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Archaeologists at Work:
The First Excavations of the Ancient Iranian Capital City of Persepolis

In 1924, German scholar Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948), a specialist in the archaeology, history and languages of Iran, was asked by the Iranian government to prepare a detailed plan of the immense ruined Achaemenid palace complex of Persepolis and to outline a proposal for excavating and preserving the site. Twenty-five photographs, drawings, sketchbooks and paper casts of inscriptions from Herzfeld’s initial investigations and from his later excavations at this magnificent site can now be seen in a new exhibition, “Persepolis: Documenting an Ancient Iranian Capital, 1923-35.” The exhibition will be on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Avenue, S.W) from Dec. 3 through May 6, 2001.

Several of the exhibition’s objects have never been published, and none have ever been exhibited. “These records are of immense value both in allowing us to see Persepolis before it was excavated and in retracing the early stages of this all-important project,” notes Ann C. Gunter, associate curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer and Sackler galleries and curator of the exhibition. “They show us how the talented individuals who made up the expedition contributed fundamentally to our understanding of this unique site.”

The exhibition illustrates the methods used by the Oriental Institute’s expedition, whose results have served as a foundation for all subsequent scholarship on the subject of Achaemenid architecture and sculpture. Objects on view have been selected from the Ernst Herzfeld Papers, which have been housed in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives since 1946.

Persepolis was one of several capitals of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550-330 B.C.), which at its height extended from the Aegean Sea to the Indus Valley. Founded by the Achaemenid king Darius I (reigned 522-486 B.C.) around 518 B.C., Persepolis lies at the foot of Kuh-i-Rahmat or “Mountain of Mercy.” Situated in the plain of Marv Dasht, about 560 kilometers south of the modern city of Tehran and 60 kilometers northeast of the modern city of Shiraz, the terrace buildings at Persepolis (a Greek name meaning “city in Persis”) probably served both administrative and ceremonial functions. Destroyed and set afire by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., the ruins of Persepolis lay unidentified until 1620.

Although many European travelers and scholars visited and described the site in the 18th and 19th centuries, Herzfeld was the first to plan and initiate a scientific investigation using modern excavation methods and recording techniques. Beginning this enormous undertaking in 1931 under the sponsorship of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, Herzfeld invited architects Friedrich Krefter (1898-1995) and Karl Bergner (died 1935) to participate in the project. Pencil and watercolor drawings made by Bergner and Krefter, examples of which are on view in the exhibition, played a pivotal role in reconstructing the original appearance of the site. Photographs of Herzfeld, Krefter and Bergner at work and in informal moments, including one of Herzfeld feeding his pet boar, help convey the atmosphere of this pioneering expedition.

Under Herzfeld’s direction, the expedition concentrated much of its initial efforts toward clearing the terrace on which the palace buildings had been constructed, as well as on the excavation and recording of the large columned Audience Hall. Objects on view, including Bergner’s drawings of the Audience Hall and the grand ceremonial staircases leading to the terrace buildings, illustrate several stages in the project. Paper impressions of cuneiform inscriptions on the terrace wall demonstrate how the lengthy inscriptions preserved on several structures at Persepolis were copied using layers of dampened cigarette paper, thereby creating facsimiles that could be reassembled for later study. Pencil and watercolor reconstructions incorporating information obtained from the excavations with informed speculation on the original appearance of buildings and sculptures are also on view.

In connection with the exhibition, a three-day scholarly symposium titled “Ernst Herzfeld and the Development of Near Eastern Studies, 1900-1950” will be held at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art from May 3 through May 5, 2001. Archaeologists, historians, and art historians from the United States, Europe, and Iran will explore Herzfeld’s contribution to the excavation and study of individual sites in the Near East and to broader areas of Near Eastern studies, and will also address the cultural and political contexts within which European scholars operated in the Near Eastern sphere during the first half of the 20th century. The symposium is organized in association with the Iran Heritage Foundation and is made possible by a generous grant from an anonymous donor with additional support from the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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