Thursday, 14 November 2013

Matching objects with archives

Please do not interpret the Blog's silence as lack of activity in the Samarra Project - nothing could be further from the truth! We have entered a 'research' period, trying to identify where individual pieces of the V&A's 285 artefacts were found on the site, what they can tell us about 9th-century Abbasid decoration, and where possible identify any additional information in Herzfeld's copious documentation. Concurrent with this, objects are being catalogued on the Museum's database and photographed by the Museum's photographer, and gradually every item is being uploaded to the website, so that our goal of full access to one and all is starting to be achieved. The glass objects are already photographed and uploaded, so please go to and type in 'Samarra glass' and you will see them. Ignore everything else for now, as although there are some images and information there already, these records will be updated as the project proceeds. Each plaster fragment will be photographed front and back, as the mechanics of how it was affixed to the wall/ceiling/floor are just as important to the overall picture as the actual decoration, and in the long run will probably assist in identifying which location in the palace complex it came from, and which group of paintings/stucco/wood decoration it belonged to.

The collection is a typeset of the excavators' finds but it is not comprehensive - for instance, it lacks metal pieces. However, it is easy to establish from Herzfeld's records (now housed in the Freer Sackler Gallery's archive) what metalwork was found in Samarra, which compensates for this lack. You can see from the bronze- and copper-headed nails, illustrated below, that they are not large pieces, but are decorative utilitarian objects used to secure the fixtures and fittings suitable for a caliphal palace. Each piece has been given a findspot number: for example, I-N 697 (second row, second from right) is recorded as being found in Square 26v in the Dar al-Khalifah, and described as being a "massive copper head of an iron nail, door hardware? Traces of gilding, pattern: twisted rosette" (translation taken from the Lubkins' incredibly useful document - see our entry on their visit here). The grid reference to 'Square 26v' refers us to the findspot on Herzfeld's gridded map, on the FSG Samarra resources site. 

Click here to see this image on the FSG website

Once familiar with these online resources, it is easy to navigate through the many illustrations and documents, and in recording the objects this facility has been useful for providing additional information. Around half the objects are still marked with their Herzfeld red inventory number (prefixed by I-N in the various publications). Herzfeld was a highly accomplished watercolourist (as we have seen in a previous post) and in addition to his sketches he reconstructed some of the wall painting fragments into complete murals. However, he did use a little artistic licence, so it is essential to double check every detail.

V&A A.29-1922 - measures h.14cm x w.16cm.
 You can see this fragment at the 

centre of Herzfeld's pl. LII in DIE MALEREIEN.
The fragment immediately to the right of this one is
now on display in the British Museum.


V&A A.54-1922, which you can see depicted in the bottom right hand corner of DIE MALEREIEN, pl. L

The resources on the Freer Sackler website help to problem-solve too. For example, among the ceramics there is a series of similar lid fragments, all now in different collections, some of which might fit together. Nothing published in Sarre's Die Keramik von Samarra resembles these, but in Herzfeld's own photographs, there is a group image - two with the same design and two of the same shape but seemingly with a different design. A fragment of one of these is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and can be seen on their website. (Interestingly, this lid fragment in the V&A is one of very few lustre pieces in the V&A Samarra typeset.)

V&A C.632-1922
Click here to see the image on the Freer Sackler website
Matching the objects with the archival material is slow but rewarding work, and hopefully the reader will understand why this blog has been a little dormant. Next month our findings to date will be presented at the First International Conference on Islamic Archaeology in the East, to be held at the University of Cairo from 8th-12th December. News from Cairo to follow soon thereafter!

Rosalind Wade Haddon

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