Thursday, 8 August 2013

Samarra at the British Museum

Today Rosalind and I visited Venetia Porter at the British Museum, and spent the morning looking at their Samarra material from Herzfeld's excavations. Part of our BISI-funded pilot project is to develop and seek funding for the next, more international phase of Samarrafinds, and a crucial part of the next stage will be to catalogue the BM's material. Today's visit was an initial assessment of the scope of that collection.

Venetia Porter and Rosalind Wade Haddon in front of the Samarra display in the British Museum's John Addis Gallery

The small gallery display doesn't begin to tell you how big this collection is compared to the V&A's rather modest selection! The V&A is an art and design museum and was always concerned to acquire objects that would inspire art students, so only took a few representative examples of the types of artistic production found at Samarra; but the British Museum is a 'universal museum', which has engaged in its own archaeological excavations, and has much more material in bulk. The same goes for Samarra. They have much much more of everything, and this morning's visit made us realise quite what a big job the next phase is going to be!

Rosalind and Venetia rummaging among fragments of wood and glass in the British Museum store

Rosalind was excited to see the glass, which has been giving her such headaches recently, and especially to realise that the lion's share of the 170 blue glass 'torpedo flasks' mentioned by Lamm are likely to be among the BM's finds. We were excited to find some of the examples he mentioned of bottle stoppers - made of cotton wool, wrapped around with papryus and cotton string! These would be candidates for future analysis, since the cotton may well have absorbed some essence of the original contents of these bottles.

The tops of two blue glass bottles, stoppered with cotton wool, papyrus and cotton ties

I am rather jealous of the several fragments in the BM's collection of incised blue glass dishes - why didn't the South Kensington curators in 1922 want a few of these?? They come from very elegant dishes, perhaps made in Nishapur in Iran, of which several amazingly complete examples have been recovered from the Famensi temple near Xi'an in China - from a reliquary chamber sealed in the 870s, thus also providing a clear terminus ante quem for the production of this type of glass, if the finds from Samarra weren't enough to establish a 9th-century date.

Three fragments of incised blue glass dishes - these are on display but there are more fragments in store

I was also amazed to see actual shells amongs the finds! Of course we are familiar with the pieces of mother-of-pearl used for a variety of inlay designs, but the BM collection holds several complete shells! Does anyone know what kind of shells these are? There is no sign of them having been used for make-up trays or paint palettes, unless analysis reveals invisible traces which have been lost to the naked eye - but perhaps they were waiting to be turned into inlay? Could the original context of the find have been a 9th-century inlay workshop??

Shells found at Samarra

These were just a few of the many exciting things we saw in the British Museum today, which hint at the many treasures we hope to uncover as the project moves into its next phase. But the size of the collection and the task ahead feels a little overwhelming! Next is to start making a list of priorities and possible candidates for scientific analysis. Oh, and to start thinking about where we might look for further funding. Any ideas, please be sure to let us know!

Mariam Rosser-Owen

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