Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Metropolitan Museum’s Excavations at Ctesiphon

Ctesiphon is located on the east bank of the Tigris River about 20 miles (32 km) south of modern-day Baghdad in Iraq. The city was an important capital of the Parthian (247 B.C.–224 A.D.) and Sasanian (224–651 A.D.) empires, and is famous in particular for the late Sasanian palace called the Taq-i Kisra. The existing palace arch of the great iwan, or open reception hall, is the site’s most iconic surviving monument.

Although Ctesiphon was known since antiquity to be an important site due to the Taq-i Kisra palace arch, systematic excavations did not take place until 1928. Sponsored by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society) and directed by Oscar Reuther, the excavations of the First Ctesiphon Expedition in the winter of 1928–29 sought to explore the various settlement areas around the palace. The expedition discovered several Sasanian-era houses and an early Christian church, and revealed the ground plan of the Taq-i Kisra palace. The Second Ctesiphon Expedition, from November 4, 1931 through February 15, 1932, was co-sponsored by the Staatliche Museen (German State Museums) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Representing the Staatliche Museen, Ernst Kühnel served as the field director, Friedrich Wachtsmuth as excavator, and Oswin Puttrich-Reignard as photographer. Walter Hauser and Joseph Upton represented the Metropolitan Museum: Upton served as the registrar during the expedition, and Hauser worked as an excavation supervisor. The Department of Near Eastern Art was formed in 1932, and the Second Ctesiphon Expedition became the first of many expeditions and excavations that the department would take part in.

The area around Ctesiphon was the site of various settlements, known from late antiquity on as al-Mada‘in, or “The Cities.” The Second Ctesiphon Expedition was designed to explore multiple sites around the main settlement area to investigate their relationship to the larger site. Excavations were conducted at five different sites: Umm ez-Za‘tir, Ma’aridh, Tell Dheheb, the Taq-i Kisra, and Selman Pak. Using excavation methods standard for their time, the team employed more than 500 workmen and excavated large horizontal exposures at the five locations. Due to these methods, they were able to expose large areas and reach significant depths that would likely not be possible in modern archaeology due to the more detailed methods of excavation. Partial plans of most of the buildings could be identified, giving a glimpse of life during the Sasanian period.

At the Taq-i Kisra, the First Ctesiphon Expedition outlined the basic plan of the main palace building and explored a large building just south of the standing facade. The southern building (“Sudbau”) was a large columned hall approximately 170 x 70 meters; it may have been used for large receptions, and it was richly decorated with stucco reliefs (32.150.4). These large (one meter in diameter) stucco wheels are decorated on both sides and would have been used as windows to allow air and filtered light to enter the building. During the Second Ctesiphon Expedition, the excavations were moved away from the standing arch and palace due to potential instability of the existing structure and focused instead on a mound to the west. The so-called West Mound revealed a series of baked brick floors and buildings with fragments of mosaic. The excavators interpreted the building as a bath associated with the palace due to the presence of channels for water; more recently, Jens Kröger suggested that it was used for Zoroastrian water rituals. The diverse range of finds from the West Mound includes an incantation bowl with a Mandaic inscription (32.150.89), metal pins and spoons (32.150.196; 32.150.197), and ceramic vessels.

Two of the sites, Ma’aridh and Umm ez-Za‘tir, revealed large elite Sasanian houses. The houses had layouts typical of that period, with a combination of square and elongated rooms. Large reception halls and iwans were often richly decorated with stuccos and painted plaster, while the remaining rooms were covered with plain plaster. Umm ez-Za‘tir (“Mother of Thyme”) was located about 1.2 miles (2 km) east of the palace. A large house with a central courtyard provided most of the finds. The courtyard had an iwan on both the east and west walls, and the whole courtyard was likely decorated with stucco reliefs. The two iwans had reliefs with designs typical of Sasanian decorative art, including rosettes, animals, birds, and vine patterns (32.150.11; 32.150.13; 32.150.22). In the Ma’aridh area, at least six large houses were identified. At some houses the undecorated smaller rooms can be identified as service areas by the architecture and finds (32.150.166; 32.150.163). Other finds from the houses, such as glass vessels (32.150.154), jewelry (32.150.204; 32.150.113), and semiprecious stones (32.150.223), attest to the owners’ elite status. The houses were located along a street, but in all cases the entrances were set back in niches so that access from the street was not direct. Like the house at Umm ez-Za‘tir, the houses at Ma’aridh also had rooms decorated with stucco reliefs, often fitted together into repeating patterns (32.150.5).

Tell Dheheb, approximately one mile (1.5 km) south of the Taq-i Kisra, was chosen for investigation due to its modern name, which means “Gold Hill,” but the tell, or mound, failed to live up to this reputation. Instead, the excavations revealed a square enclosure with buttresses and niches around the outside, approximately 165 x 165 meters. Although external walls followed a strict rectilinear plan, the streets and houses inside followed a haphazard organization. A more regular square house was excavated toward the center of the enclosure. Reliefs decorated with a pomegranate and cross design inside the house suggest it may have been occupied by Christians (32.150.14).

Although these four settlements were widely spread out across the landscape, they represent a cohesive Sasanian culture. Since the stuccos were made in molds, the same decoration sometimes appears at the different excavation areas: the bear design was found at the Sudbau of the Taq-i Kisra and at Ma’aridh IV, while the Metropolitan Museum’s example is from Umm ez-Za‘tir (32.150.23). The rosette design, also a popular motif, was found at Umm ez-Za‘tir and Ma’aridh IV, and the Museum’s example is reconstructed from fragments from both sites (32.150.11).

Near the modern village of Selman Pak, houses dating to the early Islamic period were excavated during the First Ctesiphon Expedition. During the Second Ctesiphon Expedition, this excavation area was expanded, and more early Islamic stucco decoration was found. The Islamic stuccos echo the Sasanian tradition, with vines, leaves, and rosettes still popular as motifs; however, they are markedly more geometric in design (32.150.62).

In 1932, the Iraqi antiquities laws allowed for “partage” (a division of finds) between the institutions sponsoring archaeological excavations and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Under the law, an Iraqi representative could select any pieces from the excavation for the Iraq Museum, and the remaining finds would be divided in half. In practice, the Western excavation teams usually benefited from favorable divisions and were able to keep 50 percent of the finds. In the case of Ctesiphon, the half that did not go to Baghdad went to Berlin. From the half at Berlin, Maurice Dimand, head of the Department of Near Eastern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, selected 466 objects for the Museum’s collection, and although the Museum only participated in the Second Ctesiphon Expedition, the divided finds are from both expeditions. The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of Ctesiphon material is currently divided between the Departments of Islamic Art and Ancient Near Eastern Art. More than 16,000 objects from Ctesiphon remain in the collection of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

The Ctesiphon material is significant for the collective picture it gives of the late Sasanian period. The wide range of materials, including fragments of everyday objects like glass bowls and undecorated ceramics, help create a picture of the everyday life of Sasanian elites (32.150.144; 32.150.154). The distribution of decorative items compared to utilitarian items suggests that portions of the Sasanian houses served as service quarters for the entertaining areas such as the well-decorated reception halls. Almost a century after the excavations, the archival information and objects continue to shed new light both on Ctesiphon specifically and on the Sasanian period in general.