art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

The Search for Ancient China … Begins in New Jersey?

Paul Singer's apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo byJohn Tsantes).

Paul Singer’s apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo by John Tsantes).

Dr. Paul Singer amassed one of the most important Chinese archaeological collections in the United States and kept the more than five thousand objects in his modest apartment. With One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection opening on Saturday, we asked photographer John Tsantes, head of Imaging and Photographic Services at Freer|Sackler, to talk about shooting the collection in situ at Singer’s New Jersey home back in 1998.

“Dr. Singer’s house, in a nondescript garden apartment complex in New Jersey, was not what I had expected. When you walked in the front door you had to be careful where you stepped. If you weren’t looking, you could bump into an object. In those days before digital, we shot with film. I had a camera mounted on a tripod and had trouble finding any space that would let me stand behind the three legs of the tripod. Every chair, every sofa, indeed every surface in every room—that includes the bathroom—was filled with objects, but everything was very well packaged and organized. One closet was filled with small boxes wrapped in brocade from floor to ceiling, and in each was an important object. When you opened a kitchen cabinet, you’d discover a work of art. Our registrars, who were cataloguing the collection, never thought that they’d be able to leave.”

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Roads of Arabia Family Day: Dig In!

Digging for buried treasure during Eid al Arabia.

In honor of its new exhibition, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sackler Gallery recently hosted Eid al Arabia: A Cultural Celebration. The morning began with a symposium on archaeological discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula, followed by a day of activities for families. These included sessions on Arabic calligraphy; storytelling by Surabhi Shah; concerts of traditional Saudi music; and an archaeology program for budding explorers. All told, nearly 3,000 people traveled the roads of Arabia, digging a little deeper into the art, history, and culture of the ancient kingdom.

Taking a closer look at the exhibition Roads of Arabia during the family day celebration.

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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.

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Nomads and Networks in the Field: Magneto and Magnetina

Magnetometer survey in a field northwest of Tuzusai with Joerg (foreground) and Claudia (background).
Peak Talgar is in the rear.

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. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

The Munich Magneto Mob, as geophysicist Joerg Fassbinder and PhD student Lena Kuhne have dubbed themselves, have almost completed a magnetometer survey of the areas surrounding Tuzusai. “Magneto”and “Magnetina” spent a week conducting magnetometer measurements over two fields near Tuzusai in search of underground architectural features.

The device they use is called a Total View Magnetometer, which measures the magnetism below the surface. Digitized as negative or positive values, the composite readings create a magnetogram. An experienced geophysicist like Joerg has read so many magnetograms he is able to easily identify old stream channels, ditches, palisade fences, and even ovens or fireplaces.

We have learned a lot from Joerg. He has let us set the lines in each of the grid units, shown us how the magnetometer works, and even given us lectures on the physics associated with the earth’s magnetic field. He has told us about working on the Nazca Lines in Peru. It is so close to the Equator there that the magnetic anomalies are almost negligible, yet in Kazakhstan there are high levels of magnetism, even more so than in his native Bavaria, which is further north in latitude. He says that this changing magnetic field is a problem that the German mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss thought would be solved in the 19th century, yet two  hundred years later we still don’t know the answer.

In the photo above you see Magneto with his home-designed magnetometer, one of the most accurate ones in existence. The wooden parts are held together by parcel tape and can be broken down into smaller parts to fit into a suitcase. The magnetometer itself weighs about 18 kilograms (40 lbs). Imagine walking with the magnetometer taking readings every meter for a 40 X 40 m (131 x 131 feet) unit. We have calculated that Joerg and Lena walk 1.6 km (1 mile) for each grid they measure.

Their surveys, combined with the research done by the geomorphologists, might begin to tell us whether the Iron Age folk at Tuzusai and the neighboring areas redirected stream channels for irrigating their crops, and how they might have terraced certain areas of the settlement. It will be very helpful when all our specialists come up with results from their disciplines that can be used to make the “big picture” of life in this region.

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Nomads and Networks in the Field: At a Galloping Pace

Horses in paddock at Panfilova horse farm.

