Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
Researchers studying the ancient Middle East draw on more sources than ancient objects, texts, and landscapes. A very important source of information is archives—that is, documents produced in more modern times by excavators, museum staff, and other scholars. They can offer valuable information about when, where or how objects were found, how they were traded on the antiquities markets, or how and why scholars interpreted them the way they did.
One of the most important figures from the early days of Assyriology is a Victorian explorer called Austen Henry Layard. He left behind a rich body of notes and letters. They shed light on pioneering excavations in the capitals of ancient Assyria, and his subsequent publications of them, as well as his continued involvement in archaeology once he had taken up a life in politics.
Our guest is a historian who has worked for years on various archives relating to Layard. She explains what survives, and why it’s so important for us to study these modern documents.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure for me to be here today.
Can you tell us please: who are you and what you do?
My name is Stefania Ermidoro. I am an assyriologist and historian of the ancient Near East. And my research mostly focus[es] on ancient Assyria in the first millennium BC. So I’m currently a research fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where I study a particular feature of cuneiform tablets, which belong to the so-called “Library of Ashurbanipal”. So right now I’m focusing on the so-called “firing holes” on cuneiform tablets, but I’ve also studied food and drinking in ancient Assyria. And in the past years, I have been also focusing on the rediscovery of ancient Assyria in modern times. In particular, through the figure of the archaeologist of the Victorian age named Austen Henry Layard.
What was Layard famous for doing?
So the name Austen Henry Layard perhaps doesn’t ring any bell to those who are listening to us today. But in fact, he was a true celebrity in the past, among his contemporaries, because he was known as the man who made the Bible true. Basically, he embarked on an adventurous journey in 1839. Originally, he was intended to reach Sri Lanka where he was supposed to work as a solicitor. But in fact, he never reached his final destination. He stopped in the Middle East, and he began perhaps the most important archeological excavations in the Assyrian capitals, particularly in Nineveh, and Nimrud. And those were names which were mentioned in the Bible. So for the first time, ancient cities which were thought to exist, but which were never found were brought back to life. So that’s why he became so famous. And he stayed in Mesopotamia for only seven years, but he made such incredible discoveries there, that he came back in the UK, in England, as a hero.
Ever since his first discoveries, Layard was committed to spreading the knowledge of ancient Assyria and its history at every level of the European society. So for example, he discussed assyriological issues with crowned heads, to social workers, he presented lectures at universities. He talked about Assyria to the nobles, to the working classes. He published many books. So he was really playing a leading role for the spreading of assyriology and the knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history. And for example, he participated in major events such as the Great Exhibition in London, which was held in 1851 where there was a huge Nineveh Pavilion. So he really is a crucial personality for the ancient Near Eastern Studies. And he became so famous that he could enter politics and he ended up being the ambassador in Istanbul, the ancient Constantinople. Yes. So that’s why he became so famous for his incredible discoveries in the Near East, which he also published in a few books, which are thought to be the first archaeological bestseller[s] ever published in the modern times.
Why is it so important for a historian of the ancient Middle East to study Layard?
Well, basically, because he is one of the founder of the ancient Near Eastern studies. It’s also very important, I think, to know how the knowledge of our own discipline, developed through time from the very beginning until today. If it wasn’t for him, and for his discoveries, we wouldn’t have many of the materials that we currently study. And he was also very active in the study and the decipherment of the cuneiform script. And he worked together with leading scholars of the Akkadian language of his time. And also with the scholars who were at the British Museum. He contributed to the creation of the collections of the British Museum. So the amazing ancient materials we see today in London, were mostly shipped to the UK by Layard. And he also published, as I mentioned before, these volumes in which he described what he saw in Assyria, in the ancient capitals he was excavating. And he also described what we cannot see anymore, basically. So that’s why it is important.
And also in the new type of studies that are currently ongoing in the ancient Near Eastern discipline, we are also focusing recently on the archival documents written by Layard. So, reports, diaries written in the field, and letters sent to friends and families, where he described some details which would otherwise be lost in the official documentation. So through all these types of documents and materials, we get a better idea of the earliest discoveries which were made in the 19th century in the ancient capitals of Assyria. So the history of ancient Near Eastern studies, it’s a brand new discipline. But it’s already revealing very interesting details. Also for us today.
You mentioned that that Layard was connected to the decipherment of cuneiform. He published many drawings of cuneiform inscriptions, for example, but it doesn’t seem clear that he could read cuneiform. Do the archive shed light on that aspect of his work?
