Skip to content

Saving the Stone Monuments of the Tell Halaf Museum

The disastrous air raids of November 1943 severely damaged the exhibition space of the Tell Halaf Museum, along with the administrative building. The fire started by a phosphorous bomb destroyed many small finds, the monumental plaster reconstructions, and parts of the Islamic collection as well. All objects made of limestone were destroyed while the basalt sculptures experienced heavy damage.

Photo: Remains of the stone monuments following the catastrophic fire in the basement of the Pergamon Museum, after 1944

Salvaged but lost?

Oppenheim had been bombed out of his home and left Berlin for Dresden a few months before the November bombing raid. He assigned Helmut Scheel, his authorized representative in Berlin, the task of salvaging the remains. But within academic circles, the Tell Half collection – nine loads of countless basalt fragments which had reached the basement of the Pergamon Museum by August 1944 – was soon considered irrevocably lost.

The State Museums of East Berlin were responsible for the fragments as ‘foreign property’ until German unification in 1990. Shortly thereafter the first provisional discussions with the Foundation concerning reclamation took place.

The burned out museum, Berlin 1945

At the beginning of 1998, the Foundation entrusted some 63 transport paletts with large-scale fragments of sculpture and orthostats, 38 containers with small pieces, and 40 boxes with small finds and shards to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preussischer Kulterbesitz) as a permanent loan with the stipulation that the sculptures were to be restored and exhibited once more. The largest restoration project begun since the 1920s by Berlin’s Near Eastern Museum could be undertaken in Berlin-Friedrichshagen, thanks to funding provided by the Salomon Oppenheim Foundation, the Alfred Freiherr von Oppenheim Foundation, the banking house Sal. Oppenheim jr. & Cie., the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The large hall where sorting the fragments took place, Berlin 2003

Phoenix from the Ashes

Proposals to use scans of the fragments and to employ a sorting program to reunite them “at the push of a button” proved futile, since neither the software nor hardware essential for the project was available – and even if appropriate programs could have been developed and equipment to implement them obtained, the actual scanning and sorting would, in all likelihood, have taken years, with ultimate success not assured. The archaeologists decided against attempting theoretical solutions and creation of ‘virtual’ reconstructions but rather to trust their own professional and cognitive skills. Over 27,000 fragments needed to be examined, sorted, and identified. Pre-war black-and-white photographs of the sculptures – taken during the excavations and later when they were exhibited in the museum – provided the basis for making the final joins. All of the sculptures had been carved from monoliths. This made it comparatively easy to distinguished one sculpture from another optically, simply by noticing specific features of the stone, so that almost all fragments deriving from the core of the sculptures could be attributed.

Following preliminary work lasting only three months, restoration could begin in February 2002, in tandem with the continuing work of identification and attribution of fragments. Sculptures provisionally assembled in the sorting hall, were taken apart once more, the corresponding fragments clearly marked, and the surfaces of the breaks carefully prepared for gluing with epoxy resin. The bigger the individual pieces were, the more difficult it was to reassemble the sculptures which could be as much as 2.20 m. tall and weigh tons.

Some of the statues which had been intentionally destroyed in antiquity could not be completely salvaged. At the outset of the project it was presumed that restoration would be restricted to the well-documented pre-war status of the images but it soon became apparent that new discoveries could also be made. These concerned not only corrections of earlier joins, but also attributions of previously un-joined fragments. Many pieces of relief from Oppenheim’s excavations which could not be attributed during the initial restoration work at the end of the 1920s could now be properly associated with others for the first time.


In only eight years more than 30 stone statues could be reassembled, despite the fact that only a few of the larger ones had been shattered into less than 1,000 fragments. Over eighty architectural elements and stone tools could also be restored to their original form. In January 2011, 68 years after the bombing of the Tell Halaf Museum – and 65 years after Oppenheim’s death – the restored sculptures could be once again exhibited in a museum. Over 800,000 visitors saw “The Tell Halaf Adventure” (Die geretteten Götte raus dem Palast von Tell Halaf), one of the most successful exhibitions in the history of Berlin’s State Museums. After completion of the general refurbishment of the Pergamon Museum, the sculptures (presently in storage) will finally again be accessible to the public on Museum Island.

Head of a monumental statue of a god, Berlin 2005

No sculpture captivated Max von Oppenheim more than the “Enthroned Goddess.” This funerary statue was unearthed entirely intact, erected upon a mud-brick platform over a burial shaft. When first exhibited in the Tell Halaf Museum, the sculpture’s quadratic form made an exceptionally modern impression when seen against the backdrop of Cubism, the avant-garde movement among sculptors and painters in the early 20th century.
Reassembled from more than 900 fragments, Oppenheim’s “bride” has lost none of her original charm, despite her unmistakable war “wounds”: The ‘Enthroned Goddess’ […] draws all attention to herself. The initial impression, made by the statue’s unwieldy, cube-like contours, is forgotten when attention focuses on her upper body and face. Her majestic bearing confronts the observer. Her broad countenance which tapers to a pointed chin is dominated by a long, broad, and sharp nose and framed by thick tresses falling free from her temples over implicit breasts. A more marked contrast to the immaculate beauty of Nefertiti is hardly imaginable – and yet, the same magic emanates from this sculpture.” (translation after Dieter Bartetzko, Wucht und Würde der Preziösen, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 29.1.2011, p. 33.)