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An Eccentric Archeologist Who Drew a Line in the Sand

A German Jewish Iranologist, who lost his University of Berlin post in 1935 after officially declaring that his grandparents were Jewish, is one of several focuses of an exhibit about Asian travel at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. “The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia” is on view through May 31.

Ernst Herzfeld is not a household name but is renowned for his 1911-13 excavations in Samarra, an Islamic pilgrimage destination in Iraq designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, and his 1931-34 work in Persepolis, where he unearthed the ruins of Darius the Great’s palace, which Alexander the Great destroyed.

Although a British Museum biography of Herzfeld notes that the archaeologist was baptized and “appears to have been a Protestant,” Herzfeld’s declaration about his grandparents is on file at Berlin’s state archives. And Herzfeld brought his extensive papers with him when he fled the Nazis, which is how the trove — 36 sketchbooks, 131 notebooks, 1,500 drawings, 400 “squeezes” (three-dimensional impressions of inscriptions), and 3,000 negatives — arrived at the Smithsonian, by way of Princeton University.

Even as Herzfeld was excavating sites with religious significance, his own faith wasn’t a factor, according to David Hogge, head of the archives at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Hogge insists that Herzfeld “was not religious — he was not a devout Jew. He was a scientist first and foremost.” Herzfeld’s notes, he says, contain his handwriting in cuneiform, Hebrew, old Arabic, Farsi, French, German and English. Although they aren’t on view in the current exhibit, the Smithsonian’s collection includes several of Herzfeld’s photos of Aleppo’s Great Synagogue.

“Traveler’s Eye” opens with a 17th-century pair of Japanese screens decorated with illustrations of Portuguese Catholic missionaries, or “southern barbarians;” subsequent works range from scrolls with intricate and beautifully rendered landscapes to early 20th-century postcards and contemporary photographs. Several rooms into the show, a dozen or so of Herzfeld’s drawings and photographs from Samarra hang on the walls, and some materials from his sketchbooks are installed in a glass case in the middle of the room.

“Samarra is such a great example of the early formation of his technique,” says Hogge. Before Herzfeld excavated Samarra, “nobody had ever done any large-scale archaeological work on an early Islamic site,” he adds. “This really did create a precedent for that.”

Both Hogge and Matt Saba, a curatorial fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who works on the museum’s Ernst Herzfeld Papers, have noticed an increase in scholarship on Herzfeld. Saba thinks that art historians’ growing interest in archaeological history and the deterioration of political conditions in some of the areas that Herzfeld studied, such as Syria and Iraq, account for the increase in scholarly attention.

Hogge is adamant that Herzfeld was not an artist or a particularly talented photographer. If Herzfeld’s camera lens caught a stream and grazing horses in front of a palace, he would have viewed the picturesque elements as distractions that risked obstructing the architectural detail, Hogge says. Saba notes that Herzfeld’s attention to detail and preserving historical data makes his work “so valuable to academics” but so “difficult to present in exhibitions.” (Thumbing through dozens of Herzfeld’s photos in the Sackler archives, one is inclined to disagree.)

By all accounts, Herzfeld was also a colorful character. He kept interesting pets on his Persepolis digs: two dogs, and a boar named Bulbul (“nightingale” in Persian).

One of Herzfeld’s dogs, Romeo, left its mark on a drawing which Herzfeld’s assistant Karl Bergner made at Persepolis, and which Hogge proudly displayed in the Sackler archive. “It is this incredibly finely-drawn overview of the placement of the Apadana staircase at Persepolis — beautifully done — and apparently at some point Herzfeld’s dog tipped over the ink well and walked across. You’ve got paw prints going across,” Hogge says. The archaeologists, evidently, didn’t get too angry. “The dog made it alive.”

In addition to the Smithsonian’s Herzfeld’s holdings — paw prints and otherwise — and those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Oriental Institute at University of Chicago also has important Herzfeld documents. As the institutions digitize their collections, there’s the potential for more sharing, Hogge says, although he laments it has been slow in coming. “I am hoping we can finish our parallel play and start collaborating,” he says.

If that collaboration takes off, perhaps not only scholars, but also the broader public, will be able to better get to know an important scientist, who made it his business to unearth important sites and artifacts for the benefit of future generations.

Menachem Wecker is the co-author, with Brandon G. Withrow, of the recent book “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education.”

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