Category Archives: Ancient Near East

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.

World Cup!

Cup with lions and trees, S1987.147; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler

Cup with lions and trees; Western Iran, 1st millennium BCE; gold; S1987.147

After qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 2006, the Iranian national soccer team, known as Team Melli, plays Nigeria today. Team Melli ranks first in Asia and 43rd in the world, according to the June 2014 FIFA world rankings. In honor of Iran’s participation, we present an exquisite Iranian cup with a pattern of lions and trees that dates back to the first millennium BCE. Perfect for celebrations … especially when going for the gold!

In the Swim: Dolphins in Ancient Egypt

Photograph of the Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, taken by Ernst Herzfeld in 1908, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

The Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, photo by Ernst Herzfeld, 1908,
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

Alex Nagel is assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer|Sackler.

For every modern traveler to the southern Mediterranean, dolphins are a familiar image along the coast of North Africa. The ancients also loved dolphins, and dolphins, it seemed, loved them. The Roman author Pliny the Elder described how a dolphin at the settlement of Hippo Diarrhytos on the North African shore ate from people’s hands. The dolphin also offered himself to their touch, played as they swam, and often gave people a ride on its back. The Roman author Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175–235) described the dolphin as the king of sea animals. In ancient Greece, dolphins were prominently featured on coins, while in Hindu mythology the dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges River.

Glass Dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

Glass dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

A year after the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) traveled the Nile River in 1909, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), while on a trip to Egypt, acquired a collection of more than one thousand ancient Egyptian glass objects from the dealer Giovanni Dattari (1858–1923). Among them were two glass objects in the shape of a dolphin. Their original function is unknown, and today we can only guess what they might have meant to their original owners. Dattari, whom Freer had first met on a trip to Cairo in 1907, was an employee of a travel agency and also worked as a purveyor to the British Army in Egypt. His villa in Cairo was a welcoming meeting place for foreign archaeologists, Egyptologists, and businessmen. Dattari was well connected to excavations in Egypt and knew the English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who excavated at the extensive archaeological site of Amarna on the east bank of the Nile River. Today, almost every major museum on the eastern coast of the United States is a proud holder of materials from Dattari’s collections.

Look for dolphins and other creatures in the exhibition The Nile and Ancient Egypt, opening at the Freer Gallery on December 7 and remaining on view indefinitely.

Nomads and Networks: Archaeologists Between Digs

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Claudia blogged for Bento from Kazakhstan during the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan at the Sackler last fall.

My friends and even a former professor used to joke that archaeologists have a kind of schizophrenic life. We have lovely summers working in the field, doing surveys and excavations. During the winter months, we find ourselves in the laboratory, counting sherds, transposing field notes, and waiting for all the specialists’ reports to be completed, from the radiometric dates of ancient hearths to the metallurgical studies of ancient bronzes. In fact, this charmed existence of field archaeology usually means that you pay for all those good times in the field; for every week of fieldwork you need about three times that for laboratory cataloging, cleaning and processing artifacts, counting, creating statistics and spreadsheets, writing up reports, and interpreting the data. Most of us have learned to make our “deal with the devil.” Since January 1, 2013, I have been holed up in my attic office in Virginia, overlooking the foothills of the Blue Ridge, surrounded by books, papers, and articles, writing the early chapters of a book on Iron Age research on the Talgar fan

The view out my window is lovely this afternoon, as the sun sets on Paul’s Mountain. I am surrounded by books that range from the philosophy of science to Bronze Age Eurasia. Right now it seems impossible to condense 18 years of fieldwork, let alone the past five months of research on the Talgar fan, into any kind of readable narrative, either for an academic audience or myself.

