Statues devastated in WWII go on show in Berlin

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BERLIN (AP) - The ancient gods and fantastical creatures going on show in Berlin this week have made an unlikely comeback from near-destruction.

Unearthed in present-day Syria a century ago, the 3,000-year-old basalt statues and stone reliefs in the exhibition, “The Tell Halaf Adventure,” shattered into thousands of pieces when their Berlin home was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

The rubble was rescued, then slumbered in the vaults of the capital’s Pergamon Museum, then in East Berlin, for decades before a painstaking restoration project started in 2001.

Over the past decade, restorers sifted through around 27,000 fragments of rubble and gradually reassembled most of them.

About 40 resurrected figures _ including a pair of lions that once bared their teeth at the entrance of a palace at Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria, a sphinx and a long-tressed female figure from a monumental grave _ go on show to the public at the Pergamon Museum on Friday.

“No one could have imagined several years ago that this exhibition would be possible,” Michael Eissenhauer, the director of Berlin’s state museums, said Thursday. “Tell Halaf had been forgotten. It was thought to be certain that the pieces which disappeared in 1943 were irretrievably lost.”

German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim led excavations at the Tell Halaf site between 1911 and 1913. He first put the figures on display in Berlin in 1930, at a private museum in a former iron foundry that was destroyed during the war.

Oppenheim arranged for the rubble to be salvaged and stored in hopes of one day recreating the statues _ but it would be decades after his death in 1946 before that dream was realized.

During Germany’s postwar division, the rubble lay across the Cold War divide from the collection’s owner, the Max von Oppenheim Foundation. Only in the 1990s, after German reunification, did officials start examining whether the statues might be restored.

The foundation helped fund the several-million-euro cost of the restoration.

“It was an excavation in our own house,” Beate Salje, the director of Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East, said if the project.

About 25,000 of the 27,000 fragments of rubble were reassembled with the help of Oppenheim’s photo documentation of the excavation site, but she said there is little hope of putting together the rest.

Palettes of the remaining rubble are part of the show. The extent of the destruction that had to be unraveled is evident in the battered appearance of some of the statues, including monumental figures of a griffin and a mythical cross between a scorpion, a bird and a man.

The exhibition runs through Aug. 14 at the Pergamon Museum, where it ultimately will be integrated into a permanent collection that includes treasures such as Babylon’s Ishtar Gate.

Salje said the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s British Museum are interested in showing parts of the Tell Halaf exhibition over the coming years.

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