Wednesday 28 September 2016

Update on the British Museum's Samarra Finds Project

An update on this project is long overdue! The extent of the museum's Herzfeld Samarra Finds collection is truly daunting due to the sheer quantity of material. For example, of the 170 cobalt blue glass broken perfume bottles reported by Carl Lamm, the majority appear to be in the collection. Many still have their stoppers, as you can see in the image below.

Part of a group of 80 cobalt blue glass flask necks found in the Dar al-Khilafa thronehalls area, all registered under accession number OA+.13590

Ernst Herzfeld’s red find number system has proved to be an invaluable tool to assist in this identification process. His Finds Journal is frequently annotated with the ultimate location for individual artefacts along with sketches of diagnostic pieces, which are duplicated with the addition of detailed measurements in the Sketchbooks. If you recall, his Finds Journal was translated into English by Marianne and Jim Lubkin; as I go, each numbered artefact with a find number is added to this document and will ultimately give us an invaluable distribution list. As you will be well aware, all Ernst Herzfeld’s journals and notebooks are available at the click of a mouse on the Smithsonian Institute’s website.

First page of Herzfeld’s Samarra’s Finds Journal, FSA fsa_a.6_s01 (to find this on the Smithsonan Institution website, click here)

Added to this information, Herzfeld, Friedrich Sarre and Carl Lamm all included find numbers and whereabouts of published pieces, if known. This assists in evaluating the provenance, assessing whether it is likely to be contemporary with the structure or perhaps indicates a reuse or later occupation. However, understandably there are some inconsistencies, bearing in mind the subsequent history of these finds. For example, Lamm identified the cobalt blue flasks with find number I.-N.767, but the only red find number that I could find on one of the necks was I.-N.998. Both locations are in much the same area of the Dar al-Khilafa, but this does imply they were found during the excavations at different times, even though Lamm insinuates that it was a hoard of 170 flasks all found together. Unfortunately, their rounded bases are difficult to identify and in consequence some of the body fragments have been allocated other accession numbers. I am sure, too, that many of the I.N. numbers have been inadvertently rubbed off some of these fragments, through wear and tear and unstable pigments on shiny surfaces.

Overall, most of the collection has now been processed, except for four boxes of tile fragments (lustre wall tiles and monochrome floor tiles) which we discovered low down in a dark corner in storage on our last ‘sweep’ a couple of weeks ago. Once all the entries have been completed on the Museum’s database then we will be able to quantify the full extent of this collection. At the moment I am spending one full working day per week on this and should imagine it will take me another 3-4 months to complete the work.

Museum Plans for the Collection

The project is timely and has been given new lease of life by the British Museum’s plans for the new Albukhary Foundation Galleries of the Islamic World. These will open in Autumn 2018 and will be situated right in the centre of the museum. A display focusing on finds from both Samarra and Siraf is planned, highlighting aspects of life, trade, architecture, architectural decoration, craft skills and industries at these early Islamic sites, and their continued existence. This has provided the essential context within which to undertake any necessary conservation and stabilization of the artefacts in the Samarra collection. As we go, all objects are being photographed and images of the pieces are gradually being uploaded onto the updated entries to the Online Catalogue – type in ‘Herzfeld Abbasid Samarra’ in the search box. This is a lengthy process, and currently there are many blanks in the image boxes, but before long you will be able to access the entire collection from the comfort of your own home. 

Conservation of the plaster pieces

Since our last posting on this project, colleagues in Stone Conservation, under the leadership of Tracey Sweek, have continued their marvellous work on the plaster fragments – both wall paintings and carved stucco. The entire collection of some 300 pieces is now temporarily stored in their spacious new laboratory. Tracey and her team have spent the past 18 months cleaning and stabilizing each object, making them to safe to handle and record. The largest fragment is an unpublished piece which is still attached to several fired bricks and gypsum plaster mortar, the whole piece measuring some 60 x 30 cm. It features a hare prancing towards the right looking backwards and with a black bird strutting to the left below this. The whole painted surface has been badly defaced, but the hare’s eyes, eyelashes and hairy cheeks are well defined, as are its long ears. It is undoubtedly executed in the same style as those on ‘Cornucopia Frieze’, whose fragments were found amongst the debris of the floor in what Herzfeld identified as the ‘harim’ in the Dar al-Khilafa, and what Northedge has subsequently interpreted as a more private reception area with courtyard and domed fountain.

