Notes on the Nippur Expeditions of the University of Pennsylvania  


Richard Franklin Bishop

© Copyright 2013 by Richard Franklin  Bishop      

Photo of John Punnett Peters, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

I have just finished reading all 810 pages of a book covering the four Nippur (modern day Iraq) Expeditions of the University of Pennsylvania conducted at the turn of the 20th Century. 280 pages are devoted to this geographical area with Professor H. V. Hilprecht serving as the author. The remaining 530 pages cover Egypt, Palestine, Hittites and other areas and were written by other authors.

The book is a "used" First Edition, complete with golden painted and trimmed pages at the top, but untrimmed pages at the side and bottom with 4 maps and nearly two hundred illustrations. With the glossy paper, it weighs in at about 5 lbs. They don't make them like that any more! The citation:

Herman Volrath Hilprecht, Editor
Explorations In Bible Lands During The 19th Century
A. J. Holman and Company, Philadelphia, 1903

The Nippur Expeditions (called Nuffar in this book) were four explorations and were described on pages 289 - 568 and took place during the years:

I 1888-1889 II 1889-1890 III 1893-1896 IV 1898-1900

The main participants:
Dr. John Punnett Peters (1852-1921), Director of the early excavations.
Mr. John Henry Haynes (1849-1910), Photographer; much later took over as Field Director.
Dr. Herman Volrath Hilprecht (1859-1925), Secretary & Assyriologist and overall Director, the fourth Expedition.

The author, Professor H. V. Hilprecht, was involved with all the administrative phases of the four expeditions; mostly as the Assyrian language expert who oversaw the handling of the thousands of crumbling cuneiform tablets found there. As he documented everything, it was easy for him to be critical and to make himself look good and others look less than capable. On page 308 of his book, he said:

His colleagues pointed out that Hilprecht rarely involved himself "in the trenches" of the "digs" like everyone else. He was also the later target of a deadly storm of criticism (fanned mostly by Peters and Haynes and their fans) who in all seriousness claimed he was only interested in stealing the credit for any sensational findings of the expeditions and with his publishing position they said that he actually did so.
On the very first expedition, he severely criticized the Expedition Director, Dr. John Punnett Peters, for only searching willy-nilly for such spectacular items as would draw spectators to say, a P. T. Barnum type museum. This involved a slam-bang method of search that overlooked the permanent damage done to a site by incautious tunneling, dumping trash on-the-spot instead of out of the way, and all-around wrecking the place so that present and future Archaeologists would have no chance to glean relative dates or associations --- which, supposedly, is the fundamental purpose of all Archaeology at the "digs."

He also took the Director to task for refusing to regularly take along:
(1) an American Assyrian language Specialist for whatever intelligence the cuneiform tablets might provide about what the layers of a site had been and when; (2) an American Engineer or Draftsman capable of visualizing and drawing plans of the buildings, towers, and temples found in the layers of a site. On page 320 of his book, he documents this in the preparations for the second exploration:

This wrangling continued for years, because John Punnett Peters and his follower, John Henry Haynes (who started out as the photographer and later became the business manager) never changed their winsome ways of crashing and bashing their way around an excavation like "Rassam's Gangs." (Over the years, other Excavators have been accused of the same unscientific and unplanned plowing of the earth at a "dig" --- some even used Dynamite).

Sometime after the publication of his book in 1903, this all climaxed in an investigation into the conduct of Herman Volrath Hilprecht where he was cleared by the University of Pennsylvania of any wrongdoing ("credit-grabbing" or anything else) in connection with the Explorations. But the sides had already been chosen and formed and hardened; to include public opinion.

A hundred years later, author Susan Frith, whose article is shown in the Internet (ã 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette, 01/05/03) was taking Professor H. V. Hilprecht to task because he wore a “handlebar” mustache with the tips curled up! (Many gentlemen did this in the 19th Century -- probably even some of her relatives).
Come on, now. A little fairness could be used here -- such a very long time after these events! "Old-time" Politicians know about that tactic: if you don’t have the "goods" (something definite) on somebody, then attack their character or peccadilloes. Even so much more effective, if they are dead and cannot defend themselves. We must keep a balance here.

But he probably was a "headline-grabbing" SOB. So were many others (join the club!). Heinrich Schliemann was also accused of this and reported his sensational discoveries directly to the press: "announced with considerable showmanship and delight in publicity." In the late-19th Century (after the vast Civil War coverage in the Newspapers) prominent persons were just learning how to use the "media."

There was an exhibition at the PENN MUSEUM running from 26 September 2010 to 6 February 2011 entitled "Archaeologists & Travelers In Ottoman Lands." One of the text displays was a masterful compendium entitled: "3 Intersecting Lives" by Professor Robert G. Ousterhout. The seemingly objective comparisons made here were very revealing as to the conditions prevalent in both Iraq and Philadelphia during the latter part of the 19th Century. The three persons whose lives were reported on were:
John Henry Haynes
Osman Hamdi Bey
Hermann (sic) Vollrath Hilprecht

After all this time, nothing much ever has been said to highlight his few moments of fairness. Professor Hilprecht did, in fact, give copious credit in his 1903 book to Peters (and later to Haynes) for the avalanche of objects actually found and removed to museums as well as any successful tactical decisions made by them on site. And he did this in the cited book, over and over again. A couple of examples:

But, we must concede that Hilprecht did complain and criticize them over and over again, in private correspondence to the University.

The exoneration of the University left only his hard-core enemies out to "get" him. When he left his Office at the University of Pennsylvania locked to go on a trip to Europe; they "fomented" (rabble-roused) the staff to batter down the door. What they found there were many items collected at the expeditions still in packing boxes.

When Hilprecht heard of this trespass, he immediately resigned his Chair in 1911 (probably with a "Statue of Liberty" gesture saying: "you can jam it" ). The University of Pennsylvania surprised him by accepting the resignation.

But, in a back-handed way, Professor Hilprecht had the last laugh. There’s an old saying: “The sweetest revenge is to outlive your critics. He died in 1925. Haynes and Peters died in 1910 and 1921, respectively. But that couldn't have done him much good from 1921 until 1925, since by now, his critics were legion. The press and public had been poisoned with the words “Scandal. And Haynes’s mind was gone; he was institutionalized at the time of his death in 1910, “no doubt” as the Public were left to conclude: “because of Hilprecht’s machinations.

But, notwithstanding the shrill accusations, most of his criticism about the methodology used in the excavations was right. His academic insistence on good planning and scientific excavation, allowing object "sequence-dating" to be documented, with the identification and recording of the smallest objects or discoloration of the smallest stratum to be noted, was in the vein of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. (He was the "pioneer of genius" whose detailed reporting of his “digs” in Egypt beginning in 1884 together with the resulting "relative-dating" are still held up as a model of the best “Textbook” technique ever devised (by him) in founding "Comparative” Archaeology. See pp. 51-54, Leo Deuel, Editor, "The Treasures of Time," AVON BOOKS, New York, 1961).

The archaeological value of an object found is in an inverse ratio to its intrinsic value. Peters and Haynes would have none of this. They had several chances to change their ways and didn’t. They always insisted there wasn’t enough time or funds for such “extravagance or luxury. Armchair Archaeologists (such as they thought H. V. Hilprecht was) always whine for that. They maintained that in the hustle and bustle out in the field, that doesn’t work. The weather, political conditions at the site, coping with the natives, and staying within the budget were more important than the minute documenting of what and where things were found.

If you are only looking for fame and fortune in the objects you seek, it must hurt double, after you have found them, just to “think” that the credit for finding them might have been pilfered right out from under you --- by someone – by anyone!

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