Horses held great importance in steppe culture. At our dig site, the majority of the animal bone remains have been identified as sheep and goats, followed by cattle and then horses. Yet we know from the spectacular protomes on the Issyk Golden Warrior’s headdress and the splendid belt plaques that horses played an important symbolic role, and may have been the most prevalent of the domesticated species at Tuzusai.

When Kyra Lyublanovics, a PhD candidate from Central European University (Budapest, Hungary), arrived on Saturday to spend a month with us as our resident zooarchaeologist, she asked if there were any horses in Poselok Alatau. I am sure that in our fast-growing village there are still one or two people living on the outskirts who might own a horse. Then I remembered the Panfilova Hippodrome, where the president’s horses are kept, located in the collective just 4 km (2.5 miles) north of Alatau. On Sunday we took a ride in Kolya’s old orange Moskvich car to the hippodrome. Sure enough, there were beautiful horses in the stables and grazing in the vast pasturelands.

If there is a single idea that has dominated steppe culture from the Eneolithic period (4000 BCE) onward, it has been the hunting, herding, and eventually the riding of horses. In the late 1990s, when archaeologists David Anthony and Dorcas Brown examined the molars of horse teeth from the steppe sites, they saw microscopic evidence of bit wear, suggesting the presence of horseback riding more than six thousand years ago on the northern steppes of Kazakhstan. A recent article stated that DNA studies of horse populations now corroborate the archaeological evidence showing that horses were first domesticated in the steppe areas of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Whether horses were first used for riding or as traction animals remains to be proven.

Kyra riding one of the original Turkoman horses known as Alytn teke at the Panfilova Hippodrome.
These horses are the Central Asian version of Arabian horses: fast, light, and strong.
This particular horse is carmello, a truly beautiful riding horse that is white with blue and white eyes.

Yet there is no doubt in my mind that horses, whether or not they were dominant in people’s diets during the first millennia BCE, certainly had a major symbolic importance. For example, some of the sacrified horses found in Berel Mound No. 11 are splendidly clothed in leather masks with ibex horns, suggesting their mythical nature.

We are very excited to have Kyra here to analyze the animal bones. Her work will provide data that can be compared to the glorious and splendid depictions of the role that horses played in steppe society.

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan remains on view at the Sackler Gallery through November 12, 2012.

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Nomads and Networks in the Field: Going for the Bronze

Alec in the shadows; 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. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

All week the weather reports have predicted rain, but we have mostly had glowering skies, occasional winds, and some thunder grumblings. Today we quit before our break time because a rain came, but it was short-lasting. Steppe weather usually comes from the northwest, where the storm clouds gather and then blow against the high Tianshan Mountains.

The crew was happy to leave early today. It’s been a long dig season. Most archaeological projects in Kazakhstan are located in remote mountain, desert, or steppe areas where a field camp is set up, and the project lasts for 3 to 6 weeks. We’re now into the 9th week of excavation.

I refer to what we do as “garage archaeology.” We pick the crew up every day at 6:30 am with the Uhas Microautobus, drive less than 3 km (1.9 miles) to the site with our equipment, and then work until 12:15 pm. It is a short day, but usually packed with so many activities that even the high school students who work with us sometimes comment on how fast the morning hours pass. Then we drive from the site to the place where we store the artifacts and park the bus in the garage.

After weeks of hard decisions, such as over which pieces of fallen mud brick wall to destroy and which to keep because they could be parts of walls, tandoor ovens, or floors, we have now found two large rooms in front of the upper mud brick platform and a large storage pit to the west of the platform. There are successive layers of packed mud brick flooring. A week ago, we broke out the three archaeological picks we brought from the US. They are the preferred tools for smashing the mud brick and adobe fall.

Olzhas asked yesterday, “When are we going to find gold?” The fact is that in settlement sites such as Tuzusai there is no gold to be found. Today we found a tiny piece of bronze, about the closest we’ll come to any kind of precious metal. It is indeed difficult for us to believe that the kurgans, with such rich burial inventories as the Issyk Golden Warrior, actually come from the same Iron Age period as a settlement site such as Tuzusai.

