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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).
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Fragment of a carved alabaster frieze, in two registers of scrolling vegetal design, in deeply-cut relief, the holes may have held inlay. The reverse is crudely finished, with traces of plaster cement. The side with the border is smoother. Herzfeld's red inventory number I-N 86 on object.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Height: 11.4 cm, Width: 11.35 cm, Thickness: 5.3 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 stucco 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.
From the Dar al-Khilafa, 'harem' [=Northedge: H342].
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 stucco and wall paintings on fine gypsum surfaces. Earlier Iranian (Sassanian) decorative styles influenced much of the carved stucco 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.
Fragment of carved marble frieze, with vegetal designs in two registers; Middle East, 323BC - 30BC. Found in Samarra, possibly as spolia.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
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 7, Records of Samarra Expeditions, 1906-1945.
For the drawing in Sketchbook 1, held by the Freer Sackler, illustrated on their webpage at
Sketchbook 1, p.33:
Herzfeld, Ernst, Der Wandschmuck der Bauten von Samarra und seine Ornamentik, Berlin, 1923
Matthew D. Saba, 'Impermanent Monument, Lasting Impression: The Abbasid Dar Al-Khilafa Palace of Samarra', Unpublished PhD. Thesis, University of Chicago, August 2014.
Middle East Section