Thursday, 16 May 2013

Berlin Visit

Making great strides with measuring, photographing, drawing and recording all 285 artefacts in the V&A collection and gradually getting to grips with the multitudinal aspects of the Samarra finds in the various web facilities already available through the Freer Sackler archives. Contact with colleagues in the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin alerted me to the fact that they are embarking on a similar project of digitising their considerably larger collection and will be doing it in 3D. Hasty email discussions with the Curator responsible, Dr Julia Gonnella (coincidentally co-director of the Aleppo Citadel excavations where I have worked for a couple of seasons prior to the current troubles), prompted me to use up some airmiles a couple of weeks ago and jump on a plane to Berlin to meet their researcher, Simone Struth, and spend a couple of days with her familiarising myself with their work and the collection.

This has proved invaluable and has helped me appreciate and understand the decorative motifs – where the V&A has small fragments of carved stucco Berlin has full-sized panels. Trying to work out what is the top and what is the bottom becomes a nightmare. Admittedly many of these are casts taken in situ and manufactured in the dig house at Samarra, because they were deemed to be too fragile to move en bloc, but some are complete pieces. A young researcher from the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (University of Applied Science), Berlin, Mariam Sonntag, is currently studying all these pieces by non-destructive means for her MA thesis. This amounts to some 90 pieces. Today these panels to the naked eye all appear to be colourless, but Herzfeld reports seeing various pigments when they were first excavated and her research will establish whether this is so or not. She is also establishing the chemical differences between the original panels and the 20th century casts made by Herzfeld and his team. Her results will be presented in her thesis in August 2013.

This was a wonderful chance to work with Simone Struth, who very kindly guided me through their whole collection and patiently answered my endless questions. An added bonus to this was a chance to see the temporary exhibition in the galleries of SAMARRA – CENTRE OF THE WORLD. Seeing the eye-catching blue banner draped over the front of the Pergamon Museum made one immensely proud of having a hand in bringing this important slice of history to the forefront. After two days of handling, photographing and discussing their collection I began to realise the wisdom of Herzfeld dividing it up into sample collections for various institutions. Now that we have reached the digital age it will be much easier to reassemble the original collection virtually and I feel privileged to have a part in the process.

Outside the museum which is undergoing extensive renovation to both the fabric and interior display areas.

Mariam Sonntag (left) and Simone Struth (right) discussing the carved stucco panels in storage

Simone Struth showing us one of the wooden coffered ceiling panels from the Dar al-Khalifa in their state-of-the-art storage facilities for wood and paper. She shows the amazing scale of this miraculously surviving piece!
Rosalind Haddon


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