Recently, Rebecca Beardmore, a PhD student in archaeology at University College, London, called me by Skype from Birmingham, England, where she had just finished graphing all the phytolith counts she made during the 2011 field season at Tuzusai, our Iron Age settlement site. Phytoliths, or plant stones, are the silicate cells of ancient plant remains that can be trapped in archaeological soils, such as ancient mudbricks. Rebecca’s analysis, conducted with a scanning electron microscope, has shown that the reddish-yellow and yellow mudbrick samples have lower densities of ancient plant materials than the brown-red and greenish mudbricks. All four samples of mudbrick seem to have some remnants of wheat plants, as well as wild grass parts, both husks and leaves. This means that the Iron Age builders at Tuzusai probably dumped a bunch of plant material into pits where they mixed the mudbricks, which then formed the walls, floors, and ramps of the adobe architecture we have discovered. But why do some bricks have higher densities of plant material than others?

That question sent me back to my field notes from 2011, which include chicken-scratch drawings of the red-brown and green mudbricks. Those mudbricks appear on my sketches to be large wall or foundation features, while the yellow or reddish-yellow ones are usually the tops of the platform or just beneath the plastered floors. Could it be that the ancient inhabitants of Tuzusai put more straw and debris into the foundation walls and less in the floor bricks? I told Rebecca that she should rename her thesis, “The Unseen Archaeological Record.” She says maybe she’ll title the thesis, “Down and Dirty, Mudbrick and Animal Dung.” Good thing I have those sketches of mudbricks in my notebook.

After we left Tuzusai last fall, the archaeological facts come now from the laboratory, the field notebooks, and an occasional inspiration I might have while staring out the window at the mocking bird perched on the crab apple tree. Central Virginia and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains seem faraway from the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, but lest I forget, a large map of the Upper Asi Valley is pinned to the wall by my desk.

Stars above Pasargadae: Ernst Herzfeld and the Legacies of Cyrus

Pasargadae Palace

One of the palaces at Pasargadae, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, opening at the Sackler on March 9. Check out our calendar for exhibition-related events.

Pasargadae, located in Morghab (“Plain of the Waterbird”) in Iran, was the first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, and the famed leader’s final resting place. When the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) visited the region in 1905, he was impressed by its ruins. Revisiting Pasargadae in November 1923, Herzfeld gave the following account:

“… The morning was just gorgeous: the plain glittered as if it had been filled with millions of stars; everywhere was a hoar-frost of crystals. After last night’s marvelous sunset, I spent the moonlit night by the Tomb of Cyrus (minus 4 degree Celsius). The whole day just beautiful: the narrow valley of the Pulvar River … By the water there were willows, reeds, oleander …. The colors of the Fall: the trees yellow–orange to carmine-red, the sky in bright turquoise, the mountains violet, blue, red, yellow. Just gorgeous! I only wish I could send something of the beauty of these days back home.” (Ernst Herzfeld’s diary, November 19, 1923, Freer|Sackler Archives; translation by Alex Nagel).

While more recent fieldwork on the site has been conducted by Iranian, British, French, and Italian archaeologists, much valuable documentation can be gained from Herzfeld’s many early visits to the plain. There are more than 250 documents in the Freer|Sackler Archives referring to his fieldwork at Pasargadae, including large-scale maps, drawings, photographs, and squeezes. Pasargadae was the topic of Herzfeld’s dissertation, written for the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitaet in Berlin (today’s Humboldt Universitaet), and a lifelong interest.

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent cemetery, probably taken in 1923 © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent
cemetery, probably taken in 1923, © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The structure that draws the most attention at Pasargadae is the monumental tomb of Cyrus the Great, which Herzfeld documented in great detail. Inscribed clay tablets that Herzfeld excavated further south at Persepolis exactly eighty years ago, in March 1933, refer to cult activities at Pasargadae. Greek sources mention animal sacrifices at the tomb of Cyrus. According to the Roman author Strabo (64 BCE–24 CE), “Cyrus held Pasargadae in honor, because he there conquered Astyages [the last Median king] … in his last battle, transferred to himself the empire of Asia, founded a city, and constructed a palace as a memorial of his victory” (Strabo 15.3.8).

