European archaeologists were digging in the ancient Near East before the age of Napoleon. Americans, by contrast, were latecomers. The United States did not launch its first formal archaeological expedition in the Near East until the late 1880s, when an odd collection of scholars, soldiers of fortune, educational bureaucrats and financiers organized an excavation at the Mesopotamian site of ancient Nippur. Sponsored by a group of wealthy Philadelphia-based investors known as the Babylonian Exploration Fund (BEF), the team spent the last dozen years of the 19th century excavating Nippur, a Babylonian religious center in the third and early second millennium B.C. Their efforts yielded both a spectacular ancient library and one of the bitterest academic disputes of the early 20th century.
Although a large and colorful cast of characters was involved in planning and executing the Nippur dig, one man eventually became synonymous with the project: the brilliant, self-destructive German-born Assyriologist Hermann Hilprecht.
Hilprecht (1859–1925) was a graduate of the world-famous Assyriology seminar at Leipzig University in Germany. In 1886 he came to America to edit the Sunday School Times, a religious newspaper published in Philadelphia. That fall he was hired by the University of Pennsylvania’s fledgling department of Semitic languages. At the same time, the university hired a 028distinguished Episcopal clergyman and Hebrew scholar named John Punnett Peters (1852–1921), who would soon become Hilprecht’s arch-rival. Two years later both men were asked to join the Nippur expedition.
A collection of massive dirt mounds located about 112 miles southwest of Baghdad, Nippur had been the subject of European curiosity since the mid-19th century. The British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, after discovering the ancient north Mesopotamian cities of Nineveh and Kalhu, briefly excavated Nippur in early 1851. A decade later, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, a major with the British East India Company who was the first to decipher cuneiform, found references to Nippur in some ancient Babylonian texts. Because of the site’s remote and inhospitable location, however, no one had ever carried out sustained excavations.
Hilprecht was a gifted reader of cuneiform and a scholar with boundless energy. But he was also whining, hypochondriacal, opportunistic and self-aggrandizing. A German national, he never really fit into his adopted land or got over his feelings of cultural superiority. When the officers of the BEF first approached him about excavating Nippur, he was torn. He was fond of pontificating about the need for wissenschaftliche (scientific) excavations and of decrying the inadequacy of American field archaeologists. But he also detested the gritty monotony of fieldwork, and he initially declined to travel to Mesopotamia because of his “delicate health.” It was only after a number of other scholars (and potential rivals), including Peters, joined the expedition that Hilprecht changed his mind and decided to go along.
Hilprecht, Peters and the other five members of the BEF team departed from Philadelphia in December 1888. It took them two months to make their way to Nippur. They traveled first through England, Germany and south-central Europe to Constantinople. The final leg of the journey, from Constantinople to Nippur via Baghdad, had to be made entirely on horseback.
Once the explorers reached Nippur, disease, loneliness and hostile locals took their toll. The ancient site presented more dangers than most of the other tells westerners examined in the 19th century. It was located far from any caravan routes or large towns, which were protected by the reigning superpower of the Near East—the Ottoman Empire. It was a five- to nine-hour march across hot dry sand and swampy marshland to the nearest human settlement, and the surrounding areas were controlled by feuding Arab tribes and Bedouin nomads.
The harsh living conditions soon exacerbated petty animosities and professional rivalries. The letters and diaries of the Nippur excavators reveal a pattern of endless bickering and competition. As one of the explorers put it, “This is a queer world and when you put 7 persons together out in the desert on a little mound, they are sure to scratch each others’ eyes out.”
No one was quicker to vent his frustrations than Hilprecht. Even before the travelers reached Nippur, he wrote a torrent of letters to the expedition’s chief administrator, University of Pennsylvania provost 029William Pepper, complaining about the difficulties of the journey. The “Turkish workmen & beggars” were repulsive. He was forced to travel “with the lowest class of Oriental paupers surrounded … by sheep and swine.” The party was plagued by “a legion of mosquitos, sandflies, bedbugs and worst of all lice.” The Nippur odyssey was “beneath my dignity & that of my University,” Hilprecht wrote. “This country is worse than I thought.”
Hilprecht also complained about the insensitivity and incompetence of his peers. He was especially critical of John Peters, who had been named the official scientific director of the expedition despite his lack of formal training in Assyriology. In his letters, Hilprecht begged Provost Pepper to send him extra money to purchase antiquities on the black market—just in case the Nippur dig failed. He also opposed Peters’s plan to make the excavation finds available to outside scholars, arguing that the results of the dig should remain the exclusive property of the BEF and the University of Pennsylvania’s new Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (The brainchild of Pepper, the museum was established in 1887 for the express purpose of storing artifacts from the Nippur expedition.) “For these very tablets,” Hilprecht wrote Pepper, “shall be a means to get students.” It would be unjust “to those men who sacrifice their lives in the East, to give the results of their work into other hands.”
