Week Three Answers

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Week #3 Trade of Antiquities Answers

May 3, 2021

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Many participants answered that the foreign excavators Joseph spoke about were from Turkey, the US, and Germany, and they were quite correct! In a diary entry dated from Tuesday 18 April 1899, we hear from Joseph that Bedri Bey was looking for artefacts for the Museum of Antiquities in Constantinople, a museum also building its own collections. He had arrived from Aleppo to meet with the first German-led excavation, conducted in Babylon (Hillah) in that year. In May, Mr. Greer, a member of the American mission excavating in Nippur (Nuffar), would board Joseph’s ship as a first class passenger to go to Basra on account of his health. Later in the year, Joseph would meet other Americans involved in the Nippur excavations, began in 1888.


The USA and Germany were in fact late players in the race to extract artefacts from Iraqi soil and send them abroad to enrich national museums. The foreign nations that began the large-scale (and often frenzied) excavations of ancient Iraqi sites were France and the United Kingdom, in the mid nineteenth century. The French Consul in Mosul, Paul Emile Botta, had begun to excavate the mound of Kuyunjik (Nineveh) in December 1842, moving three months later to the nearby village of Khorsabad. Botta felt he was not finding much of interest in Nineveh, and when a dyer from Khorsabad, intrigued by the excavations, told Botta he would find monuments in his village because people there had themselves discovered ancient inscriptions when digging the foundations of new homes, Botta quickly moved there. As a result of this advice, Botta uncovered many artefacts and monumental statues that were shipped to the Louvre in Paris, exhibited there in May 1847. They are still there today.


The UK quickly followed to enrich its national collections. The British explorer Henri Layard (not yet a Sir then) began to excavate the Kuyunjik mound too in October 1845, and also in Nimrud in November of that year. Layard uncovered many ancient statues and numerous artefacts in Nimrud, following the advice of local people. He would be successful in finding ancient palaces in Nineveh, as well as around 30,000 ancient texts written on clay tablets (many broken), still phenomenally important in modern scholarship, and part of what is now known as the famous ‘Library’ of king Ashurbanipal. These artefacts were sent to the British Museum also, and remain there today.


Finally, a few traps were set in this multiple-choice question, in the spirit of playfulness! Joseph did not meet anyone from Spain or Italy conducting excavations in 1899. 

Featured Answer

“I suppose one of the more straightforward motivations was the large amount of money involved in these deals. However, a more internal motivation may have been Géjou’s desire to disseminate, honor and preserve ancient Iraqi or Mesopotamian culture, given that Géjou himself was Iraqi-French. Perhaps trading antiquities was also an act of deliberate subversion against Ottoman rule, and against the forced Westernization of Iraqi culture under the regime. In an ironic turn of events, the symbolic devaluation of Iraqi culture at the time seemed to be countered by the financial appreciation of ancient Mesopotamian cultural artifacts in the West.”

– Kathleen Muenzen, in response to question one