Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Samarra in Boston

Dear Samarra-Finds Readers,

In 1923 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston accessioned a type-set of finds from Ernst Herzfeld’s excavations at Samarra that it had purchased from the British Museum’s Department of Ceramics and Ethnography. Now housed in the Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, the Samarra finds in the MFA include a range of ceramics and glass objects, including lustre ware tiles, mosaic tesserae, and imported Chinese wares. Given the recent centennial of the Herzfeld excavations, and the efforts – by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, the Freer/Sackler in Washington DC, and others – to bring to light the material and documentation from this great site, Dr Laura Weinstein, the Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the MFA, hopes to begin a similar project on the Samarra finds in Boston.

During the spring of 2014, this type-set was studied and re-incorporated into the Museum’s comprehensive database system. The aim was to augment the objects’ catalogue information, especially given the great deal of scholarship devoted to the field since the set had come to the Museum. The objects were measured and photographed and their descriptions, provenance, and dating were completely updated, with relevant citations to similar objects or related finds from excavations in the region being added to this information. 

As Oliver Watson has argued in a recent article on Islamic glazed pottery, the Samarra material is hardly the result of Iraqi merchants simply imitating imported ceramics from East Asia. The development of Islamic ceramics in the 9th century CE is a much more complicated process where both ideas, techniques, and styles were exchanged back and forth between East and West, and throughout Central Asia and the Mediterranean. The ceramic sherds in the MFA type-set are a great example of this variety and diversity. Certainly some Chinese celadon and white wares can be identified as imports. But a variety of green splashed, blue-on–white, and tin-glazed sherds, likely produced in Basra, are also represented. A large number of the possible Chinese imports exhibit a honey-brown glaze. As more and more research has come out in recent years on Chinese kiln sites from the 9th and 10th century, it may be possible to identify the exact locations of where this material originated before reaching Samarra. 

There are also some examples of polychrome lustre, often in an olive and brown sheen. One fragment of a cup in ruby red lustre is nearly identical to one shown in a plate from Friedrich Sarre’s publication of the Samarra ceramics. The finest examples of lustre use can be seen on the large earthenware tiles. In gold, green, and ruby red and brown polychrome, these were truly impressive tiles used to decorate very ornate and lavish rooms. 

Res 23.106 Ceramic tile fragment with green glaze (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

Res 23.109 Ceramic tile fragment with lustre decoration (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

There is also a nice variety of unglazed pottery, including the typical incised, moulded, and stamped wares, and sherds of the Sasanian-Islamic dishes that are sometimes described as semi-glazed for their gold-yellow sheen. A few of the ceramic sherds, however, were less predictable.

Some earthenware sherds with brown and black painted geometric designs were described in earlier MFA documentation as having been excavated “below the Islamic city.” Whether this was part of Herzfeld’s original notes or a later indication of the pre-Islamic nature of the pottery is unclear. Surely though, these examples of what is often termed “Samarra Fine Ware” by archaeologists working on Late Neolithic Mesopotamia, are a fine example of the Samarra region’s incredible history of human occupation. Of course we celebrate Samarra for the way the site has revolutionized our understanding of Islamic history, architecture, ceramic traditions, and more. But it’s a tribute to Herzfeld’s efforts that finds from other periods, in this case circa 6000 BC, were also collected and saved for further study.

Res 23.114 Ceramic sherd of ‘Samarra Fine Ware’ (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

The glass objects in the collection include a variety of fragments of flasks, bottles, bowls, and saucers, with many parallels to those in the Samarra glass publication by Carl Johan Lamm. A few shards are likely from modern vessels, but many objects were in surprisingly good condition, especially a group of very small clear flasks. 

Res 23.15 and Res 23.16 Moulded glass fragments used in decorative wall panels (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

In addition, the collection includes a wealth of decorative pieces and architectural fragments. There are a large group of glass window shards, often in blue or brown. But there are also several transparent, moulded glass ornaments for decorating walls, along with a group of black and green glass mosaic tesserae. Finally, the collection includes some fragments of millefiori glass which also decorated the palaces of Samarra. While finds of smaller glass vessels and window glass are to be expected at any site of this period, it is exceptional and very telling of the grandeur of Samarra that so many intricate decorative pieces and fragments also remain.

Res 23.39 and Res 23.40 Glass fragments in millefiori style (photo: Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston)

In all, the type-set of Samarra finds at the MFA provides an excellent sampling of finds from Herzfeld’s excavations with many parallels to other museums’ collections and the early publications. The vast majority of the finds still exhibit their original red Herzfeld number, and it is our hope that through the larger collaboration of this international Samarrafinds effort, some site provenance can be ascertained for these objects in the future. 

Greg Williams
Freelance archaeologist specializing in Islamic ceramics,
previously intern in the Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, MFA, Boston

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