Category Archives: Ancient Near East

Prints Fit for a Dig

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of the mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Why so blue? This “blue print” is an example of the cyanotype process, used throughout the twentieth century to make inexpensive copies of photographs and engineering drawings. Made from a glass plate negative that archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld took during his excavation at Pasargadae, the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, between 1905 and 1928, it shows the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who established the site.

Below, another of Herzfeld’s shots captured a rare view inside Cyrus’s tomb, which includes a small wall niche for a lamp. Reportedly, while Cyrus lay mummified in his golden coffin, his clothing was displayed around the chamber and local priests were paid a monthly allowance to stand guard. When the Greeks conquered Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, Cyrus’s mausoleum was looted, but the Macedonian conqueror Alexander ordered it to be refurbished in honor of the legendary king.

View through entrance from interior

View through entrance from interior

Making a cyanotype involves coating a piece of paper with chemicals, superimposing the negative on it, and exposing it to sunlight. Fine arts photographers avoided cyanotypes for their intense blue pigments and lack of fine detail. Produced on regular notebook paper, however, cyanotypes proved far more resilient in the rough conditions of an archaeological dig than delicate darkroom prints. Herzfeld’s cyanotypes survived the excavation and are now part of his archives here at the museum. See them in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, now on view.

A Man and His Dog . . . and His Boar

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

What would you name your pet boar? German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) went for a not-so-obvious choice, dubbing his trusty hog Bulbul, Persian for “nightingale.”

Herzfeld, known for his revelatory excavations in Pasargadae and Persepolis, among other ancient sites, was a rather serious scholar; some described him as exacting and reserved. Animals seemed to bring out another side of him. He even brought Bulbul along on his digs. Above, he’s feeding the boar in Persepolis, which the Iranian government asked him to document in 1924.

Ernst Herzfeld

Ernst Herzfeld

While in Iran, Herzfeld also kept a pet dog, a Welsh terrier named Romeo. The pup must have known how to win hearts. When he trod over an intricate drawing of a Persepolis structure by Herzfeld’s assistant Karl Bergner, leaving inky paw prints behind, no one seemed too upset. Bergner noted in German at the bottom of this 1935 work: “Romeo bumped into an inkpot and walked upon the drawing! The new drawing is already finished. Be(rgner).”

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935 [drawing].

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935

Visit Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae to learn more about the animal-loving archaeologist’s adventures in Iran.

Remembering A Memorial

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Imagine Washington, DC, abandoned and half-submerged into the Atlantic. The rounded dome of the Jefferson Memorial is visible like a little white island, but no one remembers the structure or its origins. Imagine New York covered with layers and layers of sands, the Chrysler Building in ruins, and the identity of the Statue of Liberty forgotten.

A doomsday scenario? The plot for a science fiction movie? A little far fetched? Maybe, but not when compared to the fate of Pasargadae, the magnificent capital of the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE), the first empire of the ancient world. It was built by the empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great (reigned 550–530 BCE), who conquered much of the Near East within a twenty-year period. He was known for his military skills as well as his tolerance: in 539, when he conquered Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews and other prisoners to return to their homeland.

Pasargadae was located in southwestern Iran, in the so-called “plain of the water bird.” Introducing a new architectural plan that would be widely emulated, the palace complex was centered on a large garden and included striking columnar palaces and pavilions, as well as Cyrus’s tomb. It was a pivotal site of the ancient world. Even when the Greeks conquered the Achaemenids in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great visited Pasargadae and paid his respects to Cyrus.

View of dasht-i murghab, or "plain of the water bird"

Over the years, however, Pasargadae gradually fell into neglect and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the thirteenth century, a local ruler transformed Cyrus’s tomb into a mosque using stones and columns from the nearby palace. According to fifteenth-century Western travelers to the area, very little of the capital and the palace grounds remained, and the tomb was believed to be a woman’s resting-place. Although some scholars had speculated that the site was that of ancient Pasargadae, it was only in 1908 that the celebrated German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld identified it beyond any reasonable doubt as the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Even if not much of the once-magnificent capital still stands, thanks to Herzfeld’s efforts, Pasargadae and the tomb are once again linked to Cyrus the Great. The story is a poignant reminder of the passage of time and the power of our collective memory. Experience it in person in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, on view through July 31.

