A Study of Fatimid Metalwork from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

PEF in the Field Blog

A Study of Fatimid Metalwork from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, (June 2017)

30 June 2018

Gregory Bilotto

My PhD research at SOAS University of London covers utilitarian and higher-quality metalwork produced under the Fatimids in Egypt, Ifriqiya (North Africa), and Bilad al-Sham (Levant) from the 4th-6th H/ 10th-12th CE centuries. The utilitarian objects range from buckets, pans, pots, and tools, while higher-quality objects include incense burners, lamps, lampstands, and pomanders. The Palestine Exploration Fund generously provided funding to examine several examples of these objects during June 2017 in the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. This study was a continuation from my earlier research in May 2016 on metalwork excavated from Fatimid Caesarea and Tiberias, which was also funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund.

Certain objects in the Keir Collection of Islamic Art matched those excavated from Fatimid Bilad al-Sham including a large bucket, two smaller buckets, and a ladle. The remaining Keir metalwork consisted of zoomorphic figural objects and examples of this type surviving today are exceptionally rare (Figs. 1-4). It was, therefore, necessary to examine these objects in Dallas to attain further data and the most important information collected was on surface decoration, which adorned many of the fauna objects (Fig. 4). Although the original research plan at the museum included additional days of study, certain objects were unfortunately unavailable and the remaining days were used to discuss my research with relevant experts and study another collection.

After departing from Dallas, I travelled to College Station, Texas, and met George Bass and Fredrick van Doorninck, two nautical archaeologists from Texas A&M University. Amazingly, George Bass explored HMS Titanic in a submarine with Dr Robert Ballard, but more relevant to my research the pair excavated a shipwreck found near Serce Limani, Turkey. The ship once sailed from Fatimid Bilad al-Sham to a Byzantine port with glass cullet and metalwork, and after extensive discussion, I was able to gain information helpful to my research and a better understanding of the metalwork recovered from the wreck. I then arrived in Houston, Texas, to visit both the Islamic art collection in the Museum of Fine Arts and meet Paula Sanders, dean at Rice University and an expert on Fatimid history and texts. Although the museum has several metal objects, only a set of tools was perhaps datable to the Fatimids (Figure 5). Finally, reviewing my research with Paula Sanders was a very rewarding experience, and I was able to learn important contextual information for the metal objects.

I am truly grateful to the Palestine Exploration Fund for continuing to fund my research on Fatimid metalwork, and without their support, it would not have been possible to study any of the metal objects in the Keir Collection of Islamic Art or discuss my research with relevant experts.

Figure 1 – A view of Fatimid and other metalwork kept in the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. Photo by G Bilotto, June 2017.

Figure 2 – A closer view of mainly Fatimid zoomorphic figural metalwork from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art. Photo by G Bilotto, June 2017.

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Figure 3 – The theme of a lion attacking a gazelle was an ancient symbol of royal power perpetuated during the Fatimid period and sometimes reflected in metalwork. This object from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art was a protome and likely served as a handle. A nearly identical example was excavated in Tiberias. Photo courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art, June 2017.

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Figure 4 – The goat figure (half) from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art decorated with imagery of people wearing Fatimid period dress and seated below Fatimid keel arches is unique in Islamic art and especially with metalwork. Photo courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art, June 2017.

Figure 5 – A set of medical tools possibly datable to Fatimid Egypt (likely Fustat) and kept in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by G Bilotto, June 2017.

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