Today we are all too aware of the appalling damage inflicted by ISIS on the ancient sites of Iraq and Syria – the mindless destruction of the wondrous remains of one of the greatest civilizations of ancient times; a civilization that stands comparison with those of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
We are also aware of the growing clamour for the return of ancient artefacts from museums in the West to their country of origin – Pre-Columbian antiquities; bronzes from Benin; and above all, the Elgin Marbles.
One of the supreme glories of the British Museum are the Assyrian antiquities brought from the near East in the middle of the nineteenth century by Sir Austen Henry Layard and whatever the rights and wrongs of this, we can only give thanks that so much of this civilization is safely preserved here in London (and also for other artefacts brought to Paris by Layard’s French contemporary Emile Botta).
Layard, (1817–1894), of Huguenot descent, was born in a Paris hotel. As a young man he was drawn to the exotic and made a journey to the Middle East in 1839 accompanied by Edward Mitford.
Layard and Mitford travelled through the Ottoman Empire, visiting Constantinople, and Jerusalem. They stayed in Mosul and Baghdad before parting company. Layard spent time in the Bakhtiari Mountains in Persia before returning to Baghdad and Mosul, where he had become fascinated by mounds opposite Mosul which the French consul, Emil Botta, was exploring. His funds exhausted, Layard returned to Constantinople in the summer of 1842, expecting to have to return to England. However, he made himself known to Stratford Canning, British ambassador to the Porte who employed him to go on two missions in European Turkey. As a consequence of this, in 1845, he persuaded Canning to support excavation work on the mounds near Mosul.
Layard left Constantinople in October and began to dig the mound of Nimrud. He uncovered three palaces, most importantly that of Ashurnasirpal II, and many notable objects including the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III and several pairs of human-headed winged lions and bulls. Layard began excavations at Kuyunjik, nearer Mosul, and quickly discovered the largest Assyrian palace, that of Sennacherib. Forced to end excavations and return to Constantinople, Layard claimed that Nimrud
was Nineveh. Only after the publication of his first book did he realize that it was not, and that Kuyunjik was. Layard returned to London in December 1847. When his book Nineveh and its Remains was published early in 1849 it had an enthusiastic reception. So did the arrival of the Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum.
Layard was appointed an attaché at Constantinople in April 1849, but between October 1849 and April 1851 conducted major excavations at Kuyunjik, funded by the British Museum and described in a second book, Nineveh and Babylon (1853). These yielded further important trophies and discoveries, including the cuneiform library of Sennacherib’s grandson Ashurbanipal, on which most modern knowledge of Assyrian culture is founded.
Layard was admired not only as a fearless, independently minded English explorer who had in effect rediscovered a lost civilization, but also, on account of Assyrian references to biblical names and events, as someone who had ‘made the Bible true.’