From the Ashes: Reviving Ancient Works in Berlin

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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....

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