From the Ashes: Reviving Ancient Works in Berlin

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Markus Schreiber / AP

The reconstructed 'Scorpion Bird Man' sculpture is on display at the exhibition 'The Tell Halaf Adventure' at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

It's the result of nine years of painstaking work — essentially a giant 3,000-year-old, 27,000-piece 3D jigsaw puzzle. With plenty of patience and luck, German scholars and archaeologists have managed to re-assemble over 30 monumental basalt sculptures that were once thought lost to World War II bombs. Originally from the ancient site of Tell Halaf, the sculptures now feature in a new exhibition at Berlin's Pergamon Museum, The Rescued Gods of the Palace of Tell Halaf, serving as a powerful reminder of the glory of the Aramaean civilization — and the persistence of a small group of art lovers.

The spectacular stone sculptures were discovered by explorer Max von Oppenheim, who had abandoned his job as a diplomat in Cairo to dedicate himself to archaeology. "He had a real passion for the Middle East and was absolutely fascinated by the basalt sculptures at Tell Halaf," says Lutz Martin, one of the curators of the exhibition, which runs until August. "He was an optimist and never gave up." Oppenheim's optimism paid off in November 1899, when, following a tip-off from a Bedouin tribal leader, he stumbled across Tell Halaf buried in the northeastern region of what is now Syria. Some scholars believe that Tell Halaf was a trading center for ivory during the time of the Arameans, a nomadic people who settled in the area from around 1200 BC and developed an urban civilization. From 1911 to 1913, Oppenheim's team of excavators carefully unearthed what turned out to be parts of a royal residence from the 10th and 9th centuries BC, replete with basalt sculptures and relief slabs.

After the excavations, Oppenheim settled in Berlin and his finds were put on display at the Tell Halaf Museum in 1930. But on the night of Nov. 23, 1943, the museum fell victim to the bombing raids of World War II. The building was reduced to cinders and the precious artifacts inside were consumed by fire that reached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Fragments of the damaged sculptures were salvaged from the ruins and were stored in the underground vaults of the Pergamon Museum. "How wonderful it would be if all the smashed fragments of the sculptures could be gathered up and taken to the National Museums of Berlin and there, eventually, reassembled," Oppenheim wrote in a letter in 1944.

Now his dream has finally been realized. In October 2001, a team of archaeologists and restorers delicately embarked on what seemed then to be an impossible mission: piecing together the 27,000 fragments to re-create the original basalt sculptures. The pieces — some as tiny as a fingernail; others weighing up to 1,000 lbs — had to be laid out on over 300 wooden pallets spread across 6,500 sq ft of floor space. "Everyone thought the collection was lost forever after the WWII air raids," says Nadja Cholidis, the leading archaeologist and one of the curators of the exhibition. "The majestic sculptures were smashed to smithereens, but we managed to bring them back to life. It's wonderful."

The archaeologists and experts weren't able to use computers during the restoration work — the necessary software hadn't yet been developed in 2001. So they had to rely on old photos of the intact sculptures and documents Oppenheim had kept on the works. "We sorted out the pieces according to the surfaces and decoration," says Cholidis, "and created a 3D reconstruction relying on our eyes, memory and brain power."

One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is the so-called Enthroned Goddess, a basalt sculpture of a woman sitting on a high chair with a bowl in her hand that was originally intended to hold food and drinks that were offered to the dead. The female tomb figure melted Oppenheim's heart when it was uncovered during the excavations at Tell Halaf in March 1912. British crime writer Agatha Christie, who was married to an archaeologist, said Oppenheim later described the Enthroned Goddess as "my beautiful Venus," although the author herself wasn't impressed by the sculptures when she visited the museum during a trip to Berlin in the 1930s. "Ugly statues," was Christie's damning verdict.

Also among the sculptures on show are an imposing pair of Scorpion Bird Men, creatures bearing the head of a human, the body of a bird and the sting of a scorpion, which stood in the gateway leading to the palace — believed to belong to the powerful ruler King Kapara — to protect it from evil. "At first glance, these stone sculptures seem rough and simple, but on closer inspection you're overwhelmed by the masterful decorations and ornate details — they are unique," says curator Lutz Martin.

Another highlight is the eight-foot-high, eight-foot-long sculpture of a griffin, discovered at the inner entrance to the palace — in an extraordinary feat, it has been reconstructed from 2,600 fragments. Each of the 30 sculptures on show is a testament to the patience and faith of the experts who spent almost a decade piecing them back together. And almost 70 years after the treasures were destroyed, The Rescued Gods of the Palace of Tell Halaf stands as beautiful, mystical homage to Oppenheim's motto: "Chin up! Bon courage! And don't lose your sense of humor!"