Above: large British Museum panel with hare and bird most probably from Herzfeld’s ‘Cornucopia Frieze’ but not included in his watercolour published in Die Malereien (pls.XII-XIV, fig.7, pp.22-5), with detail illustrated below.

In July we were visited by Mariam Rosser-Owen (Curator Middle East, V&A) and Mariam Sonntag (who previously worked on the carved plaster dadoes in the Berlin collection for her MA thesis and is now working in Sculpture Conservation at the V&A), along with Fatma Dahmani, who wrote both her MA and PhD dissertations with Alastair Northedge at the Sorbonne, on the Samarra wall paintings, and is now the Barakat Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Khalili Research Centre, Oxford, working on publishing her PhD thesis. Both Fatma’s and Mariam Sonntag’s contributions to the study of the BM collection and to Samarra studies in general will prove invaluable, and we look forward to them both sharing their discoveries through future publications.

Tracey Sweek explaining her methodology to Fatma Dahmani (rt), Venetia Porter (lt) and Mariam Sonntag behind Venetia (Mariam Rosser-Owen is behind the camera!)

This freshly conserved fragment showing a bird (a parrot?) (OA+.11002) is one of the many pieces they inspected.

The team spent a couple of hours looking through all the painted and carved plaster objects, discussing with Tracey her cleaning methodology and the observations she has been making on how the plaster pieces might have been fabricated – a joined-up discussion with the V&A conservators who have also made observations along these lines seems like a sensible next step, and we discussed a bilateral BM/V&A Samarra gathering again in the autumn. We also discussed possible themes for the new gallery display, and which objects might stand out for the BM’s visitors.

Tracey also plans to collaborate with colleagues from the BM’s Organic Materials department, to identify the various pigments used on the wall paintings, following up on the V&A’s analyses carried out by Lucia Burgio on their Samarra material. The blue pigment on OA+.11002 (illustrated above) will be especially interesting to identify, in view of the V&A’s discoveries of the use of both lapis and indigo on different pieces.

Glass Analysis

In March, Nadine Schibille (now of the CNRS, Orléans), who works on early Islamic glass and its relationship with Late Antique production, paid a preliminary visit to Andrew Meek in the Scientific Research Department to discuss a joint venture with their respective laboratories and to choose various types from the collection which will serve to illustrate both the continuity and change in glass production in Iraq and Iran. They plan to study the makeup of this glass using non-invasive methods. This will include every aspect of glass usage at the Samarra site: mosaics; mosque lamps (both small candela [see I.-N.10 from the Great Mosque on the Finds Journal page illustrated above], components of elaborate chandeliers, and large oil lamps); cut and scratched glass vessels; small perfume bottles and inkwells; moulded vessels; cold painted glass; and window panes. There does not appear to be any lustred glass in either London Samarra collection, but there are many examples of locally manufactured blown glass vessels from an industrial site on the West Bank of the Tigris, in the flood plain near the camp the excavators made for their work at Qasr al-‘Āshiq.

Above: a small perfume bottle from the West Bank industrial site (OA+.11883, I.-N.502; below: a candelon from al-Mutawakkil’s Great Mosque (OA+.11762, I.-N.67) – both in the BM collection

 Samarra-related dates for your diaries

If you are in London over the next few months, Samarra will be featuring in a couple of Islamic art events. Fatma Dahmani will be talking to the Islamic Art Circle at SOAS, University of London, on the topic “Rediscovering Samarra and its Paintings: A Glimpse into the World Behind Abbasid Walls”, on Thursday, 13 October 2016 at 7pm in the Khalili Lecture Theatre – all are welcome. Further details can be found on the Islamic Art Circle website. The BM’s Samarra collection will also feature in one of the handling sessions being organised in conjunction with the upcoming Historians of Islamic Art Association biennial symposium, which will take place at the Courtauld Institute from 20th to 22nd October. You can find details of the programme here – remaining places are limited, so sign up soon if you haven’t already! We hope to see our Samarra fans at one or other of these events!

Rosalind Wade Haddon

Friday 12 June 2015


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!

OA+.10845, I.-N.517
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’,[1] 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.


OA+.11567, I.-N.438; OA+.11569, I.-N.437


Rosalind Wade-Haddon