Saturday, 14 November 2015

Sons of the desert.

It's interesting to reflect on the influence that past archaeological investigations have had on our modern way of seeing the world.  Before the military campaigns of Napolean people in the west had heard of Egypt, but just had a general sense of it being a hot country far away.   In medieval times they knew the country was Moslem and therefore the opposite of good Christians, and very likely the kind of people the crusades were being fought against.  But as for having a good solid well formed picture of Egypt and its people the western idea was as a fanciful but rather indistinct place where magic might be real and possible, as in Mozart's The Magic Flute.

But it could be said that our present picture of Egypt is still the pyramids first, and the people second.  It's the impact that the discovery of the actual remains of this past civilisation had on the west, its artists, thinkers and scientists that still colours our thinking today.  The strangeness of Egyptian art for people who had based their vision on that of the renaissance which in turn was derived from the classical Greeks and Romans, must have been profound.  They couldn't dismiss it  (Though I'm sure some must have done) as being crude and without value, for any contemplation of the best sculpture and architecture from ancient Egypt shows that they were extremely sophisticated.  And wasn't there a Roman connection?  Hadn't the Romans conquered the place?  Hadn't Julius Caesar and Cleopatra got it on together?  They must be alright then.

The West's 'discovery' of Egypt fed into its art ever since and influenced more strongly than many other cultures.  But there were a few others that had an effect, and although they might not be as recognisable as Egyptian cultural heritage they have been acknowledged as very influential.  When I was a kid I was very interested in history but remember when I looked through a history textbook, I found certain parts of it less interesting than others.  I found chapters about the Assyrians difficult to get along with, as at the time I didn't 'get' their art, or dress or their inexplicable liking for long curly beards.  It wasn't until I was about twenty- nine that I finally got the Assyrians.

Gloomy nineteenth century engraving of John Martins 'Fall of Nineveh'
I read a book by an American named Arnold C Brackman called 'The Luck of Nineveh' and found it engrossing; an account of the discovery of a whole lost culture from top to bottom.  In the 1820s the Assyrians were people who appeared in the Bible, and nowhere else.  The Bible refers to the capital city of Nineveh as 'that great city', but there wasn't a single brick, a single line of writing, not one sculpture or wall painting, not one thing that could serve as evidence of its existence.  Historians talked about them as being a Biblical metaphor, not real in any other sense, just there to point a moral.  The Old Testament of the Bible tells how various vassal states of the Assyrian Empire got tired of being under Assyrian control and at last came together and marched a huge army on Nineveh.

 The cities dissipated emperor, Ashurbanipal (aka Sardanapalus) realising that the jig was up, created a massive funeral pyre inside his palace where he died alongside all his concubines and eunuchs (who had no choice) in one massive conflagration which ended the 800 year old empire.  The Bible has no good word to say about Assyria, it being in the minds of the writers of the Old Testament the very home of evil, and this is why historians believed it to be a Biblical metaphor for all bad things.  The Israelite prophet Nahum writing about Nineveh says 'Woe to the bloody city, it is all lies and wickedness!'  And later, after the destruction, 'Shattered is Nineveh, who shall pity her?'.  But all this comes from one book, with nothing in the way of real evidence.  The prophet Ezekiel said about the cities long standing greatness,  'Behold, the Assyrian is a cedar of Lebanon, and under his shadow dwell all great nations.'   So where were they, why, if the Bible account was correct were there no ruins, no artefacts ?