NYFW: Accessories through the Ages

As New York Fashion Week struts toward its final round of shows, all eyes are on the apparel—and on the accessories. After all, you can’t truly dress to impress without the proper accoutrements, a tenet that discerning dressers seem to have embraced for millennia. Take, for example, the vivid splash of cerulean offered by this string of glazed-clay beads, which may date as far back as Late Period Egypt (712–332 BCE).

String of beads

Spinning to the opposite side of the color wheel (and to some two thousand years later), this Chinese necklace, dating to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), comprises coral, amber, and gold beads.

FS-7533_01

Women also decorated their wrists in Qing dynasty China. The bracelet on the left is made of jade, known in China as the “fairest of stones.” The gold bracelet on the right likely would’ve been worn as one of a pair by an elite Chinese woman. Within the filigree design, two dragons play with a magic pearl.

bracelets

Gold, unsurprisingly, has been shaped into fine adornments for centuries across the globe. Both this ring and these earrings are hollow, fashioned from gold sheets. Made in twelfth-century Iran, the ring bears Arabic inscriptions that read in part, “Good fortune and blessing and joy and sovereignty.” The earrings, created in India circa 1880, are typically worn by Muslim women in the southern state of Kerala, along the country’s west coast.

ring and earrings

And let’s not forget a key piece of arm candy: the purse. This twentieth-century version was made by Pakistan’s Sodha community. Closed with a drawstring, it bears geometric and peacock designs stitched in satin, as well as discs of mirrored glass.

S1991.28

Circling back to brilliant blue: these three Qing dynasty Chinese hair ornaments, fashioned from kingfisher feathers, are nothing short of stunning. We wouldn’t be surprised to see contemporary versions of these accessories accenting the updos at a fashion week sometime soon.

hair

Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

“I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, who founded the Persian Empire and was King of Asia. Grudge me not this monument.”

According to the Greek historian Strabo (circa 64 BCE–21 CE), these words were inscribed on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran (reigned 550–530 BCE). Before his untimely death, Cyrus laid the foundation of the ancient world’s first empire in his birthplace, Anshan (Parsa), in southwestern Iran. He had overthrown the Medes, a kingdom in northwestern Iran, and had captured Sardis, the capital of the Lydian kingdom in Anatolia. In 539 BCE, Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish community to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the second temple. At the same time, he chose Pasargadae as the heart of his multilingual, multifaith empire and transformed it into a magnificent symbol of Achaemenid power. The site also became Cyrus’s final resting-place.

Located in the fertile plain known as the dasht-i murghab, or “plain of the water bird,” Pasargadae comprised palaces, gardens, pavilions, and a number of structures with not-yet-identified functions. Although several classical Greek authors mention Pasargadae, the site gradually fell into neglect after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 CE and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the early thirteenth century, materials from the palace grounds were used to transform Cyrus’s mausoleum into a mosque. Western travelers to the site after the fifteenth century referred to the structure as a woman’s burial place using its local designation, “Tomb of the Mother of Solomon.” Although some scholars suggested the tomb might be Cyrus’s, it was not until 1908 that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) devoted his dissertation to Pasargadae and proved conclusively that it was the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Heart of an Empire focuses on Herzfeld’s discovery of Pasargadae and explores his meticulous work to restore the site’s historical and archaeological importance. See it tomorrow when it debuts in the Freer|Sackler.

Powerballs

Egyptian balls

See more of these Egyptian balls on Open F|S.

Now, THESE are powerballs. Made of glass in Egypt, each one dates to the Ptolemaic dynasty or Roman period (305 BCE–14 CE). That’s not 1.5 billion years, but we’ll take 2,300! We’re not sure what they were for, though women may have used the larger ones to cool their hands after the balls soaked in melted snow.

A Testament to Love: Palmyra in the North of England

Funerary relief bust; Syria, 231 CE; Limestone; Freer Gallery of Art; F1908.236

Funerary relief bust; Syria, 231 CE; Limestone; Freer Gallery of Art; F1908.236

It’s frequent we hear of yet more monuments in Palmyra being destroyed. It’s daily that we hear of the plight of migrants from Syria seeking a new life in Europe.

