Monday, 15 July 2013

Research on glass and marble

Progress seems to be slow at the moment as I write up all the cataloguing details and start reading and researching around the different materials. For example, there are only 20 glass pieces other than mosaic tesserae, but they are so diverse and I was a little outside my comfort zone, so it has taken me longer than anticipated. Fortunately I have had the expertise of Jens Kröger at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin to call upon - he has been extremely helpful and pointed me in the right direction. Carl Johan Lamm (1902-1981) was tasked with studying the collection and published his observations and categories in 1928 in DAS GLAS VON SAMARRA, vol 4 in the Samarra series, but unfortunately he did not include every piece, thus he was of no help to me with the 'problem pieces' - perhaps they were equally problematic to him, bearing in mind he was just starting on his Islamic glass studies! 

This is the entire collection (except for the arrow-shaped plaque top right which was acquired in 1967 from Mohammed Yeganeh, an Iranian dealer resident in Frankfurt, and said to have come from the site of Gunbad-i Kabus. If anyone has ideas about this piece we would love to hear them!)
Most of these vessels are so delicate that one wonders how they survived the journey from Samarra via Baghdad and Basra to London, in the chaotic aftermath of World War I, let alone over a thousand years of being buried amongst the rubble of crumbling palaces!

C.753-1922: a miniature bottle found near the Throne Room in the Dar al-Khalifah

Another aspect that I am investigating at the moment is the source for the marble/alabaster used at the site. Marcus Milwright published an excellent article on "Fixtures and Fittings" in 2001, with lots of useful references to the sources, but common sense tells me that for speedy palace building on such a massive scale not all the marble, for instance, could have come from Latakiyya, as indicated by the Arab geographer Ya'qubi (d. 897-8). Looking at the marble and alabaster pieces in the V&A's collection I noted that Herzfeld classified some pieces as being 'Mosul marble', so I have been looking at where earlier Mesopotamian civilisations sourced their materials. Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) writing in 1849 in NINEVEH AND ITS REMAINS states:

"Of the material used by the Assyrians in the construction of their palaces, it has already been shown that a limestone or alabaster was the most common, and served to case, or panel, the chambers. It abounds in the country, and being very soft is easily quarried and sculptured. It is still extensively employed in the country, chiefly cut, as in the time of the Assyrians, into slabs, and forming in that state a casing to walls of sun-dried or baked bricks. The modern slabs, however, are much smaller than those found in the ruins, rarely exceeding four or five feet in length, by two or three in breadth, and being only a few inches thick. Thus shaped, they are exported to Baghdad, where they are used for the pavement of halls, and for fountains, and reservoirs, in the interior of houses. When first taken from the quarry, this alabaster is of a greyish white; but on exposure it soon changes, growing darker, and ultimately becoming a deep grey, the colour of the slabs now in the British Museum. It is extremely fragile, easily decomposes, and wears away, if subjected to the action of water, or even to damp. Several slabs from Nimroud have retained the outline of the matting in which they were packed, water having penetrated into the cases. The back of the bas-relief of the eagle-headed figure in the Museum is an instance; on examination it will be seen that it is not the result of pressure, but the outline of the matting has been produced by the percolation of water, through the fissures between the rushes. The material being so very perishable, it will be a matter of surprise that the sculptures should be so well preserved, even in their minutest details. This can only be attributed to their having been suddenly buried, before exposure, and to the great accumulation of earth over them, by which they were preserved completely from damp in a country naturally dry.

On exposure to fire, this alabaster becomes of a milky whiteness, as in the ruins of Khorsabad, Kouyunjuik, and the south-west corner of Nimroud. The outline of the sculptures becomes, at the same time, sharper and more defined. They have consequently a more pleasing appearance, than in the grey slabs of the unburnt edifices; but they crack into numberless pieces, which fall off in flakes, so that it is impossible to move, and even frequently to preserve them. The sculptures from Khorsabad in the British Museum show this appearance, and are easily distinguished by it from those of Nimroud."

However, according to Julian Reade writing more recently no quarry has yet been discovered and I would be grateful if anyone working in this field has further information on this topic.

A.65-1922: a fragmentary frieze of blue-veined marble thought to have come from either the Dar al-Khalifah or al-Haruni, both palaces - the latter is 2km to the west of the former on the Tigris' floodplain - Herzfeld's ornament 22.

Rosalind Wade Haddon

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