While Hilprecht’s carping may seem like mere vanity, not all of his fears were unfounded. During the first three-month-long dig season, the BEF expedition employed seven European and American scholars and 300 native workers in excavating one of ancient Mesopotamia’s most important cultural centers, but the results of the excavation were conspicuously disappointing. Under Peters’s direction, the team found no new architectural structures and few precious artifacts or tablet collections. In April 1889, after extracting only a few objects from the Nippur mounds, the westerners were driven out of Mesopotamia by an attack from hostile locals. The team members fled in shame to Baghdad and then Constantinople, where Hilprecht resigned his position with the expedition and agreed to rejoin only on the condition that he be excused from further fieldwork.
Touting his skills as a decipherer of cuneiform inscriptions, Hilprecht arranged 030to remain in Constantinople to serve as the BEF’s official inspector of antiquities and its liaison to the Ottoman government. He was given sole responsibility for evaluating and cataloguing the finds from Nippur once they reached the Ottoman Museum, as well as for negotiating with the Turks for ultimate ownership of these antiquities.
This not only gave him first crack at evaluating and interpreting the Nippur finds, but also afforded him unprecedented access to Turkish officials and antiquities. Over the next ten years, Hilprecht became recognized as the leading western authority on archaeological materials in the Ottoman Museum and their relationship to materials in the United States, Britain, France and Germany. He also began laying out plans for publishing a 20-volume report on the results of the BEF expeditions. His 1893 Old Babylonian Inscriptions, Chiefly from Nippur was the first and only volume in this series ever to be published.
While Hilprecht conducted his wheelings and dealings in Constantinople, the BEF struggled to find suitable people to continue the Nippur excavations. John Peters grudgingly agreed to return as field director for the dig’s second season. In 1891 he made the expedition’s first major find—a promising hoard of cuneiform tablets. But Peters complained constantly about the difficult working conditions at Nippur and the lack of cooperation from Ottoman authorities. At the end of the 1891 season, he resigned from all field operations and returned to America to pursue his career as a cleric.
The BEF’s board of directors finally appointed the excavation’s photographer, John Henry Haynes, as the dig’s official field director in 1893. Throughout the 1890s Haynes and a team of constantly changing assistants continued the excavation. During the dig’s third and fourth seasons, they started mapping out the ancient city’s architecture and exploring 031its central structures, including an impressive 4,000-year-old mudbrick ziggurat, now known to be part of the ancient Temple of Enlil. (Built by the Mesopotamian king Ur-Nammu [c. 2112–2095 B.C.], this multitiered, triple-staircased structure is thought to be one of the first real ziggurats erected. Almost identical ziggurats have been found at the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Ur, Eridu and Uruk.) The team also discovered a great cache of approximately 30,000 cuneiform tablets that they designated a “library.”
Despite these developments, officials at the BEF remained frustrated by the slow and disorganized progress of the excavations. Haynes and the other “dirt archaeologists” were not trained scholars or excavators. Their reports back to the United States frequently failed to identify clearly the archaeological significance of their finds. In addition, they tore up the site, digging so crudely that they often obscured much of the architecture of the city and retained little sense of the provenance of the artifacts they recovered.
By the turn of the century, Hilprecht’s status had risen so much that the wealthy donors of the BEF united in calling for his return to Nippur. They begged him to lend his expertise to the excavation’s final season, which was then winding up. Hilprecht—who had become accustomed to dividing his time between his comfortable homes in Germany, Philadelphia and Constantinople—was reluctant to go. “What if I should die in Babylonia?” he asked the University of Pennsylvania’s new provost, Charles Custis Harrison. “Who would bring order to the collections?” But he also feared that if he refused he would lose his access to the Nippur finds. So in early March 1900, Hilprecht arrived at the site for the first time in 11 years.
Hilprecht was shocked by the damage caused by ten years of uncontrolled artifact hunting and haphazard trench digging. By this time he had become a proponent of a new archaeological method, stratigraphy, which had been pioneered a decade earlier by the British archaeologist Matthew Flinders Petrie at Tell el-Hesi, in modern Israel. Using this method, archaeologists tried to dig horizontally rather than vertically, uncovering the various occupation layers resting one on top of another. Hilprecht’s model was a new German expedition to Babylon, begun in 1899 and led by Robert Koldewey. The German team, which excavated at Babylon until 1914, planned to trace out the entire course of the city of Hammurabi and the Old Babylonian kings (early second millennium B.C.). One unexpected fruit of the stratigraphic method used at Babylon, however, was that the excavators first came upon the Neo-Babylonian city of Nebuchadnezzar and his dynasty (sixth century B.C.).
