONS AND RESEARCH AIMS. 10th Colloquium of the Ernst Herzfeld-Gesellschaft in Cooperation with the Asien-Afrika-Institut at Universität Hamburg, 3-6 July 2014 

Unlike the previous meeting held in Berlin 2011, which concentrated on Samarra and other early Abbasid sites, this colloquium was more broadly based (click here to see the full programme)Following a Graduate Student conference in the afternoon, it began with a Keynote Lecture given by Lorenz Korn of the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, entitled 'On the Interdependence of Archaeology, Art History, and Written Sources'. He illustrated the numerous possible pitfalls in using archaeology to understand history, and how nothing must be taken too literally in either discipline. It is all a question of common sense, balance, a thorough analysis of the translations made of the written sources, and perhaps a reevalution of some of these. After a lively discussion we were free to taste the delights of Hamburg's open air restaurants and catch up with friends and colleagues.

Day 2: (from left to right) Stefan Heidemann, Vincenza Garofalo, Markus Ritter
         
The following day we received a warm welcome from the organiser, Stefan Heidemann, who outlined Hamburg's connections with Islamic archaeology and the link with Carl Heindrich Becker, who in 1908 was appointed Professor of History and Culture of the Orient at the newly founded Kolonialinstitut and Director of the Seminar for History and Culture of the Orient. He was a supporter of Ernst Herzfeld's and through his foundation of the journal, Der Islamprovided him with vehicle to publish his and Sarre's early studies on Samarra. 

We then progressed through recent research on various aspects of the conference theme's broad spectrum, flowing chronologically and thematically. Barbara Finster highlighted the importance of Southern Arabia and its influences on Islamic architecture, a topic totally ignored by Creswell, and one which Herzfeld confessed to knowing nothing about, but sensibly indicated that it might prove to be a possible source when it was studied in depth at some later date. 

As you will see from the programme, the two Samarra papers were included in this first session, with Arie Kai-Browne and Simone Struth giving a fascinating outline of Berlin's 3D visualisation project. The carved plaster panels take on a totally different form with this enhancement and you can immediately see how they would have resembled marble revetments in their original pristine state. With the crude mudbrick walls hidden by these you can easily appreciate how this vast palace city sprung to life so quickly and so impressively, achieving the Abbasid caliphs' desire to create an aura of wonderment and admiration. My paper was a brief overview of the V&A's 278-piece Samarra collection, outlining how different departments within the museum have been able to assist in conserving some of these fragments, analysing the materials employed, and how experts at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew have been able to confirm that two wood fragments are indeed teak, as stated in the written sources. (We eagerly anticipate a blog posting here on this analysis!)

Thereafter we travelled far and wide within the Islamic world and it was fascinating to learn of the diversity of current research. The day ended with a reception and a chance to catch up with more colleagues who had trickled in during the course of the day. I am sure that the highlight of the day for many of the participants were the two football World Cup quarter finals!

Ilsa Sturkenboom and Alexandra Plesa in foreground, Lorenz Korn, Claus-Peter Haase and others in background
Sadly the split programming on the Saturday morning meant that one had to choose between architecture and the art of the book and paintings, and I opted for the former. This entailed ongoing projects at Middle Islamic to pre-Modern sites, right up to the early 20th century. Ralph Bodenstein's contribution on 19th/20th-century industrial archaeology in Egypt was a very interesting account of the interrelation of strong leadership, economic unity, the ability to develop state-of-the-art factories and a viable infrastructure, and how his project has been fighting hard to preserve some trace of these. His project website can be found here.

The colloquium closed with an unprogrammed account by Julia Gonnella of the state of Aleppo and northern Syria's historical sites, and the horrific damage exacted by both the military and the rebels. The power of the internet means that so much more information is available, but there are certainly times when it is hard to face up to the reality of what is happening and this brave paper accentuated the ongoing horrors being perpetrated.