Bronze bracelet; photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

But today we did find an elite artifact on the second floor of the mud brick platform: half of a bronze bracelet. That’s an amazing find, probably the most incredible find we’ve had. When Alec found it, he turned to show it to me. Later I said, “Years from now you’ll be able to go to the Kazakh State Central Museum in Almaty and point to the bronze bracelet on display and say, ‘I found that in 2012!’”

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Nomads and Networks in the Field: The Parachute Edition

Using a parachute to keep cool.

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. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

The weather has turned hot and has baked out a lot of the archaeological contexts. The dust from 2000-year-old crumbling mud brick gets on our clothes and covers all the finds on the site. This week I wrote an email to our ceramic specialist and asked her how we could remove the thick white carbonate found on many of our sherds, obscuring the painted designs and slip. She says that soaking the pottery pieces in a vinegar solution will help remove the carbonate layer. I also asked her if she knew how to reconstruct some of the broken pots we have found. She asked me if I just wanted to piece together the pots so we could get a count of the number of whole vessels or if I thought the pots should be restored as art objects.

This is an important question. Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Nomads and Networks have been curated and preserved as ‘art objects.’ Most were probably found in excellent condition when removed from the soil, but others might have required careful restoration and preservation techniques. Excavated artifacts have a life of their own. They are from the same time period and cultural origins as the settlement site of Tuzusai, yet our ceramic inventory is much more variable. We have large storage vessels with splashes of red paint, cooking vessels, bowls, jars, cups and plates. There are ceramic disks with a perforated center hole used as spindle whorls and large broken pot pieces with repair holes. Obviously household artifacts can be quite different from those found in burials. Burial inventories, unless robbed or disturbed, are often sealed contexts containing whole pots, sacrificial animals, daggers, finely fashioned plaques of gold that were sewn onto material. A settlement site, or a place where people actually lived, is filled with the debris and trash that is left behind when the settlement was abandoned.

The life of an artifact, like the beautiful double ribbed ceramic kettle found on the surface of the mud brick platform is amazing. Three weeks ago we found a large double ribbed kettle on the mud brick platform. We have been debating whether or not the deeper levels below the platform were the living surfaces associated with the house. Two days ago Lyuba carefully dug around a rim sherd of the same double ribbed kettle that had fallen 40 cm below the platform. We often find little treasures in the cracks and crevasses of architectural features. This week someone found two tiny fragments of bronze in a post hole. Think about a tiny piece of jewelry or a penny that falls through the floor boards of an old house. Household archaeology is made up of the debris and the small ‘forgotten things’ of everyday life. The archaeologist who finds a tiny fragment of bronze in a post hole or a broken pot on a floor of a house, or in the associated trash on a living floor, is ever curious about the history of such objects.

The artifacts associated with elite burials of the nomadic aristocrats, such as the sacrificial horses with their leather masks and antler horns found in Tomb 13 at Berel in the Altai, or the Golden Warrior with his plaques of gold sewn on his kaftan, leggings, and tall hat, you might also consider the everyday objects found at a Tuzusai. These artifacts include broken pots, remains of past meals such as animal bones and charred seeds, and even a favorite stone polished with a hole drilled into it, worn as a pendant or used as a sharpening stone.

As the days get hotter we have found a way to use a parachute as a shade. In this photo note the contrast between our parachute used as shade and the ancient mud brick architecture at Tuzusai.

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Emperors and Interns: Behind the Scenes of Worlds within Worlds

Book cover from a volume of the Gulshan Album, painted with colors and gold and lacquered, India, F1999.2a-b

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013. Mekala Krishnan is a curatorial researcher working on the yoga exhibition.

Mekala Krishnan: Tell us about your work at F|S. Maybe describe your typical day in the curatorial department.

