chapter  21
Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh (Austen Henry Layard, 1817–1894)
Pages 5

Layard dominated the “heroic” phase of nineteenth century Assyrian archeology. He was a many-sided man-adventurer, diplomat, connoisseur of art, lively writer, Member of Parliament, and tireless archeologist. An imaginative amateur seized with a passion for lost civilizations, he learned what he needed to know along the way. He was born in Paris and grew up in Florence amidst art treasures.

He spoke fluent French and Italian. As a youth he dreamed of traveling to the Middle East in search of vanished peoples. He schooled himself in surveying, map making and started learning rudiments of Middle Eastern languages. In 1836 he became a lawyer and went to work in a solicitor’s office, a stuffy profession that did not last long for such a restless man. By 1840 he was in Mesopotamia at Mosul on the Tigris River with a companion climbing over drab earthen mounds that concealed ancient Nineveh. Resources amounted to little more than back packs. The 1840s brought Assyria to light with intoxicating speed. While

Layard tunneled into the giant mounds, Henry Rawlinson was learning to read ancient Mesopotamian languages written in the wedge-like script called cuneiform. The discoveries came faster than European scholars could absorb them. The unearthing of Assyria pushed the history and achievements of Mesopotamian civilization back centuries before the Greeks and biblical times. Before Layard’s efforts, Assyria was barely known. Artifacts were few. The British Museum had “the principal, and indeed almost only, collection of Assyrian antiquities in Europe. A case scarcely three feet square enclosed all that remained, not only of the great city, Nineveh, but of Babylon itself ! Other museums in Europe contained a few cylinders and gems … but they were not classified, nor could it be determined to what exact epoch they belonged. Of Assyrian art nothing was known. The architecture of Nineveh and Babylon was a matter of speculation … ” (xi). Assyrian civilization lasted from the twelfth century to 609 B.C. and

was one of the last great Mesopotamian empires. Conquests of Assyrian kings were notably cruel and ruthless. Their temperament and behavior are suggested visually by brutal war and hunting scenes in surviving bas reliefs. Kings built magnificent palaces decorated with sculptural scenes of the highest quality. Discovery of a royal library at Nineveh unearthed thousands of baked clay cuneiform tablets that supplied source material for what is known about Mesopotamian civilization in general and the Assyrians in particular. Moving northward along the Tigris River from Ashur, the first

capital and an Assyrian god, were successive capitals of Nimrud, Nineveh, and Khorsabad. Layard excavated at the Assyrian city of Nimrud from 1845 to 1847 and 1849 to 1851. Nimrud is located in upper Mesopotamia near the conjunction of the Tigris and Greater Zab Rivers. He worked later at Nineveh, whose site is across the Tigris from Mosul. The publications that flowed from Layard’s eight years of excavation included hundreds of drawings he made on the spot.

In the absence of photography, his skill executing detailed sketches from life not only preserved items that later decayed or were lost but offered his reading public a feast of visual marvels from remote antiquity. Layard’s popular account, with the word “Nineveh” in its title,

actually relates excavations mostly at Nimrud. The word “popular” is a bit misleading. Thirteen chapters are packed with detail about sites, excavations, finds, preservation, shipment abroad, physical, political, other obstacles faced by Layard, and some 72 finely drawn illustrations. He discusses the cuneiform script in an introduction. His narrative explains that archeology in Mesopotamia was a perilous business. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkish rule was widely resented. For a while Layard’s efforts were thwarted by the corrupt, devious governor of Mosul, who was later dismissed and imprisoned for his misdeeds. Layard started working at Nimrud during an uprising against the tyrant. The countryside was volatile, badly policed, and unsafe for travelers. Food and shelter were mediocre. In summer the heat, well over a hundred degrees, sapped strength, will, and undermined health. Yet the uninviting landscape touched Layard as philosopher and

discoverer: