Despite Berlin’s modest status in the 8th century AD, the museums on Museum Island – including the Bode Museum (shown here) – make it an ideal destination to study that era.

Richard Hodges traces different journeys in the 8th century AD

Berlin seems an unlikely place to discuss the 8th century AD in Europe. Yet a galaxy of scholars has been drawn to the stolid Bode Museum on Museum Island in the heart of the German capital to do just this. Today, the city boasts renowned scholarship in this field, hence the conference, but, as an opening speaker offering salutations candidly admits, Berlin in the 8th century was little more than an anonymous Slavic settlement with poor-quality pottery and an assortment of bits and bobs. A few metres away in the Neues Museum, also on this island in the Spree river, the finds from this very settlement excavation are on display. As we shall see, the opening speaker was not being modest. And yes, early medieval Berlin was anonymous, even in the age of the 8th century’s greatest figure, the Frankish king (and later emperor) Charlemagne. Even so, the city is a wonderful place to grapple with the physical materials of this formative period in European history.

After the fall

My contribution to the conference was written before I arrived in Berlin (it was my first visit). Had I been there before, I might have allowed myself more flights of rhetorical fancy. Entitled ‘An Ice Age settled on the Roman Empire’, my argument was that archaeological excavations over the past 30 years have completely uprooted our notions of European exceptionalism. Great thinkers like Karl Marx and Max Weber assumed a continuity of Mediterranean life after the fall of the Roman Empire and a shared European genesis out of antiquity. Such views are hard to uphold today. Italy, for sure, was left a cultural and economic backwater in the later 7th century. It only emerged – gingerly at first – on the back of pilgrimage during the age of Charlemagne, which began when he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo in AD 800. Of course, the eternal city possesses wonderful artistic beacons showing connections with antiquity like the sublime Byzantine-style paintings in Santa Maria Antiqua in the Italian capital’s Roman Forum.

Elsewhere in Italy, there are jewels like the Lombard palace at Cividale and the Beneventan palace at Salerno. Even so, these were pinpricks of light in an age otherwise characterised by settlements that were primitive in every respect. My polemical talk likened conditions in Italy to those of the Neolithic before the farmers really grasped how to make and sell secondary products from their livestock and fields. I could hear the hush as I spoke, and I have to admit to a certain anxiety that I was over-egging my argument.

A spectacular golden hat crafted by a Bronze Age smith living in northern Germany.

By contrast, I made clear, north-west Europe swiftly recovered and expanded in the 7th century. Modern excavations show clearly the interconnectedness of the North Sea communities encompassing the Low Countries and northern France, as well as southern England and even Jutland in Denmark. Villages, their fields, and trading towns like Hamwic (below St Mary’s in Southampton) and Lundenwic (centred on the West End of London) took off as planned emporia in the 680s. Blips aside, the shared economies grew fast, fuelled by silver coinage as well as the products of expanding farms.

Now, my thesis is hardly new: I just made it with reference to prehistory, something historians tend naturally to eschew. It dares to demote the bulk of the histories to ethno-history and promotes the material evidence to a status that was, of course, unknown to Marx or Weber.

Allowing my point to sink in, I concluded with references to the latest archaeology from Egypt, the Levant regions, and then places that have a modern fame for the worst reasons: Raqqa, once seat of the Abbasid caliphate, and Sāmarrā, the huge palatial Abbasid city in the Tigris valley. With one final flourish, I introduced the mercantile scale of Indian Ocean trade between Gulf ports like Sīraf and Sohār and the East Indies and China. The Belitung wreck, apparently a Gulf dhow lost about 835, found in salvage excavations in Indonesian waters, had a cargo of thousands of Chinese porcelain plates as well as Thai lead ingots.

Put simply, the world of Islam – first the Umayadds then the Abbasids – really inherited much of the mantle of antiquity and with it far-eastern connections reaching to China. Latin Christendom and associated lands around the Baltic – let alone Berlin – were, in modern jargon, underdeveloped, and emerging without huge intent. Chinese hedge-fund investors at the time would have been pretty bold to bet on North Sea trade and no one, for sure, would have bet on Italy flourishing once more by the turn of the millennium.

The conference organiser bemusedly complimented me, saying generously that my talk was a good way to open the proceedings (that is, it was appropriately thought-provoking for a chilly autumnal morning in Berlin). Afterwards, a visit to the Pergamon Museum and then the Neues Museum, next door to the Bode Museum that was hosting the conference, all on Museum Island, showed just how appropriate my rhetorical flourishes were.

Renewing the Neues Museum

The Neues Museum has been sensitively restored by British architect Sir David Chipperfield. Its iconic status in contemporary architecture (it won an EU award in 2011) rests on the restoration of the shell of the old 19th-century building, which was battered by bombs and bullets in April 1945. Within, there are capacious halls filled with myriad cases lit by laser lights. There, treasures from prehistory to the Middle Ages are to be found, as well as the painted bust of Nefertiti (see p.36). The ancient diva draws crowds, and guards cluster around her to prevent selfies. But it is the cavernous halls that contain the museum’s real treasures. A gold hat, rather like something from Dr Seuss’s children’s fiction, belongs to the rich Bronze Age tribes of northern Germany. Pause, too, to look at the 8th-century treasures: a memorial silver denier issued by Charlemagne, the red-painted acoustic jars from the Renaissance basilica at Meschede, and the underwhelming damascene swords and ceramics that were made here around the turn of the millennium and typify the region before medieval towns.

