OA+.11567, I.-N.438; OA+.11569, I.-N.437
Friday, 12 June 2015
PROGRESS REPORT ON SAMARRA FINDS IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Work began on cataloguing the Herzfeld Samarra Finds in the British Museum's collection on 8 July 2014. As for the V&A, this involves preparing images for the museum's online database, checking all the descriptive details and adding in vital information on the find spots now available through the digitisation of Herzfeld's excavation records in the Smithsonian. The museum holds some 3,000 fragmentary objects, many of which are inscribed with one of Herzfeld's red find numbers. For example, information on this piece of marble in the Finds' Journal tells us that it is one of several pieces of carved marble found on a walk around Quwayr (al-Wāthiq's [r.842-847] palace west of the Dar al-Khilafa overlooking the Tigris, facing Qasr al-͑Āshiq, and also known as al-Harūniyya). Unusually Herzfeld indicated the findspot in full on the object - I can imagine him writing 'Quwair' before pocketing it so that he would not forget, as he encountered more and more fragmentary pieces!
The cataloguing process is carried out in the Students' Arched Room, in natural daylight. Trays are brought up from storage, and the finds gradually processed and then the details added to the online database.
Students' Arched Room
March brought the exciting news of a generous gift from the Albukhary Foundation in Malaysia to re-present the Islamic Galleries in the heart of the museum. For Samarra this means an opportunity for the Herzfeld Finds to be displayed in a comprehensive manner, with additional data panels to be available digitally and the ability for visitors to download all this information onto portable devices such as phones or tablets. So the wider picture will be conveyed by simple digital means and the objects will be viewed as part of a much bigger, more comprehensible culture.
This gift is a wonderful opportunity for object conservation and the first five wall painting and carved (and part moulded) plaster fragments are now in the museum's stone conservation laboratory being prepared for this lengthy process. These were taken from a 'wish list' of the first 20 objects to be conserved. They are now the responsibility of conservators Tracey Sweek, Alexa Clifford, Tomasina Munden and Stefanie Vasilou who will clean, stabilise, and study them closely to see if they can garner further formation - such as traces of pigments on the carved plaster, pigment analysis on the wall paintings - and be prepared for future display. See Victor Borges' and Lucia Burgio's earlier blogs for this process in the V&A.
Conservators (l to r) Tomasina Munden, Tracey Sweek, Alexa Clifford and curator Mahmoud al-Hawari on our visit to Stone Conservation
A further visit was made to the conservation laboratory on 4 June 2015, where incredible progress has already been made on the objects undergoing cleaning and stabilising.
OA+.11177.1 - painted and gilded plaster with one half cleaned with a 'smoke sponge'
OA+.10992 - before (top) now cleaned and stabilised (bottom)- this was originally in a bath just to the west of the Great Mosque
OA+.11010 - traces of red pigment were found on the deeply cut flat areas, behind the volutes and the conservators found evidence for part of the decoration being moulded
Tracey Sweek explained that the initial cleaning is carried out with a 'smoke sponge' - an efficient and non-invasive means of dry cleaning and removing the layers of accumulated dirt. She told us that the gold leaf gilding (see OA+11177.1)is definitely 'water gilding' and not an oil-based one. She has also identified red pigment on the ground backing the deeply-cut volutes that formed the decorative friezes (OA+.11010) in the Dar al-Khilafa's Bab al-͑Amma, or main monumental entrance way on the river side.
Processing the small finds is a fascinating exercise and many of the finds confirm Herzfeld's incredible knowledge of the artefacts he was handling. For example, I was amazed to find a tiny fragment of Ilkhanid so-called 'Sultanabad' (now known as 'coloured-ground' ware) amongst the material from Qasr al-͑Āshiq. When double checking this with his Finds Journal entry I find that his 1912 entry is: 'Small fragment of gray-white-black ware with relief', and at some stage he added in pencil 'Sultānābad (?)'. Of course there is no knowing when this addition was made, but it is certainly a correct identification and extends the occupation of this site to the 14th century at least. He mentions Raqqa wares too for this location, and there are several examples in the collection, such as the jug neck fragment, OA+.11569, illustrated. Sarre touches on this aspect of continuous occupation of some areas in his 1925 pottery volume, but did not publish much later material; Alastair Northedge notes that Qasr al-͑Āshiq was occupied through to the Ottoman period in his article entitled ‘Friedrich Sarre’s Die Keramik von Samarrain perspective’, and cites Herzfeld's Day Book 1 as stating that 25% of the pottery finds were so-called Raqqa wares. So while much of the site can still be interpreted as being limited to the 9th century, it is important to be aware of later material.
 Alastair Northedge 1996, eds K. Bartl and S. Hauser, Continuity and Change in Northern Mesopotamia from the Hellenistic to the Early Islamic Period: Proceedings of a Colloquium held at the Seminar für Vorderasiatische Altertumskunde, Freie Universität Berlin, 6th-9th April, 1994, Dietrich Vaimar Verlag, Berlin: 229-58.