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New life for ancient Syrian sculptures; Conservators in Berlin piece together the Tell Halaf fragments over 60 years after they were damaged by Allied bombs

By Martin Bailey 

Excavation of the Excavation of the “goddess” in 1912

BERLIN. A group of 30 monumental sculptures from Tell Halaf, in Syria, have been reconstructed after being pulverised into 25,000 fragments in a bombing raid in World War II. Dating from soon after 1000 BC, the basalt statues were on display in Berlin until a combination of fire and water caused devastating damage. 

Following the war, there were legal and political problems in even considering restoration. Although the reunification of Germany in 1990 eased the difficulties, conservators initially feared that reconstruction of the sculptures would be impossible. However, the painstaking work eventually began in 2002 and is finally nearing completion.

 Tell Halaf lies in north-east Syria, close to the Turkish border and is now a Kurdish region. The site’s origins date back to 6000 BC, in late Neolithic times, but arguably the most important remains are those of the Aramaean civilisation, in the tenth century BC.

 In 1899 Tell Halaf was discovered by Baron Max von Oppenheim, a German diplomat based in Cairo. He later sought permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate the site between 1911 and 1913. Work was interrupted by World War I, and his final dig took place in 1927. The greatest finds were the remains of the palace of Prince Kapara, which included a five-metre high ensemble of three gods standing on animals and a twice life-size figure of a seated woman (or goddess, as Oppenheim believed). The excavated finds were divided between the national museum in Aleppo and Oppenheim, who took his share back to Berlin.

 In 1930 Oppenheim opened his own museum in Berlin, in a disused iron foundry in Charlottenburg. Among pre-war visitors were Agatha Christie and her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. She later recalled being shown around by Oppenheim for a gruelling five-hour visit, during which he “stopped his eager dissertation to say lovingly: ‘Ah, my beautiful Venus’ and stroke the figure affectionately.” This was the enthroned woman.

 War brought disaster. On 22-24 November 1943 the museum was bombed by the British, and fire broke out, with temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees centigrade. This completely destroyed the wood and limestone artefacts from Tell Halaf, and the basalt sculptures were split by sudden temperature changes resulting from hosed water. Despite logistical difficulties during wartime, the director of Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East managed to get the fragments crated up on behalf of Oppenheim. In August 1944 nine truckloads of rubble were brought to that museum’s deep cellar, which forms part of the Pergamon Museum.

 After the war, the Pergamon Museum was in Soviet-occupied East Berlin, while the burnt-out museum in Charlottenburg was in West Berlin, with the Oppenheim family settled in Cologne, in West Germany. Initially there was nothing that could be done with the Tell Halaf fragments in war-devastated Germany, and even when the economic situation improved there were difficulties: the rubble was owned by a West German foundation, but housed in an East German museum.

 It was only after reunification in 1990 that attention once again focused on the Tell Halaf fragments. Archaeologists recalled what Oppenheim had written in 1944, in the depths of war: “How wonderful it would be if all the fragments into which the sculptures have been shattered could be gathered up and taken to the state museums of Berlin and there, eventually, reassembled. But what a horrendous task that would be, given that this collection has been smashed to smithereens. What I want most of all, of course, is to save the great enthroned goddess.” Oppenheim died in 1946, and it was to be over 60 years later before his dream was realised.

 The reconstruction project began in 2002, in two huge halls in a former materials testing workshop in Friedrichshagen, in the eastern suburbs of Berlin. Eighty cubic metres of rubble were laid out on 200 wooden pallets, and the painstaking work of reassembling the pieces began. Initially, it was thought that computers could be used to scan images of the fragments, and match them, but this did not prove to be practical. “Humans turned out to be superior to computers,” explained project leader Dr Lutz Martin.

 A minute examination of the basalt revealed very minor differences in colour, grain size and crystal intrusions in the stone used for each of the 30 sculptures and relief slabs. When it came to reconstructing the individual statues, carved exterior pieces with surface dirt were identified, and then the interior elements. It was like assembling an exceedingly complex three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Fortunately, however, there were good pre-war photographs to assist.

 In the end, 95% of the material (by volume) has been reused, although a considerable amount of nearly pulverised sand remains.

 Fragments were initially reassembled with temporary glue and later more permanently attached with reversible epoxy resin. No metal framework or pins were used.

 Break marks remain very visible, and no attempt has been made to disguise them. Where large pieces are missing (some since antiquity), roughly shaped inserts have been added, using a mixture of ground basalt, sand and resin, in a slightly lighter shade of grey than the original stone. Some fragments of molten glass and bitumen from the Charlottenburg museum roof have been left on surfaces which will not be visible on display, since they are now part of the history of the sculptures. Conservation work is due to be concluded in October.

 Legally, ownership of the sculptures rests with the Cologne-based Oppenheim foundation, although they are on long-term loan to Berlin Museums. The lengthy conservation process was funded jointly by the Oppenheims and the government’s German Research Foundation.

 An exhibition on “The Tell Halaf Adventure” is being planned for Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East, from July to November 2010. Discussions are underway about other venues, possibly in Oppenheim’s hometown of Cologne, or international museums that hold smaller quantities of Tell Halaf material.

 After this, the Tell Halaf sculptures will be integrated into the displays in the Museum of the Ancient Near East, within the Pergamon Museum. When the Pergamon Museum is fully renovated, the figures of the three gods standing on animals will serve as an impressive entrance to the Ancient Near East collection, but this is not scheduled for completion until 2028.

 Recent finds at Tell Halaf

 Once again, German curators, conservators and archaeologists have been strengthening ties with Syria. A large basalt bull from Tell Halaf belonging to the national museum in Aleppo has been restored in Berlin by the conservators who were working on the reconstruction of the war-damaged fragments.

 German and Syrian archaeologists have, since 2006, been working on further excavations at Tell Halaf. Three campaigns have taken place, leading to the discovery of a tenth century BC grave of a girl, together with jewellery and textile fragments. Rounded buildings from the earliest settlement, in the sixth millennium BC, were also found. A fourth excavation campaign is scheduled for September. 

issue 204, July/August 2009
Published online 29 Jul 09 (Conservation)

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