Our sculpture of Haliphat, a Palmyrene lady who died in 231 CE, gives us a glimpse of one side of that cosmopolitan and wealthy caravan city. Our copy of Robert Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) reminds us of the impact that images of Palmyra had on Europe and this country in the eighteenth century: The book’s depiction of an eagle sculpted on a temple in Palmyra was the model for the eagle on the seal of the United States. And you need go no further than the north entrance of the Freer Gallery to see the imprint of Palmyrene architecture: Look up and you will see a coffered ceiling inspired by the ceilings of Palmyra.

I have been moved to discover an object that brings together the topics of migration and Palmyra. It is a tombstone, dating from the second or third century CE, that was found in the Roman fort of Arbeia, a few miles from Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the north of England. It records the death of a lady called Regina.

Regina was originally from a major tribe in the south of the country, but she was enslaved—we don’t know how or when, but it’s easy to imagine she was a victim of fighting. Her master freed her, and they married. Regina died, though, at the age of thirty, and her husband lovingly had an effigy of her sculpted, seated full frontal under an arch.

The effigy’s style has echoes of sculpture from Palmyra. This is understandable, as her husband records his name as “Barates the Palmyrene.” The inscription below the seated Regina is bilingual—Latin, written in a formal style of capital letters, and Aramaic, written in a cursive Palmyrene style. According to one reading, Barates ended the Aramaic inscription with the poignant exclamation, “Alas!”

We know from his own tombstone, found nearby at Corbridge, that Barates made standards for the Roman legions. How and why he moved from the desert oasis of Palmyra to the windy climes of the North Sea, we may never know. Regina’s tombstone, however, reminds us that affection can bridge the gap between cultures and triumph over the traumas of war and dislocation.

Our Palmyra installation remains on view through December 14, 2015.

Friday Fave: Funerary Bust of “Miriam”

Head of a Woman (known as "Miriam"); Yemen, Wadi Bayhan, 1st century BCE-mid-1st century CE: Alabaster, Stucco, and Bitumen; Gift of the American Foundation for the Study of Man (Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection); S2013.2.139

Head of a Woman (known as “Miriam”); Yemen, Wadi Bayhan, 1st century BCE-mid-1st century CE; alabaster, stucco, and bitumen; Gift of the American Foundation for the Study of Man (Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection); S2013.2.139

Words don’t adequately describe Wendell Phillips. Archaeologist, adventurer, author, and paleontologist, the debonair explorer was America’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia—and quite possibly the inspiration for the swashbuckling Indiana Jones. When I came to the Freer|Sackler a few years ago and was assigned my first project, I had no idea who Wendell Phillips was or why his excavations in Yemen in the 1950s were so important.

In his mid-twenties—at an age when many of us nowadays are looking for our first full-time jobs—Phillips set off for southern Arabia, becoming one of the first archaeologists to excavate in what is now Yemen. One of the sites, the cemetery at Timna, yielded an unexpected and magical find when workers excavated an alabaster object that had been buried for thousands of years. The object revealed itself to be a perfectly intact funerary sculpture of a woman’s head.

This discovery shocked the local workers and seasoned archaeologists alike. Given the nickname “Miriam” because of her overwhelming beauty, the funerary bust was instantly a prized find. At the time of her creation, Miriam most likely had lapis lazuli eyes complemented by earrings and a gold necklace. Finding Miriam revitalized the dig team. A series of other great discoveries around the cemetery site soon followed, including a wonderful, intact gold necklace that was similar to what Miriam would have worn. After successfully unearthing hundreds of objects from sites in Timna and the surrounding areas, Wendell Phillips returned to the United States with these rare treasures and a wealth of research.

During my work with his collection, I had the pleasure of meeting Wendell’s younger sister, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson. An adventurer and archaeologist in her own right, Merilyn continued her brother’s work long after his death. She shared anecdotes about Wendell and how, as a teenager, she explored dig sites by his side. Whenever she regaled us with fascinating stories, I could feel how much Merilyn loved and admired her older brother and how much these objects mean to her today. Through her memories and experiences, I learned about people and distant places, and I gained an appreciation for a collection that I never would have seen outside the Sackler Gallery. Today, I look at the funerary bust of Miriam in a much different, brighter light.

In 2013 Merilyn Phillips Hodgson—and the organization Wendell founded, the American Foundation for the Study of Man—gifted 374 objects, including Miriam, to the Sackler Gallery as the Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection.

