Home > Explore + Learn > The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia > Recording Travel in the Early Twentieth Century > Archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld at Samarra

Archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld at Samarra

German scholar Ernst Emil Herzfeld (1879–1948) is renowned for his archaeological explorations of Near Eastern sites and widely credited with introducing modern scientific methods to this field. His 1911–13 survey of Samarra in modern-day Iraq was the first major study of an Islamic-period site. Located some fifty miles north of Baghdad, Samarra was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate during much of the ninth century—a brief-lived cultural center of the Islamic world. Within this vast complex were imposing buildings of fired brick, decorated with opulent plaster wall reliefs, painted wood carvings, and elaborate frescoes.

Abandoned after the tenth century, the site was rapidly falling into ruin. Herzfeld, in typical fashion, painstakingly documented each artifact and architectural feature, amassing an impressive body of materials that allowed him to reconstruct large portions of the former metropolis. Before Herzfeld, the public was unable to visualize the beauty of ninth-century Abbasid culture, which had virtually no representation in museums or publications. Herzfeld’s analyses and careful reconstructions led to a reevaluation of Abbasid period art and architecture, with its emphasis on rich surfaces filled with geometric forms.

Above: detail, Excavation of Samarra: watercolor plan of Palace of the Caliph; Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948); 1911–13; Ink and watercolor on paper; Ernst Herzfeld Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives FSA A.6 05.1016


Excavation of Samarra: watercolor plan of Palace of the Caliph Excavation of Samarra: map grid of Palace of the Caliph Excavation of Samarra: isometric reconstruction of Reception Hall, Palace of the Caliph