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Samarra Revisited: Excavation Photographs from the Caliph’s Palaces Revisited – Pergamonmuseum | until 28.08.2022

Editors’ Choice

The special presentation in the Book Art Cabinet of the Pergamon Museum shows the great potential of digitising excavation photographs for scientific and museum use. For this purpose, the Museum of Islamic Art 2021 digitised around 1,500 glass and plastic negatives as well as slides from excavation campaigns that took place more than 100 years ago in Samarra, in present-day Iraq. The city, located about 125 km north of Baghdad, is one of the preeminent sites in Islamic art history and archaeology and served as the temporary seat of government of the Abbasid caliphs between 836 and 892.

Image above: Pergamon Museum Am Kupfergraben, Museum Island Berlin, Berlin-Mitte © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Maximilian Meisse

The first systematic excavations of an Islamic site took place in Samarra between 1911 and 1913 under the direction of Friedrich Sarre (1865-1945), then head of the Islamic Department in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (now the Museum of Islamic Art), and the archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948). As an archaeologist, Herzfeld led the excavation work on the ruins field, which covered more than 50 square kilometres and was one of the largest in the world. He not only organised the work, but also photographed, drew and kept excavation diaries and finds records on his own.

For the first time, all of the approximately 1,500 glass and plastic negatives and slides taken and preserved by Ernst Herzfeld have now been made accessible via the online collection of the National Museums in Berlin. Due to the fragile state of preservation of the originals, they were not even worked with internally. Even museum employees were not fully aware of the collection until now.

So entstand die Idee, jetzige und ehemalige Mitarbeiter*innen zu bitten, sich die Digitalisate genauer anzuschauen. 24 Teilnehmende wählten fünf Aufnahmen aus Samarra, die Berührungspunkte zu ihren Arbeitsgebieten haben. In der Sonderpräsentation wird nun zum einen das jeweilige kommentierte „Lieblingsfoto“ gezeigt. Zum anderen sind alle von den Mitarbeiter*innen ausgewählten Digitalisate und ihre Begründung für diese Wahl in einer Medienstation abrufbar.

This gave rise to the idea of asking current and former staff members to take a closer look at the digital copies. 24 participants chose five photos from Samarra that have points of contact with their fields of work. In the special presentation, the respective annotated “favourite photo” is now shown. On the other hand, all the digital copies selected by the staff and their reasons for this choice are available at a media station.


Exhibition dates: Friday, 4 March – Sunday, 28 August 2022

Opening hours: Tue – Sun 10 – 18 h


Museum Island Berlin, Pergamon Museum
10178 Berlin-Mitte

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