The Freer Gallery of Art and adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery appear to hold almost endless treasures. The latest riches to be displayed from this trove are the 25 photographs, drawings, sketchbooks and paper casts of inscriptions in “Persepolis: Documenting an Ancient Iranian Capital, 1923-1935.”
Exhibit curator Ann C. Gunter chose the objects from the Ernst Herzfeld Papers housed in the galleries’ archives. Herzfeld (1879-1948), a German explorer of the Near East and a specialist in the archaeology, history and languages of Iran, was the chief archaeologist of the Persepolis project.
Herzfeld fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s to work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J. There he met Richard Ettinghausen of the Freer, who persuaded him to leave many of his records to the gallery.
Herzfeld donated the materials to the Freer in 1946. “They totaled 30,000 documents, of which 1,000 were drawings and plans. I had to choose one place, and I selected Persepolis for the exhibition,” Miss Gunter says.
Persepolis, one of the fabled capitals of ancient Persia, about 35 miles north of the modern city of Shiraz, received scant scientific attention until 1923. At the height of its power, the Persian Achaemenid empire (circa 550-331 B.C.) stretched from the Aegean Sea east to India’s Indus Valley and as far north as the Danube.
The Persians favored a terraced platform with many painted and sculpted buildings to project Persian military and political might. Although possibly derived from Mesopotamian platforms, these complexes ideally expressed Persia’s imperial ambitions.
Dynastic troubles and revolts of subject nations such as Egypt finally destroyed the empire. Persepolis fell to Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. He set it on fire, and the ruins of the capital were not identified until 1620.
The Iranian government engaged Herzfeld in 1924 to examine the ruins scientifically. Officials instructed him to make a detailed plan of the huge complex. The Iranians also requested a plan for excavating and preserving the site.
Herzfeld was the first to implement a scientific investigation using modern excavation methods and recording techniques. He initially visited the site in 1923 and 1924.
The archaeologist returned in 1931 under the sponsorship of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. He invited architects Friedrich Krefter and Karl Bergner to work on the project as well. The architects’ pencil and watercolor drawings proved crucial to the reconstruction process.
There were no “English Patient” romances as the three men focused their energies, skills and knowledge on the work. One of the few amusements at Persepolis was the pet boar Herzfeld adopted. A photo shows him feeding his boar, Bulbul, a Persian word meaning “nightingale.”
The Persians built Persepolis (a Greek name meaning “city of Persis”) on a high plateau east of Mesopotamia. Its heavily fortified buildings stood on a wide platform looking over the plain and sunsets.
Herzfeld and his assistants found the remains of sculpture-decorated palatial buildings spread over the terrace. The Persians constructed a series of buildings on a nearby plain as well and located the royal burial grounds to the north.
A digital print in the exhibit made from original “panoramic” photos illustrates the terrace and its buildings before excavation. The print shows the platform built over a natural rock outcrop. The print also reveals that the terrace formed an irregular rectangle and opened to the plain on three sides. The fourth abutted a low mountain.
Herzfeld focused on clearing the terrace and on excavating and recording the monumental Audience Hall.
Herzfeld and Bergner recorded the grand double staircase leading to the terrace buildings. Their handsome photographs and drawings convey the grandeur that once was Persepolis.
The group next uncovered the Audience Hall with its many columns. It was the capital’s most important structure and measured 60 feet high and more than 200 feet square. It stood on its own stone-cut podium and held 36 40-foot columns. They were made with slender, fluted shafts and capitals decorated with the front parts of bulls and lions.
Bergner made a handsome pencil-and-watercolor drawing of one of the columns silhouetted against the background plain. The curator fortunately included this poetic yet precise rendering in the show. Other Bergner drawings show relief sculptures of peoples the Persians conquered.
He also drew the front and side views of a double-bull capital from another building. These impressive, decorative capitals were unique to Persia.
Herzfeld regarded the Achaemenid inscriptions at Persepolis as invaluable documents, and several copies are included in the exhibit. Among them is a Herzfeld impression from an inscription found on the southern terrace wall commemorating King Darius’ conquests and founding of Persepolis. The impression Herzfeld took is from the enormous single block — 61/2 feet high by 6 feet wide — and itself measures 8 feet high by 6 feet wide.
The archaeologist used layers of cigarette papers to record the script. He would have used paper with a high rag content, but it was not available.
Herzfeld improvised successfully by layering three to seven sheets that held together when dampened. He then copied the script by pushing wet paper into the wedge shapes of the script.
Erich F. Schmidt succeeded Herzfeld as expedition director in 1935 and oversaw the project until its completion in 1939.
This is an exhibition that focuses on methods used to document the remains of Persepolis and does not concentrate on the legendary city itself. These Herzfeld records formed the significant foundation for future work at the site.
As such, the exhibit is purely archaeological and does not belong in an art museum. The show is, however, full of interesting, even fascinating, materials.
Archaeology is full of romance, as the National Gallery of Art’s “Golden Age of Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries From the People’s Republic of China” of 1999 demonstrated. The Sackler needs to build on this component to make the exhibit attractive to the average visitor.
The Sackler would draw the crowds these fascinating materials deserve by putting them in a larger cultural context. Photo murals, a time line and illustrations of Achaemenid art and architecture could do wonders for this show.[
WHAT: “Persepolis: Documenting an Ancient Capital, 1923-1935”WHERE: Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Dec. 25TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/357-2700