On Ernst Herzfeld’s Glass Plate Negatives

Black and white photograph of the al-darwishiya mosque door.
Al-Darwishiya mosque, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. About to enter his junior year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Rohan is studying journalism with a specialization in photojournalism and minors in African studies and creative writing. This is the first in a series of blog posts Rohan will write on his work in the Archives. Here, he takes a look at the glass plate negatives of Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948), a foremost scholar in the field of Iranian studies.

Ernst Herzfeld explored Near Eastern culture from the prehistoric period to Islamic times. The collection of his papers in the Freer|Sackler Archives primarily relates to his survey of the monuments, artifacts, and inscriptions of Western Asia between 1903 and 1947, and particularly to his excavations at Istakhr (Iran), Paikuli (Iraq), Pasargadae (Iran), Persepolis (Iran), Samarra (Iraq) and Kuh-e Khwaja (Iran). 

A collection of nearly 3,800 glass plate negatives adds another dimension to the Herzfeld collection, providing further evidence of the work he was doing. It also more extensively highlights Herzfeld’s intricate documenting process, which Xavier Courouble (cataloguer) and David Hogge (director of the Archives) uncovered while cataloguing the plethora of items that make up the Ernst Herzfeld Papers.

Indeed, Herzfeld’s mind seemed to work like a modern-day computer in terms of the delicacy and precision with which he documented different facets of his work. He had a journal for each excavation, in which he systematically noted each find, giving it an inventory number and listing the different ways in which he documented it. As such, it is possible to use these journals to find the ways that Herzfeld dealt with the subject at hand—from coordinates on a map of where an object was found to the diary in which he would intricately sketch that object.

Al-Darwishiya drawing
al-Darwishiya drawing, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

Aside from the importance of these images to the Herzfeld collection, there is a lot to be learned from the idea of photography in the archaeological process. When we look at Herzfeld’s photographs of Persepolis, Samarra, and numerous other sites, we are viewing a historical record of each place. We are being transported back into the early twentieth century, to a time when the study of the Near East was relatively new and in which Herzfeld can be understood as one of the early pioneers.

For Herzfeld, these photographs were functional, used to augment his archaeological research. However, with time they have become much more. For scholars, archivists, archaeologists, and the general public alike, the images are artistic remnants or artifacts in their own right. For Herzfeld, who was working at these sites, they were images of his present—imperative studies for his reconstruction of the past. Nearly one hundred years on, many places he photographed have worn away with time. These photographs preserve the sites for the ages.

Herzfeld’s glass plate negatives have been transferred onto film and scanned, and now can be viewed online. To begin a search, visit the Smithsonian collections page and type “Herzfeld GN” into the search box. This will bring up the nearly 3,800 images. You can then narrow your search by entering a specific location. For instance, I entered “Hims (Syria),” which enabled me to see all of the images for this location. I became particularly interested in the al-Darwishiya Mosque and wanted to learn more. In the search box I deleted the “GN” marker and typed “al-Darwishiya Mosque,” which brought me to all relevant materials collected by Herzfeld for this site, including the glass plate negatives.

Learn more about Ernst Herzfeld on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

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