Fragment of wall decoration
- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
- Credit Line:
Given by H.M. Government
The research, cataloguing and digitisation of the V&A's Samarra collection has been made possible by a pilot project grant from the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (2013).
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Islamic Middle East, Room 42, The Jameel Gallery, case WE6
This roundel in the shape of a vine leaf, is made from carved stucco, and was originally part of the wall decoration of a house at Samarra in Iraq. This was the palace-city constructed by the Abbasid caliphs about 125 km north west of Baghdad, from 836. The roundel can be dated stylistically between 830 and 900.
This is one of the many pieces in the V&A's collections which was excavated by Ernst Herzfeld during the 1911-1913 campaign at Samarra.
Roundel, plaster, carved in the shape of a vine leaf. Herzfeld's red inventory number on object: 512
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Height: 16 cm, Width: 16 cm, Depth: 3.8 cm
Object history note
The German Archaeologist, Ernst Herzfeld (1879- 1948) chose Samarra as the site for the first large-scale archaeological investigation into Islamic antiquities. Two excavations took place, in 1911 and later from 1912-1913. The list of Herzfeld's finds numbered in excess of 1161 objects. These included wall paintings, stucco wall revetments, carved and painted woodwork, architectural details carved from marble and alabaster and smaller finds of glass, ceramics, steatite and mother of pearl.
All of the finds were stored at Samarra except for 100 panels of carved plaster which were shipped back to Germany and are now in the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin. After Samarra was captured by the British in World War I, the remaining finds were moved to Basra via Baghdad, where Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) as honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, acted as the art advisor to the V&A. Due to the efforts of the directors of both the V&A and the British Museum, the finds were eventually shipped to London in 1921.
The Foreign and Colonial Office convened a commission at the British Museum, which Herzfeld was invited to preside over to divide the Samarra finds into type sets. These were later offered to over twenty different museums and collections including the V&A which received several hundred objects in all media, accessioned in 1922.
Historical context note
Samarra was founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu'tasim (r. 833-842) in 836 AD to serve as his imperial capital. The sight chosen was about 125km upstream from Baghdad on the left bank of the Tigris. The founding of new cities was an important way of displaying values of kingship. Al-Mu'tasim ordered the construction of a planned city including a network of canals, streets, monumental mosques, palaces, gardens and racecourses. He also allocated land to military and court officials, who built richly decorated palace complexes and greatly increased the size of the city. His son and successor, Caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847-861) ordered the construction of the famous spiral minaret at the great mosque. Construction halted at Samarra in about 880 AD and later was abandoned by the Caliph and his court in 892. At 57 km2, Samarra is today the largest Islamic archaeological site in the world.
The construction of the many mosques and palaces at Samarra fostered an early flowering of architectural decoration. What mainly survives today are wall revetments in carved plaster and wall paintings on fine gypsum surfaces. Earlier Iranian (Sassanian) decorative styles influenced much of the carved plaster panels found at Samarra. The decoration was primarily based on vegetal forms but later developed into more abstract motifs. The wall paintings illustrate a wide range of subjects such as geometric patterns and courtly scenes with figurative representations of listening and playing music, banqueting and dancing. Depictions of animals, especially camels and birds also feature on fragments recovered from the site.
Roundel, plaster, carved in the form of a stylized vine leaf; Iraq (Samarra), 9th century.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Herzfeld, Ernst, Der Wandschmuck der Bauten von Samarra und seine Ornamentik, Berlin 1923, p. 194ff, with fig. 276 and ornament 253, pl. 89.
Lucia Burgio, Robin J.H. Clark, Mariam Rosser-Owen, "Raman analysis of ninth-century Iraqi stuccoes from Samarra", Journal of Archaelogical Science 34 (2007) 756-762
The Ernst Herzfeld papers. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives (FSA). Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Series 4, Photographic Files
Labels and date
Stylised Vine Leaves
In 836 the Abbasid caliph al-Mu'tasim founded a new capital at Samarra, north of Baghdad. As the buildings were decorated, the plant designs inherited from antiquity became less realistic. These seven fragments are still recognisable as vine leaves. Other motifs lost their connection with nature entirely.
Museum nos. A.86 to 90, 92, 99-1922 
Islam; Architectural fittings
Middle East Section