Well, I personally think that he was a very good observer. So ever since the beginning of his excavations, he was writing to Rawlinson, noticing duplicates, or variations in very similar inscriptions. So he was very good in observing the signs, and pointing out any difference or similarity, and in making connections amongst the many inscriptions that he copied. So he noticed, for example, when some formulas were recurrent, even in different inscriptions. He had a very good memory. But in terms of being able to read, well, he didn’t make any discovery by himself. He was basically following either Rawlinson or Hincks. At least, that’s my opinion. And he was discussing their discoveries, but he never made a discovery about cuneiform decipherment by himself. That’s my opinion. But again, his help was crucial for the two scholars–both for Rawlinson and Hincks. Because he was the one who could provide them the materials and discuss with them while he was in the field. So they could ask him to find something new for them. And he would do that for sure.
What sources do we have that help us learn about Layard’s activities?
Surely, Layard was a prolific writer. So if we look at what he wrote, besides three major books, there were many articles, pamphlets, reports, letters, and literally thousands of letters are kept today in London. In fact, when he died, his wife bequeathed all these materials to the British Museum. And later all these papers which are known today as the Layard Papers are kept in the British Library in London. And these are extremely interesting. And in fact, despite the fact that many scholars are reading them, there are still hundreds of letters which are unread. So, so many information to be discovered, are waiting for us in London. And in my opinion, these manuscripts are a real treasure, because there is always something new to learn. And besides this, there are many more smaller archives. Smaller only in terms of quantity, not in terms of how interesting they are. For example, I have studied an archive in Newcastle, which was unknown until 2016. And these minor archives are very interesting because they often have a more personal character. They’re less official. And they give us the idea of how Layard really was, what he really thought. And what he really did, in fact, because there are a few details that were lost in the official documentation.
What information do we learn from these sources?
So in broad terms, archives, of course, give us detail[s] of practical things. So what they did, but we also get to know how Layard thought. So for example, one very interesting thing that I’ve discovered in these archives is that, contrary to what scholars often wrote about Layard, he was not interested in Assyria only in the earliest part of his life–so while he was in Mesopotamia. But indeed these archives reveal to us that he kept on following Assyrian studies and Assyrian discoveries, He kept on writing to the British Museum asking for information for publication[s]. He kept on talking about ancient Assyria also in the second part of his life, while he was into politics and a diplomat. So it really helps us in again, discovering something new about our own discipline.
Also, I think it is relevant to highlight that through Layard’s archive, we get to know more information about European museums and collections. Because not only Layard sent back to London many of the items which he discovered in Assyria, he also had a very important private collection, which he then later somehow donated to friends and family. So through his letters, we get to know to whom he sent some items from his collection. And he also sent a few items to European museums. So, for example, I have recently discovered that he sent some items in Lausanne in Switzerland. And I have studied the pieces he sent in Venice, and many more. So through his archival sources, we also get to know something more about European museums.
Before his archaeological career, he spent several years living in the Middle East. Do the archives tell us about this early part of his life?
No, not really. We have letters which he sent to his mother and aunt mostly. So from there we have the earliest description of his first impact with the Near East. In Newcastle, I have found some very nice sketches, made in pencil, which witness to his travel. So for example, I have found a nice sketch of some waterfalls that are in Croatia. So this would be a witness of the earliest month[s] of his travel when he was still in the Balkans. But not as many. He mostly began to keep records, reports and so on of his adventures, so-called, in the East, when he started his excavations. Or at least that’s what he decided to keep. And in the other archives, which I could study, there are a few things, a few items that are interesting, but not as many.
Can we learn about the local diggers and overseers who worked for him?
There are a few interesting details, and especially the first letters which he sent to his mother and aunt. There are very interesting details about how the workmen were excavating in the field. Some of them were also then repeated in the official publications, but not all of them. Yes, so again, it also describes what he was doing. So either copying inscriptions or copying reliefs, while the other men were working. And also, we know how the excavation could go on while he was not present in Assyria. So he went back to London for a few months in between his two archaeological excavations. And while he was not in Assyria, he left the supervision of the excavation to a friend of his named Ross. And through the letters exchanged between Ross and Layard, we get to know how the excavation could go on, even without his presence in the field. So, again, archives are quite revealing in this respect as well.
What do the archives represent, then? Do we essentially have everything he wrote? Or were they just a selection?
Well, that’s a very interesting question. Thanks for this. So the Layard papers that [are] kept at the British Library, they were carefully selected by Layard himself and by his wife. Layard was very keen in providing a well defined image of himself. So he was very careful in making public only the documents which he really intended to be known, so that he could shape a very good image of himself. And that’s what makes the other, the so-called “minor archives”, even more interesting, if that’s possible. Because, for example, the Newcastle archive, it is a family archive. It was mostly managed by women, so by Layard’s wife Enid, and her sisters. And so there is not so much selection amongst the documents. And that’s why we get a more original and a more true, if possible, image of Layard through these archives. Many of these archives belong to Layard’s friends. And they kept all the letters from Layard. So in these other archives, there is no selection. But in the main archives kept in the British Library, and also the few documents that are in the British Museum, they were indeed selected carefully by Layard and Enid. That’s for sure.
