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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.

Posted by in Ancient Near East | No Comments

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.

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On Ernst Herzfeld’s Glass Plate Negatives

al-Darwishiya mosque, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. About to enter his junior year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Rohan is studying journalism with a specialization in photojournalism and minors in African studies and creative writing. This is the first in a series of blog posts Rohan will write on his work in the Archives. Here, he takes a look at the glass plate negatives of Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948), a foremost scholar in the field of Iranian studies.

Ernst Herzfeld explored Near Eastern culture from the prehistoric period to Islamic times. The collection of his papers in the Freer|Sackler Archives primarily relates to his survey of the monuments, artifacts, and inscriptions of Western Asia between 1903 and 1947, and particularly to his excavations at Istakhr (Iran), Paikuli (Iraq), Pasargadae (Iran), Persepolis (Iran), Samarra (Iraq) and Kuh-e Khwaja (Iran). 

A collection of nearly 3,800 glass plate negatives adds another dimension to the Herzfeld collection, providing further evidence of the work he was doing. It also more extensively highlights Herzfeld’s intricate documenting process, which Xavier Courouble (cataloguer) and David Hogge (director of the Archives) uncovered while cataloguing the plethora of items that make up the Ernst Herzfeld Papers.

Indeed, Herzfeld’s mind seemed to work like a modern-day computer in terms of the delicacy and precision with which he documented different facets of his work. He had a journal for each excavation, in which he systematically noted each find, giving it an inventory number and listing the different ways in which he documented it. As such, it is possible to use these journals to find the ways that Herzfeld dealt with the subject at hand—from coordinates on a map of where an object was found to the diary in which he would intricately sketch that object.

Al-Darwishiya drawing

al-Darwishiya drawing, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

Aside from the importance of these images to the Herzfeld collection, there is a lot to be learned from the idea of photography in the archaeological process. When we look at Herzfeld’s photographs of Persepolis, Samarra, and numerous other sites, we are viewing a historical record of each place. We are being transported back into the early twentieth century, to a time when the study of the Near East was relatively new and in which Herzfeld can be understood as one of the early pioneers.

For Herzfeld, these photographs were functional, used to augment his archaeological research. However, with time they have become much more. For scholars, archivists, archaeologists, and the general public alike, the images are artistic remnants or artifacts in their own right. For Herzfeld, who was working at these sites, they were images of his present—imperative studies for his reconstruction of the past. Nearly one hundred years on, many places he photographed have worn away with time. These photographs preserve the sites for the ages.

Herzfeld’s glass plate negatives have been transferred onto film and scanned, and now can be viewed online. To begin a search, visit the Smithsonian collections page and type “Herzfeld GN” into the search box. This will bring up the nearly 3,800 images. You can then narrow your search by entering a specific location. For instance, I entered “Hims (Syria),” which enabled me to see all of the images for this location. I became particularly interested in the al-Darwishiya Mosque and wanted to learn more. In the search box I deleted the “GN” marker and typed “al-Darwishiya Mosque,” which brought me to all relevant materials collected by Herzfeld for this site, including the glass plate negatives.

Learn more about Ernst Herzfeld on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

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Squeezing is Believing

 

Detail of cuneiform squeeze. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.

Larry DeVore is a retired lawyer who became a docent at Freer|Sackler twenty years ago. Shortly thereafter, he began volunteering in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. For the last fourteen years he has been working with our paper conservators, first Martha Smith and now Emily Jacobson. He has been involved in many different projects, including the repair of a collection of “squeezes.”  

A squeeze is a paper cast of an inscription or picture that has been incised on an outdoor monument or building. In this way the inscription, which could become eroded or destroyed over time and cannot be moved to another location, can be preserved. Large sheets of wet paper are pounded into the recesses of the inscribed surface and once the wet paper dries it is peeled off the surface.

The F|S Archives was given more than three hundred squeezes by Ernst Herzfeld, an archaeologist who worked in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, during the 1920s and 1930s. Over time many of the squeezes, of cuneiform inscriptions from sites such as Persepolis, had suffered damages. There were tears in a number of different places, the cuneiform was frequently compressed, and often sections of the cast were missing. In addition, repairs made previously used poor-quality materials, such as scotch tape or brown paper tape, which had to be removed before new repairs could be made. Tears and holes were mended using Japanese paper and a good-quality adhesive and the cuneiforms that had been crushed or damaged were restored to their original height where possible.

If you want to see for yourself what a squeeze looks like, come to the Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran exhibition that is currently on display at Freer|Sackler. If you look closely, you might even see where some of the repairs were made.

Learn more about the Squeeze Imaging Project at the museum.

Posted by in Exhibitions, From Conservation, From the Archives | No Comments