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How a 27,000-piece jigsaw puzzle was solved

From Diana Magnay, CNN
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Completing a giant jigsaw puzzle
  • Treasures from Tell Halaf palace were taken to a private museum in Berlin in 1930
  • They were destroyed during British bombing in 1943
  • Restorers have now pieced together the 27,000 fragments
  • The statues are now being displayed at Berlin's Pergamon Museum

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In February, we visit Germany and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

Berlin (CNN) -- A collection of ancient statues destroyed during the British bombing of Berlin in World War II have been painstakingly restored and are being displayed.

It has taken nine years to piece together the 27,000 fragments of the 3,000-year-old Tell Halaf treasures taken from what is now Syria by the German archaeologist and wealthy collector Max von Oppenheim early in the 20th century.

Lutz Martin, co-ordinator of the restoration project, said: "'We started in 2001. The first step was to lay out all the fragments on an area of 600 square meters and then we started to sort the material. Our tools were only our eyes, our brains, our endurance and our patience."

The results are now the focus of an exhibition in Berlin's Pergamon Museum that attracted 10,000 visitors in its first three days.

Gallery: Tell Halaf rises from the ruins

The royal palace of Tell Halaf, in what is now Syria, was adorned with statues of gods, their sacred animals and mythical creatures carved by Aramaic tribesmen in the first century B.C.

Oppenheim, a diplomat and enthusiast of the Arab world, discovered the remains of Tell Halaf in 1899. He obtained permission to excavate the site and gave up his diplomatic career to concentrate on the project, which started 12 years later.

The excavation was interrupted by World War I, and was not completed until nearly 30 years after his first discovery. The treasures were divided between a museum in Aleppo, Syria, and Oppenheim, who returned with his share to Germany.

Our tools were only our eyes, our brains, our endurance and our patience.
--Lutz Martin, restoration co-ordinator
  • Archaeology
  • Museums
  • Berlin

Nadja Cholidis, curator of the project, said: "He opened his own museum in 1930 in a former iron foundry. This museum was destroyed in an air raid in 1943 and everyone thought that his collection was lost forever."

The blaze from the bombing destroyed all the limestone objects. Those made from basalt withstood the heat, but not the cold water used to extinguish the fire, which caused them to fracture.

According to exhibition materials, Oppenheim said after the bombing: "It would be truly wonderful if the smashed fragments from the stone images could somehow be gathered together, brought to the National Museums and reassembled at a later date.

"In the case of this collection, it would, however, be a tremendous task, since the sculptures have been shattered into countless, often minute fragments," he went on.

Oppenheim persuaded Walter Andrae, director of the department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Pergamon Museum, to salvage nine truckloads of basalt fragments.

They remained in the basement of the Pergamon Museum -- Berlin's famous archaeological museum and part of the National Museums complex -- for 50 years.

In the 1990s, after the reunification of Berlin, a survey of the fragments raised hopes that at least some of the sculptures could be saved.

The meticulous work to put together the pieces took most of the 2000s and resembled a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle.

In addition to the re-assembled archaeological treasures, the exhibition includes historical footage, photographs and sound recordings telling the story of the Oppenheim's expedition, the bombing and the subsequent restoration.

The Tell Halaf Adventure exhibition runs until August 14 at the Pergamon Museum.

Catriona Davies contributed to this report

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