Learn more about Wendell Phillips and explore some of his finds on Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Fragment of a Glass Beaker

Fragment of a beaker; Syria, Late Bronze Age, 1400–1200 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.604

Fragment of a beaker; Syria, Late Bronze Age, 1400–1200 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.604

Some objects in the Freer|Sackler are quite small yet provide substantial information about their place of manufacture, ultimate destination, and function. This fragment of an ancient glass beaker is a little more than an inch wide and in remarkably good condition considering it is about 3,400 years old. It is an example of one of the most extraordinary glass vessels produced during the Late Bronze Age in the ancient Near East, specifically in places such as Tell Braq in northern Syria, Tell er Rimah in northern Iraq, and Hasanlu in Iran. The beaker fragment is composed of tiny colored glass canes that form a pattern of lozenge shapes in four colors: red, white, blue, and turquoise. Of surviving examples, this one is probably in the best condition.

The fragment becomes more interesting when one discovers that Charles Lang Freer acquired it along with 1,387 mostly glass objects from the famous antiquities dealer Giovanni Dattari in Cairo, Egypt, during the summer of 1909. This collection included dozens of glass objects clearly dated to the later Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, more specifically to the reigns of Amenhotep II (r. 1427–1400 BCE) through Tutankhamun (r. 1334–1325 BCE).

In order to understand how such a vessel could end up in Egypt, one has to consider its potential function as a political gift between rulers of the ancient Near East and those of Egypt. According to information provided by some remarkable clay tablets, written in cuneiform in an international dialect of Akkadian and found in a diplomatic archive at Tell el Amarna, Egypt was held in high regard by its neighbors. These included both small city-states and larger empires such as the Hittites, Mittanians, and Assyrians. Rulers writing to the pharaoh would address him as “brother” to indicate an equal status. Important and beautiful royal gifts of the highest quality would have been exchanged.

Though Egypt could send beautiful vessels and objects made of gold, ivory, or painted pottery, its developing industry of glass vessels could not yet meet the standards of its Near Eastern compatriots. These craftsmen were so advanced in the production of glass objects that they kept cuneiform documents with recipes for making different kinds. And though Egyptian glassmakers would produce some mosaic glass dishes, they could never produce a beaker such as this one—a royal gift of such high technical skill as to equal any Egyptian gift, even of vessels of gold.

The beaker likely ended up either in a royal tomb or in the ruins of a palace of an Eighteenth Dynasty ruler, such as Malqata at Thebes or Tell el Amarna in Middle Egypt. This object, with its geometric patterning, would have been just as attractive to a pharaoh as were Egyptian objects, with their exotic designs, to the rulers of the ancient Near East.

Friday Fave: Wine Horn

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome; Iran or Afghanistan, Sasanian period, 4th century; silver and gilt; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome; Iran or Afghanistan, Sasanian period, 4th century; silver and gilt; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I look at it, and I wonder. How? How did he—one assumes the silversmith was male—make this silver-and-gilt wine horn shaped like a gazelle?

Here’s what scholars know: It was made in the fourth century, long before the technology that would have made the job an easy one. Its maker worked in what we now call Iran, or perhaps Afghanistan, probably for a royal workshop established by the Sasanian dynasty (reign 224–651 CE). Finely crafted drinking horns were a long-practiced Sasanian tradition, and similar examples have been found in China, evidence that people have always sought inspiration from far-off places. In addition to the gazelle ornamentation on the front—known as a protome—a bull, two antelopes, and a lion are carved on the sides. No one is sure what the animals mean, but perhaps they refer to a royal hunt.

Today, we display the drinking horn beneath a glass case, but it was made to be used—somebody probably drank from it. I wonder if our silversmith stopped to admire his work once the final gilding was completed, or if he immediately moved on to his next assignment. I wonder if he’d be pleased to see it on a pedestal or would prefer to see wine flowing from the gazelle’s mouth into someone’s lips.

Here’s what I know: It is exquisite, perfectly executed, a treasure of the Sackler’s collection. I stop to admire it every time I walk through the Feast Your Eyes exhibition, where it is on view. Look for it in the museum or on Open F|S. Perhaps you’ll wonder about that silversmith too.