To end on a happier note, if you are on Facebook please turn to Stefan Heidemann's recent posting for many more images. Unfortunately I could not stay for the last day and missed the visit to the Museum für Künst Gewerbe led by curator Nora von Achenbach, although I did manage to take a brief look at the exhibits before the colloquium began.

Rosalind Wade Haddon


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

In the Louvre Galleries

Following on the visit to London of our Berlin colleagues, Dr Julia Gonnella and Simone Struth, in February, a joint trip to Paris was planned and kindly arranged by Dr Charlotte Maury. She had already provided us with an illustrated list of the Herzfeld material (pottery, steatite, glass, mosaic tesserae) despatched from the British Museum in 1922. This shipment was sent in exchange for a collection of comparative material excavated in the Islamic levels at the Iranian site of Susa or Shush in Khuzestan, formerly the Elamite capital, which lies to the east of the major Iraqi sites of Babylon, Kish and Nippur. The Louvre collections also hold 104 carved plaster fragments, most of which would appear to have been found in Samarra, some of which are illustrated in Herzfeld's archives in the Smithsonian and published in Henry Viollet's 1911 publication, Un palais musulman du IXe siècleCharlotte proved to be a most enthusiastic guide and endlessly patient with all our questions.

In the Louvre Galleries. From left to right: Charlotte Maury, Julia Gonnella and Simone Struth

We met in the Louvre on Tuesday 29 April, when the museum was closed to the general public, so once we had emerged from the depths of their reserves, where most of the material is kept, it was a delight to have the Islamic galleries entirely to ourselves - although navigating the route to the museum was complicated by the heightened security imposed by the President's visit to the inaugural exhibition of the 'Louvre Abu Dhabi' (see here for details).

A mixture of red porphyry, yellow stone and some gold leaf-coated stone tesserae together with multicoloured glass millefiori tile fragments


Red porphyry tesserae, some of which were rounded rim fragments, indicating that these are recycled bowl fragments

Crude mosaic fragment with glass tesserae (some with gold leaf) embedded in a gypsum plaster base (accession no. OA7735/54). Unfortunately this does not have a Herzfeld
 I-N locus number.

There is apparently no record indicating who chose the 'representative collection' which was sent to the Louvre. Three media are conspicuously absent: wood, carved stone architectural pieces, and painted plaster. New aspects are revealed every time we delve into the Herzfeld collections. Many of the Louvre's tesserae are stone rather than glass. The red stones must be porphyry, and the yellow stones may be some form of chalcedony. Both need to be positively identified. A closer inspection of the red pieces revealed the rounded profile of a rim, indicating that these once belonged to a vessel, perhaps recycled as mosaic after breakage. The collection also includes several pieces of gypsum plaster with tesserae embedded in them, revealing a rather crude application. Unfortunately none of these have a Finds Journal number indicating their original find spot.


Lunch break at a traditional French restaurant.
From left to right: Simone Struth, Julia Gonnella and Yannick Lintz

Lunch in a traditional French restaurant behind the Louvre was a welcome break, hosted by Dr Yannick Lintz, the new Director of the Islamic Department. She is equally enthusiastic about the Samarra Finds project and graciously agreed to help us in our quest to bring all the information together digitally.


Seminar in the Université de Paris I.
Julia Gonnella being introduced by Alastair Northedge

The following evening we all met up again for a seminar organised by Professor Alastair Northedge at the Université de Paris I. He had invited Julia to present to his postgraduate students the talk that she had presented in Doha in 2011 (now published in the volume Godis Beautiful and Loves Beauty, edited by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom)Several of his students are working on different aspects of Samarra's architecture and decoration: Fatma Dahmani on the wall paintings; Vanessa Rose on the tiles; Iraqi architects Emad al-Faraj and Ahmad al-Gribaoui on the architecture. Following this, we repaired to a nearby café for refreshments and to continue our Samarra discussions until the proprietors were no doubt wishing we would exhaust the topic and go home! 

Rosalind Wade Haddon