Najiba Choudhury: I don’t think there is a typical day for a curatorial intern. There were weeks when I was doing only pure research. You know: scouring for material, poring over books, and writing reports on objects for an upcoming exhibition. Then there is the usual scanning, xeroxing, editing images, and putting together PowerPoint presentations. I was also able to assist my supervisor, curator Debra Diamond, on the Worlds within Worlds exhibition. For a while I was just reading multiple rounds of the label texts for the exhibition, proofreading, and fact-checking. The nature of the work varies wildly, depending on the needs of the department at that moment. You also get to attend talks, events, and storage visits at the Freer and Sackler.

MK: Are there aspects of curatorial work that you hadn’t expected coming in?

NC: The public aspect of a curator’s job surprised me. I hadn’t realized that a BIG part of being a curator is interacting with people. This includes not only communicating with multiple departments within the museums but also with the public. You have to keep in touch with scholars in your field and museum professionals from the other institutions, cultivate relationships with donors and friends of the museums, and talk to the press. Then, obviously, curators have to give exhibition tours and other talks for the general public. It’s a lot!

MK: What was your favorite part of working on Worlds within Worlds?

NC: First of all, it was an amazing learning experience to observe the whole process of putting together an exhibition; so many different departments are involved in the process. It truly is a team effort. But I have to say, the most exciting part for me was going into storage and the conservation labs and just looking at the objects really closely, and listening to the curators and various experts talk about the pieces, discussing their details. It’s almost like going to a jam session. I mean, there have been so many moments when we discovered something new just by looking at art objects together, discussing our thoughts, and hashing out ideas.

MK: Tell us more about the process of putting together an exhibition. How are the paintings chosen?

NC: Worlds within Worlds presented an unique situation in that the exhibition is in honor of the revised and expanded edition of Milo Cleveland Beach’s book The Imperial Image, which presents the Mughal collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. So in some ways, we already had the source material in hand. But the exhibition curators, Debra Diamond and Massumeh Farhad, wanted to add another layer, highlighting the historical and stylistic connections between Persian and Mughal painting traditions. While selecting paintings for the three galleries, we not only tried to pick our strongest works, but also examples that demonstrate the distinct sensibilities of the three Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan), show certain shifts in style and subject based on the emperors’ demands and desires, and demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Mughal courts between the 16th and 17th centuries. I think it’s quite clever the way each painting serves multiple purposes/narratives at the same time.

The literal answer to your question is: One day I came into Debra’s office and the whole floor was covered with printouts of images. She was pairing paintings together and trying to curve out narratives from them, in an attempt to plan a gallery wall. Later on, there were multiple rounds of editing, where Debra and Massumeh would sit together discuss the layout, often removing paintings from the object list and adding new ones.

MK: What can we learn about the Mughal empire from Worlds within Worlds? What new “worlds” did you discover?

NC: The Mughals were highly cosmopolitan. They were very much in touch with the Islamic world (both Persian and Ottoman empires) and also in contact with Europeans through official dignitaries and Jesuit missionaries who visited the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were distinctly aware of local traditions in India, and were in constant dialogue with Hindus, Jains, and Muslims. This cross-cultural interaction and diversity is directly reflected in the paintings that were commissioned by the Mughal emperors, as seen in Worlds within Worlds.

As to discovering new worlds: Even since the exhibition went up, I’m discovering new things every day. Just the other day, I was touring the exhibition with two of my coworkers from the Islamic Department and one of them pointed out the face of a woman poking out of a window in the Noah’s Ark painting. You only see a tiny face, but there is no doubt that it’s a woman. It’s totally cool! I find that it’s moments like these that make working in a Mughal exhibition truly special. The paintings are filled with intricate details; they were meant to be held closely, like a book, and carefully studied. Hence, you are constantly finding new elements.

MK: You were involved with creating the website for the exhibition. Tell us about what you did.

NC: I was involved from the initial stages of creating the online component of Worlds within Worlds. I selected the Mughal paintings on which you can zoom in and click on specific parts for more details. I also helped shape content, which included writing some of the zoomify details, among other things.

MK: What is your favorite zoomify detail and why?