Grand opening: the Babylon Gate.

No less fascinating is the exhibit devoted to recent excavations in Berlin. Its material culture from the early Middle Ages has a hallowed aura in this awe-inspiring setting. But size and ambition are not to be lightly dismissed. Pass next door to the Pergamon Museum and the treasures on display there affirm the point I was making in my opening remarks to the conference.

The venerable Pergamon Museum is being overhauled. Its great altarpiece from the Hellenistic sanctuary in Asia Minor is being restored and is currently not on display. There are, of course, monumental treats from the Processional Way at Babylon (with its blue-glazed, tile-covered fortifications) and the Market Gate at ancient Miletus to waylay you. My purposes were up a floor. I followed the steep staircase to the Museum of Oriental Art, the oldest such museum in the world, and sought out two of its sections: those dedicated to the desert palace at Mshatta, and the trove of finds from the palatial capital of Sāmarrā.

Winter retreat

The Mshatta room is filled by a long section of the decorated walls of the 8th-century desert palace. After the miniature treasures of this epoch in the Neues Museum, the baroque sculptural artistry of this Umayadd palace is eye-watering in its scale. As best we know – see Eva-Maria Troelenberg’s well-written monograph on the palace: Mshatta in Berlin (2016) – Caliph al-Walid II ordered the construction of this place in the desert south of Amman in AD 743-744. His intention was to make a winter camp, yet it was never finished. The Caliph was a grandson of Abd al-Malik, builder of the Dome of the Rock, but al-Walid apparently loved the good things of life. His favourite pastime was carousing with his companions in his desert qasr, as places like Mshatta were known.

Finds from Sāmarrā showcase an artistic leap forwards from Mshatta. Here, a detail of stucco work from the city provides a taste of its output.

The Caliph’s uncle, Hisham, disapproved and, after little more than a year, in April 744, removed and killed his nephew. Shortlived though his reign was, al-Walid II’s impact (to use a much overused modern concept) was immense. All his desert castles have attracted travellers – such as Gertrude Bell – as well as archaeologists, but it is Mshatta that occupies pride of place. The reason for this is that in 1903 German scholars, encouraged by art historian Josef Strzygowski (1862-1941), recognised its precious importance: ‘If Mshatta did come to Berlin… I would be absolutely elated; only this would provide a seminal significance for the new collection in a similar way as for the Pergamon Museum.’ Strzygowski was the author of Orient oder Rom (1901), a polemical tract arguing that the origins of European art needed to be sought not just in the Graeco-Roman age, but also in the ancient Near East.

Mshatta lay in the shadow of the celebrated Hejaz Railway connecting Istanbul to Palestine, and the ruins were presented by the grateful Sultan Abd al-Hamid II to Kaiser Wilhelm II in recognition of Germany’s contribution to the modernisation of Ottoman transportation. (The Sultan’s Director of Antiquities, the Orientalist painter and antiquarian Osman Hamdi, protested in vain.) Hence, it arrived in sections in Berlin to become the centrepiece of the new museum dedicated to Oriental arts. Strzygowski was thrilled, believing it showed the resilience of Graeco-Roman arts in the emerging Caliphate. It was a younger German scholar, the fabled excavator of Sāmarrā Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948), who argued for its importance in defining early Islamic art.

The section of wall on display certainly evokes the familiar themes from Classical antiquity. Sculpted acanthus juxtaposed with vases are typical features of late antique artistry in the Levant. But these stone canvases contain other influences too. The ornamentation – surrounding figures and creatures like griffins, with one beast having the tail of a peacock – has roots in Zoroastrian imagery and Sassanian (Persian) royal works of the age.

Of course, this is merely a section of the enclosure wall with an angular bastion, within which were suites for accommodation. (The wall suffered during wartime bombing; some sections too were taken as booty by the Soviet authorities.) A hint of the Caliph’s rumbustiousness is provided by accompanying pieces of sculpture found during the dismantling of the palace buildings – part of a naked woman, and a fragment of a lion. An illustration of the vividness of the intended decoration can be found down at the entrance to the adjacent Sāmarrā gallery, where a frescoed painting from another of the Caliph’s desert palaces, Qasr Amra, depicts a naked dancer. The colours are faint now. Study the painting carefully and this voluptuous beauty emerges surrounded by the richest of ochre tones. Carousing in the 8th-century desert could not have been more different from contemporary conditions in Italy or the Teutonic lands.

The German dismantling of Mshatta earned the enmity of the British. The Times on 12 November 1903 published a letter by venerable Arabist Henry Baker Tristram entitled ‘An Act of Vandalism’. Gertrude Bell, who had first seen Mshatta on 22 March 1900, returned 14 years later, recording in her diary: ‘After lunch I rode… to Mshatta – or rather the ghost of it.’ Her photographs on that January day show a void rather than a monument. The celebrated traveller was unable to conceal her accusatory tone on the eve of the Great War.

This is an extract of an article published in issue 87 of Current World Archaeology. Read on in the magazine. To find out more about subscribing, click here.

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