Hilprecht was far too impatient and fastidious simply to take over the Nippur excavations and run them according to the new German model. He remained only ten weeks, though in this time he hoped to show his colleagues what careful, stratigraphic excavation could accomplish, especially in uncovering ancient Nippur’s city plan.
Characteristically, Hilprecht boasted of his achievements in a series of reports to his superiors. He also took credit for the tablet finds from the so-called library at Nippur. Most of these tablets had actually been discovered before Hilprecht arrived at the site, though a few select specimens had been set aside for his perusal. Near the end of his brief stint on-site, Hilprecht wrote to the BEF that his labors of two months had become “a fundamental factor” in “the history of civilization.” He then sailed back to America, now a famous and influential archaeologist.
In the United States, Hilprecht was afforded a hero’s welcome: Newspapers touted his heroism in leading the dangerous expedition for the past ten years, and the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania lavished him with honors. He was given exclusive research and publication rights to the Nippur finds for the remainder of his lifetime. He also received a research professorship (an honor that included a three-year leave of absence from teaching and a small group of assistants to help catalogue tablets). As Hilprecht put it, the obligation of “constant planning” for the digs and “the exposure to the dangerous climates with the absence of every convenience of life” had diminished his productivity. Now he had welcome relief.
For the next three years, Hilprecht devoted himself to training graduate students and publishing his research. In 1903 he edited and published a collection of scholarly essays entitled Explorations In Bible Lands. Hilprecht hoped that this popular history of Near Eastern archaeology would confirm his status as the nation’s leading Assyriologist. In fact, the volume only served to drive his rivals and enemies above ground. The book contained articles by a half dozen experts on ancient Palestine, Egypt, Arabia and Anatolia, but its centerpiece was Hilprecht’s own massive history of the 19th-century exploration of Mesopotamia. This 600-page opus took up three-quarters of the volume, and more than half of the essay was devoted to the author’s own heroics at Nippur.
Hilprecht’s critics quickly pointed out the book’s exaggerations and shortcomings. They complained that Hilprecht slighted non-Mesopotamian sites and minimized the contributions of his fellow Americans at Nippur. In his version of the history, Hilprecht himself became the guiding star of Near Eastern exploration and the initial discoverer of the library at Nippur. Hilprecht, they correctly noted, even went so far as to illustrate his discussions of the Nippur library with drawings and photos of tablets from other archaeological sites. Many of the objects he depicted had been purchased years 035before the library was found—from private antiquities dealers in Baghdad.
The glaring inaccuracies of Hilprecht’s book provided an opportunity for professors in the United States to vent their wrath at the unpopular foreigner. As one Harvard scholar remarked, this was a book “no American can read without being ashamed.” Of course, Hilprecht’s peers unanimously proclaimed that “personal feeling” had nothing to do with their mounting criticism; at issue was “the reputation of American scholarship” and “proper scientific method.” Yet in private correspondence the academics dropped their reticence: Hilprecht was “a bag of wind” and a “humbug”; his “egotism” and “desire for cheap notoriety” were “well-nigh miraculous.”
In early 1905 John Punnett Peters formally complained to the University of Pennsylvania’s trustees about his own abbreviated role in Hilprecht’s narrative. The trustees and Provost Harrison launched a two-month investigation into the charges, but they found themselves confronted with a nearly insoluble problem. Although it seemed obvious to most academics that Hilprecht was guilty of ungenerous and distorted reporting, American higher education had no formal mechanisms for ensuring academic civility. In 1905 it was simply assumed that a professor’s conduct would be ruled by his sense of fair play and gentlemanly honor.
With no real range of censures available, the university officials would have been forced to dismiss Hilprecht if they found him guilty of wrongdoing. Was this an appropriate penalty for a scholar who had served the Babylonian expeditions as well as any American, and whose skills as a decipherer were uncontested? Many trustees also worried that Hilprecht’s fall would raise questions about the new museum collection and the achievements of the Nippur expedition itself. At stake, said one of Hilprecht’s defenders, was not just the value of these costly excavations but also “the fair name of the University.” 036In its final 1905 report, the university chose to clear Hilprecht of all charges. But the unrepentant Assyriologist’s travails were only beginning. Later that year, 16 Orientalists from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago asked Hilprecht to clear away the cloud surrounding “the integrity of American scholarship.” When Hilprecht refused to respond, The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature printed the academics’ complaint. The leader of the group, Harvard Indologist Charles Lanman, was a moderate who sympathized with Hilprecht. He wrote that the real issue was that Hilprecht’s readers “naturally received an impression” that Hilprecht had dug up his illustrative tablets at Nippur itself, so Hilprecht was “morally bound to make honorable amends.” Could he not, Lanman asked, make a brief statement that he had laid himself open to criticism and that he regretted not having made such an admission earlier?