NC: I love the Gulshan album cover details. They are difficult to see even with magnifying glasses, but now people can visit the website to view them with very high degrees of magnification. I love the scene showing a group of Europeans dressed in their fineries, enjoying fine food and music. It’s very much about indulging your senses. And then to its left, there’s another detail showing two ascetics (yogis) scantily dressed who have renounced all forms of pleasure. The way it juxtaposes opposites, indulging your senses and austerity, all in the same page is really interesting to me.

There is another detail from the album cover where you have an adorable cheetah sitting on a horse, next to a royal hunter. I didn’t know before working on this project that a) you can tame a cheetah and b) on hunts the Mughals would take domesticated cheetahs as part of their royal entourage. Every time I see the cheetah, just casually sitting there, it cracks me up!

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran closes on Sunday, September 16, 2012.

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Seat of Power: Politics Mughal Style

“Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings” from the St. Petersburg Album,1615-18, Bichitr;
opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper; Purchase F1942.15a

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013.

While walking through the exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran, giving occasional unofficial tours to friends, I have been caught unaware by wandering visitors who ask me, “What’s the highlight of this show?” or “What’s your favorite painting?”

Time and again, I point to the series of allegorical paintings commissioned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir as one of the highlights. Only four such allegorical portraits were commissioned by Jahangir; the Freer|Sackler is in possession of three. They are all showcased side by side in this exhibition. That in itself makes the trio truly special.

One of my favorite paintings from the series is Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. What I find so striking is that key individuals, the international powerbrokers of the 17th century, so to speak, are brought together in a single moment. There is something audacious about the way Jahangir had his court artist Bichitr depict these eminent leaders as mere courtiers at Jahangir’s darbar (court). He manages not only to bring together an Ottoman Sultan and King James I of England (neither of whom ever visited India), but also makes the painting clearly favor the Sufi Shaikh Hussain (a religious scholar) over the foreign rulers. The white bearded figure is first in line, receiving a book from the emperor. Here the custodian of religion extends part of his garment to receive the book; it is an act of submission in front of the Mughal emperor, clearly placing Jahangir at the helm of authority.

Make no mistake: The painting is a bold statement by Jahangir. Some of the most powerful political figures of the early 17th century appear lined up below the emperor. The massive scale of Jahangir’s figure compared to the rest, coupled with his larger-than-life halo, further solidifies how this Mughal emperor saw himself as a world ruler.

Worlds within Worlds is on view at the Sackler Gallery through September 16. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to view all three allegorical portraits side by side!

Explore the paintings in greater depth on our website.

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Traveling the “Roads of Arabia”

Nabataean Capital, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia, 1st century CE, sandstone, Al-Ula Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography

Sarah Johnson, research assistant, works in the curatorial department on Islamic and ancient Near Eastern art.

Looking at this object, it may be hard to imagine the extraordinary landscape in which it was created. Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the upcoming exhibition Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I visited the site this object came from.

For many people, Saudi Arabia brings to mind images of undulating sand dunes and occasional camels. Instead, we discovered a much richer and more diverse landscape. After traveling to the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, my colleagues and I arrived in a lush date-palm oasis called Al-Ula, surrounded by tall cliffs. A long cut in the cliffs, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, provided a passageway for caravan traders in the ancient world and its palm forest provided food and shelter. This column capital was created a few miles from the Al-Ula oasis, in the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh. In an arid landscape of large rock formations and cliffs, hundreds of tombs are carved into the rock faces, creating beautiful architectural vistas as far as the eye can see.

Tombs at Mada’in Saleh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stogner.

It is hard to describe through photographs the experience of visiting Mada’in Saleh. Walking around the lavish tombs gives you a sense of the enormous wealth of their patrons, the Nabataeans, who controlled trade routes to Rome and also built Petra. This beautiful place changes the way we see objects like this column capital, and reminds us that each work of art is part of a much larger story and landscape.

The Audience Hall at Mada’in Saleh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stogner.

Stay tuned for more updates on the archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia. Learn the full story in the exhibition Roads of Arabia, opening November 17.

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