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; Drawing by Herzfeld in the Freer|Sackler Archives

The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae in 1928; © Drawing by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

The tomb of Cyrus is empty today, but was full of items when Alexander the Macedon visited it. A later description states that “in the tomb … was placed a golden coffin, a couch, and a table … and in the middle of the couch was placed the coffin which held the body of Cyrus … the magi guarded the tomb of Cyrus.” One of the tablets Herzfeld excavated at Persepolis contains a seal impression of the name of “Cyrus, the Anshanite, son of Teispes.” This Cyrus might well have been a predecessor of our famous Cyrus the Great, whose father is referred to in other inscriptions as Cambyses, king of Anshan.

Cyrus in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning opens at the Sackler Gallery on March 9, and the exhibition is already generating buzz on a mega-size scale. One of history’s most iconic objects and one of the British Museum’s most celebrated artifacts, the Cyrus Cylinder has never before been on view in the United States. In cuneiform writing, the object’s inscription proclaims Cyrus’s victory over Babylon in 539 BCE. It also decrees religious freedom for his newly conquered people—a statement that has inspired generations of philosophers, rulers, and statesmen.

While it’s pictured in Times Square, we hope the Cylinder inspires visitors and passersby. It’s interesting to see a 2,600-year-old object depicted on an electronic screen in one of the busiest cities in the modern world. I like how it finds itself situated between contemporary words and signs, caught between “Engage Opportunity” and a Europa Cafe.

To learn more about the Cyrus Cylinder and its historic importance, view the TED talk by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. Then, visit the Freer on Thursday, March 7, to see him discuss “The Many Meanings of the Cyrus Cylinder.”

Nomads and Networks: Iron and Bronze

Michael Frachetti, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is the co-director of ongoing international field research on the archaeology of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Over the past 12 years of directing fieldwork in the mountains of Kazakhstan, it has rained—and rained hard—on the start day of nearly every project. It would seem that this sometimes harsh, though always beautiful, environment takes the first day of fieldwork as an opportunity to remind the whole team who is in charge. This year, I feel we have come to an understanding with old Mother Nature, and she shined upon us, just a few clouds and wind gusts as a passing indication of our tentative arrangement.

The Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP) began in the field in 1999, and since those days has grown into one of the largest collaborative American/Kazakh archaeology projects conducted (the other one is directed by my friend and colleague, Dr. Claudia Chang, whose posts can be followed here). The DMAP is led by myself and my Kazakhstani codirector, Dr. Alexei Mar’yashev, and generally supports research for seven PhD students. We also operate the only undergraduate field school in the country, taking up to ten undergraduates out to the field for the time of their life (at least that is how we sell it!). Add to this five to ten staff and support team members, local colleagues, and visitors, and we have about 30 people in our mountain research camp at any given time. The goal is to carry out technologically advanced, methodologically rigorous, and internationally leading field research of upland archaeological sites related to the earliest nomadic pastoralists to have occupied Kazakhstan, and, possibly, Inner Asia all together.

It is important that we transform our popular and academic impressions of Bronze Age nomads, since it is becoming clear that these small-scale societies played a major role in shaping an expansive way of life across the Eurasian continent. They were also highly influential in communicating and transforming the institutions of better-known regional civilizations, such as those of ancient China, the Indus Valley, and more. Of course, Bronze Age Eurasian nomads are important in their own right, and they set the foundations of interaction and economy that later exploded into a market for golden commodities during the Iron Age (such as those on display now at the Sackler). In fact, nomads of the Bronze Age were instrumental in establishing enduring traditions and economic adaptations that would be used by regional pastoralists such as the Turks, the Mongols, and even those who live in the mountains today.

So that is why were are here. Given our lofty goals, our research design is necessarily rooted in a slow-moving, long-term excavation program. We are satisfied with incremental, steady progress in terms of new discoveries and their ability to radically change the world’s understanding of Eurasian nomadic societies. But what are we really doing, and what are these discoveries? Stay tuned to this blog and I will guide you through a tour of some of the important findings that define Nomads and Networkson the ground, from the ground, and through the eyes of an excavator.

The exhibition remains on view at the Sackler through December 2, 2012.