Hilprecht’s response was a resounding “No.” For the next five years, he was consumed with answering the charges against him and attempting to publish the documents that would prove the worth of his cuneiform library. In 1908 Hilprecht published his own detailed account of the matter, entitled The So-Called Peters-Hilprecht Controversy.
Then in 1910, in an attempt to divert attention from his own problems, Hilprecht published a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from Nippur that he claimed was the oldest version of the biblical flood story. He clearly had no idea that the monograph, The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nippur, would be controversial. After all, in the 1870s the British scholar George Smith had deciphered a seventh-century B.C. cuneiform tablet containing a similar flood story. That tablet, found in the 1840s by Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh, turned out to be Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic. Hilprecht simply claimed that his tablet was a thousand years 037older—and the former Sunday School Times editor suggested that this ancient tablet confirmed the biblical account.
Once again, Hilprecht was roundly assailed. Critics argued that the tablet was not as old as Hilprecht said, that his translation was dubious and that the Sumerian story had little relevance to biblical studies. They also questioned whether the tablet had been found during the BEF’s last campaign, as Hilprecht said, and whether it even came from the Nippur library. Much of this was unjustified: Hilprecht had published a learned translation of an important tablet, and his colleagues were simply unwilling to give him credit for it. But Hilprecht himself had prepared the ground, by taking credit for things he had not done and belittling the work of others. In a word, he was intensely disliked, especially by former colleagues, such as Peters, and former students, such as Albert Clay. While preparing for a 1910 meeting of the American Oriental Society, Clay, who over the next ten years purchased the tablets that became the basis of the Yale Babylonian collection, referred to his former teacher as “his Serene Highness, the Deluge hero.”
By 1910 Hilprecht was spending virtually all of his time warding off scholarly attacks and attending social events that helped maintain his status in Philadelphia society. Although most of the tablets found at Nippur in 1900 remained untranslated, Hilprecht’s serious research had ground to a halt.
In desperation, Provost Harrison and the university trustees decided they had to act to preserve the university’s reputation. Turning a blind eye to Hilprecht’s exclusive research and publication rights, they launched their own project to unpack and clean the remaining crates of tablets still gathering dust in the basement of the university museum. It was the first stage of a plan to allow other scholars to publish the tablets and write about the Nippur finds.
When he learned of the university’s action, Hilprecht accused the museum’s 039director of destroying evidence and submitted his resignation. He hoped it would be turned down and that he would be restored to his former position at the university, but Harrison accepted his resignation.
After an unsuccessful year-long campaign to assert his legal right to catalogue and publish the university’s tablet collections, Hilprecht finally surrendered in 1911. As far as American universities were concerned, he dropped off the face of the earth. Retreating to his family homes in Philadelphia and Germany, he did no more significant writing or research. Although Hilprecht was just over 50, and still at the height of his powers, his career was over. He wrote to one friend about “my life’s shattered work.” By the time of his death in 1925, he had become just another irritable old man—an inviting target for the street boys of Jena, Germany, to bombard with tomatoes.
But Hilprecht was not the only one to suffer for his arrogance. In the years after his resignation and death, the University of Pennsylvania failed to find another dynamic Assyriologist to take charge of the Nippur finds. For more than a decade, most of the 30,000 cuneiform tablets in the museum remained unexamined. It was not until the late 1930s that a new generation of scholars—some of them former students of Hilprecht’s—began to decipher and evaluate the 1900 finds. When they did, they discovered that many of Hilprecht’s grandiose claims were correct. The scribal quarter (or library) that the photographer-excavator John Henry Haynes and his fellow “dirt archaeologists” uncovered did indeed contain a lode of material central to understanding ancient Sumerian culture. As Hilprecht himself once predicted, his tablets were a fundamental discovery in the history of civilization.
European archaeologists were digging in the ancient Near East before the age of Napoleon. Americans, by contrast, were latecomers. The United States did not launch its first formal archaeological expedition in the Near East until the late 1880s, when an odd collection of scholars, soldiers of fortune, educational bureaucrats and financiers organized an excavation at the Mesopotamian site of ancient Nippur. Sponsored by a group of wealthy Philadelphia-based investors known as the Babylonian Exploration Fund (BEF), the team spent the last dozen years of the 19th century excavating Nippur, a Babylonian religious center in the third and early second […]