Contextualising Archaeological Finds: Digitising the Photographic Documentation of the Excavations of the Museum of Islamic Art in Samarra (present-day Iraq), 1911–13

For the first time, all of the approximately 1,500 excavation photographs from Samarra preserved in Berlin have been digitised and made accessible to the worldwide public via the online collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

By February 2022, the metadata of the 1,250 glass plate or film negatives and 192 slides in different formats had been recorded in the museum database, linked to already existing digital data of the excavation finds and digitised as repro-photography on a transparency unit. The results are available online.

Samarra: One of the Most Outstanding Sites for Islamic Art History and Archaeology

The city of Samarra, located approx. 125 km north of Baghdad, is one of the most outstanding sites for Islamic art history and archaeology. Samarra served as the temporary capital of the Abbasid caliphs between 836 and 892. It was from here that the most important and largest empire in the history of Islam was ruled, with its geographical boundaries extending from North Africa to western Central Asia.

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 at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (now the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Museum for Islamic Art), and the archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948). Herzfeld led the excavation work on the site covering more than 50 square kilometres, one of the largest in the world. He not only organised the work, but also took photographs, prepared drawings and kept excavation diaries and records on the finds. 

Digital Inventory of all Excavation Records

A project funded within the framework of NEUSTART KULTUR made it possible to record and digitise all excavation photographs of the two digs, closing a gap in the documentation of these objects by linking them to already digitised excavation finds. The unique photographs of Samarra and its outskirts also record the historical condition of the ruins, which were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007, although they were simultaneously added to the Red List of World Heritage in Danger.

The online presentation of these recordings encourages users to develop new questions, for example about historical excavation practices, protagonists of knowledge production, participation and provenance. 

Exhibition "Samarra Revisited: Excavation Photographs from the Caliph’s Palaces"

Another result of this project is the exhibition Samarra Revisited: Excavation Photographs from the Caliph’s Palaces (4 March – 28 August 2022, Museum für Islamische Kunst). Current and former staff members used the digitisation as an opportunity to take a fresh look at the photographs and present them in an exhibition. Their personal selection shows the broad spectrum of possible usage of excavation photographs for archaeologists and provenance researchers, but also serves as link to current social debates. Most notably, they document an outstanding site of Islamic archaeology that to this day has lost none of its charm.

The digitisation project was made possible by the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR programme funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM).
 


Project management: Dr Miriam Kühn
Student assistants: Antonia Naase, Ilaria Rossetti
Digitisation: Kulturgutscanner (MIK-Center GmbH)
Technical realisation: Frank von Hagel
Funded by: Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek / NEUSTART KULTUR Programme of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM)
Duration: 14 April 2021 – 18 February 2022
Online presence: Work in progress