So do the archives, especially the non-curated parts, agree with what Layard says in his publications?
Well, not entirely. They do not entirely agree. For sure, they add more details to the official story. So we get to know more information about his discoveries in the field, or also about his activities as ambassador in Madrid, and in the ancient Constantinople, now Istanbul. So they add many details, which Layard decided to keep secret for a reason or another. That’s for sure. That’s the main difference, I think, from what we know from the official reports. So more details, which perhaps give us an image of Layard that it’s not what he wanted to give. And at times, yes, they also give us a different story from the official one. So what he writes in the book doesn’t always correspond to the truth, and what we get to know especially from his letters sent to his family and friends from the field.
Can you give an example of what you mean?
Yeah, so for example, where he was where something was discovered. At times in his book, we read he was present when some important discoveries were made, some particular relief was found. But then if we read that letter sent to his aunt, we are informed that he was called because he was in a different spot of the field. And then someone called him and he ran back to the spot where the discovery was made. Or this kind of thing. So minor things. Not something that will rewrite the history of the studies of the ancient Near East. But still, that confirms the fact that he wanted to present himself as a self-made man who made amazing discoveries all by himself. So sometimes he attributed to himself, discoveries, which in fact were made by someone else.
You’re working on a book on the Layard archives, aren’t you? Could you tell us something about that, please?
Yes, of course. So as I mentioned before, I have studied a still unknown and unpublished archive, which is kept in Newcastle University in UK. And that gave me the opportunity to study also other so-called “minor archives” from Layard, which were never published. And the interesting thing of this[=these] document[s] is that they give us a more genuine, a more original, image of Austen Henry Layard than the one which is known through his official biographies. So, what I am planning to do is to write this monograph in which I will highlight his role for the studies of the ancient Near East, not only as I mentioned in the earliest years of his adventurous life, but also and mostly on the second part of his life.
So for example, I will highlight his connections with Schliemann and with other archaeologists of his time. Layard was British ambassador in Constantinople. He just came back to London after his retirement as a British ambassador in Constantinople, when Schliemann was excavating in the ancient Troy, so the site of Hissarlik. Basically, Schliemann wrote many times to Layard asking him to intercede, to write, to the Ottoman authorities, so that he could get the permission to excavate in the site where he wanted to excavate. So Hissarlik. And Layard was instrumental in this. So we know for sure that he was the man who could obtain the permit for Schliemann, so that he could go and excavate at Troy. I will highlight his connections with crowned heads throughout Europe. And I will also highlight his connections with European museum[s]. So hopefully, that’s what will come from my publication.
So the Layard archives are relevant not just for the study of archaeology in Iraq, but for the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean more broadly?
Yes, I’m pretty sure about it. And in fact, I have found many letters that attest to his help in getting permits, not only in Hissarlik, but also at Van, for example, or in Cyprus. So there are many letters sent to and from Palma di Cesnola. And, indeed, his archives are rich with the letters sent by or to archaeologists all over the world, basically. For sure, they prove that he was instrumental in getting permits, even for the ancient Assyria. So even when he came back from Mesopotamia, he was still helping the British Museum to get these permit[s], so that his successors in the field could work after he left Assyria. So I’m sure that the archives will reveal even more about his very important and crucial role for the ancient Near Eastern excavation, even in the second part of his life.
When can we expect your book?
Well, that’s a very good question. Hopefully, I will be able to finish it … to write it … at least have a first draft by the end of this year. I was hoping even before. Let’s say the autumn. But yeah, it will depend. But hopefully by the end of 2021, a first draft will be submitted. So fingers crossed.
How can we follow your work otherwise?
Well, I mostly upload all my work in Academia … on the Academia website. I also have a personal webpage at the Ca’ Foscari University website. So hopefully, you will find everything I will publish in the future there. Of course, for sure, there is already what I’ve published so far. A few articles on Layard have already appeared. And they are already available online.
Can you tell us something about those please?
Yes. So in the first papers I published, I began to highlight the importance of the Newcastle University archive, which is a bit heterogeneous. For example, there is also a photo album. And there is a couple of paintings ,of portraits, of Layard’s wife. So it’s not only about ancient Near Eastern archaeology, but it is very relevant. There are a few documents which were still unknown. For example, some maps of the Assyrian palaces, which Layard excavated in Nimrud, which are still unknown and are very interesting, because we have the original room numbers, which he gave while he was in the field. And then there is, for example, a piece of pottery, which joins a particular vessel which is kept in the British Museum. So there are very interesting materials there. And I thought it will be important to let the people know about them even before the publication of my monograph. And then I also began to write about Layard’s contribution to the discovery of cuneiform writing, through his connections with contemporary scholars. So for example, Birch and even Smith, or of course, Rawlinson, Hincks, and the others. So I already wrote something about it in my previous publications.
Thank you very much.
Thank you so much.
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