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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.

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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.

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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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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.”

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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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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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