|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.
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!