Drawing of Austen Henry Layard drawing at Kuyunjik, the site of Nineveh.
Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817 - 1894) was the son of a merchant and diplomat of French Huguenot decent, and from an early age he displayed an aptitude for languages and adventure.  By the time he started out across Europe in 1839 with a friend heading for Ceylon to take up a post with the civil service he already spoke fluent French and Italian, and had seen at the British Museum (but unknown to him or anyone else at the time) an actual piece of Assyrian writing on a tablet - writing that we now call cuneiform.  Layards companion Edward Mitford decided to take the cross- land route because he disliked sea travel and because it gave them both a chance to study more of the antiquities along the way.  They intended to go through Europe, Asia Minor, Central Asia, down the Indian subcontinent and then across Adam's bridge, a chain of dangerous sandbanks which separated India from Ceylon.  But it didn't quite work out that way.  Layard and Mitford detoured into Mesopotamia (Now modern Iraq) and Layard became interested in the surrounding culture and languages.  Here Layard met an Italian born French researcher named Paolo Emilio Botta who had been digging in strange earthen mounds that stood in the deserts of northern Iraq.  Today we know these mounds, called tells, are the remains of very ancient cities made of mud bricks that have eroded into dust.
The removal of the giant 'Lamassu' sculptures from the Kuyunjik mound.
Botta had the idea that there might be something of value in them, and even had a few tiles like the one Layard had seen in the British Museum.  Suddenly Layard saw the sense of the digging and became inspired to do some himself, just as Botta became discouraged from continuing.  From the moment he made his decision Layard entered in to the world of the thousand and one nights, he had adventure, some within the diplomatic service, romance, learnt languages by the handful and also managed to rediscover an entire civilization.  Although Europeans were a novelty to the people of Iraq at that time (They spoke of Europeans as 'the Franks', harking back to French crusaders) Layard could speak their language well, dressed like them and was charming and likeable.  He had problems from time to time but never any lack of co-operation.  Digging into a particular tell called Kuyunjik near the small town of Mosul he uncovered perhaps his finest contribution to world archaeology, the ruins of the city of Nineveh.  The mound twenty or thirty feet deep from top to ground level was once the large mud brick palaces of the Assyrian kings, each unfired brick that made up the walls had crumbled and formed a vast pile of dirt that had been seeded with grass and flowers over centuries and so the mounds had grown.  The mound had been known for thousands of years, the Greek general Xenophon had marched troops past it two hundred years after its collapse and had noted ; We marched one stage, six parasangs, to the great stronghold, deserted and lying in ruins'. 

Layards own reconstruction of the interior of a palace throne room.
Inside the mound although the brick and plaster structure had completely degraded, the shape of the walls could still be discerned because the builders had lined the walls with beautiful alabaster carvings of hunting scenes, battles, scenes of fishing, feasting and depictions of the gods.  And at the site of each gate into the palace complex were the most famous Assyrian sculptures of all, the winged 'Lamassu', giant stone sculptures depicting winged bulls with men's heads.  They were gate guardians, spirits seen throughout Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian art.  Layard discovered the very first seen by the western world.  They also discovered the 'cedar works' mentioned in the Bible, the huge wooden beams that had once supported the roofs, some badly burnt in the final destruction.  And maybe more importantly, they discovered libraries of clay tablets with the unknown arrow headed lettering, great rooms filled with tablets which were carefully taken and recorded.  This writing wasn't deciphered until about 1855, and the real mass of this work was done by an Irish clergyman named Dr Edward Hincks.  It helped to identify all of the Assyrian kings mentioned in the Bible and formed a chronology that gave a better understanding of their time and place in history.

Photograph from the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, showing part of the Assyrian court.
 Layard had discovered Nineveh and the Assyrian empire when still a young man, but its study filled the rest of his life and the impact of the artefacts he discovered was felt all around the world.  At the 1851 exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London there were arcades of reconstructed historical periods, and as well as a Greek, Roman, medieval and Egyptian arcade, there was an Assyrian arcade, complete with a gate and painted Lamassu.  The great museums of the world competed to aquire Lamassu and other assyrian sculpture for their own collections and Layard was knighted in 1878.  He served in the Liberal party in various government posts, but found himself gradually sidelined from archaeology by changes at the British Museum which was a great frustration and disappointment to him.  His position in the history of archaeology has suffered over time because he made his discovery when young and then spent the rest of his life in the less than riveting arena of politics, unlike Heinrich Schliemann who made a big splash after he had become a multi millionaire and had all that business behind him.

Brackman's Luck of Nineveh was written between 1976 and 78, but as good as it is, it doesn't seem that Layard is any bigger in the public consciousness.  His life would make a great film or TV series, but whether that happens or not its certainly time for Layard to be more generally known.




  1. Wow! I really enjoyed this. As I posted on FB and elsewhere, it has history, romance and adventure in spades. Fitting, really, as Ninevah was dug up with spades.

  2. Hi Sue,


    Glad you enjoyed it,

    They actually found that joke in the Nineveh Libraries by the way - right next to 'my little dog has no nose' :-)