The Gilgamesh Saga - the history of archaeological discovery

6 Aug 2022

1842 - Botta

The first to excavate at Tell Kouyunjik was Paul-Emile Botta, French consul in Mossul in 1842. The result of his first investigation was disappointing: no more than a few fragments of tablets. Botta was not discouraged but an unexpected fact occurred: an Arab, passing by and selling Botta's work, which he considered senseless, suggested that he dig in another place where he could find what he wanted. The French consul at first did not listen to him, but then, given the meager results of his work, he decided to put him to the test. On March 20, 1843, he sent some of his Arab workers to Khorsabad (Dur-sharrukin), 16 km north-east of Mosul, for a first patrol. Having confirmed the richness of the place, he decided to move his work there.
Nineveh
Nineveh
On April 5th he discovered Sargon II's palace with its immense treasures. The belonging of this building to the Assyrian king who conquered Samaria and deported the Jews into exile was ascertained a few years later, stirring the biblical scholars: for the first time we were faced with a person mentioned in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah, 20, 1). Botta's excavations ended in 1844 and a year later he returned to France. The consular interim was entrusted to Rouet, determined to defend French rights over Khorsabad and Kouyunjik.



1847 - Layard

In the same year, Henry Layard, convinced that ancient Nineveh was buried under the Tell of Nimrud, persuaded the English ambassador Sir Stratford Canning of the opportunity to do some surveys and privately obtain funding from him, and thus began his great adventure. . He realized the mistake only a few years later: what he was digging was not Nineveh, but Calah, the city conceived and built by Ashurnasirpal II.

The first results were sensational: in a few months he found in some rooms of the so-called southern palace (which will only later be attributed to Ashurnasirpal) fabulous treasures (inscribed marble orthostats, a splendid series of bas-reliefs, two immense winged lions of great stature, limestone monsters, two winged bulls and a stone head with human features belonging to a bull colossus, and so on) However, the excavation of Layard had dubious legality. No authorization had been given by the Ottoman government or, more precisely, it was never requested by Ambassador Canning, who did not consider it appropriate to do so at that time, having requested other permits and trusting in Layard's diplomatic ability. [...] Only a year later, on May 5, 1846, shortly before Canning's return to London,

Letter from the Grand Vizier to the Pasha of Mossul. May 5, 1846
There are, as Your Excellency knows, in the vicinity of Mosul large quantities of stones and ancient remains. There is an English Gentleman who came to these parts to look for stones of this kind and found ancient stones on the banks of the tiger, in some uninhabited places, on which there are drawings and inscriptions. [...] No obstacles must be placed when he takes the stones which, according to the report that has been made, are in deserted places and are not used; or to his undertaking excavations in uninhabited places where this can be done without inconvenience to anyone [...]. The sincere friendship that firmly exists between the two governments makes it desirable that such requests be accepted.
On the one hand, this letter allowed Layard to work without major problems, but on the other hand, as we shall see, it will be a source of future trouble. The Vizier, in fact, among other things, left the English "Gentleman" totally free to dig in any uninhabited place he considered appropriate to do so, as long as this did not cause "inconvenience to anyone". Ambassador Canning immediately understood the importance of this permit which did not limit Layard's activity to a particular site and pointed out that this could
... be appropriate to ensure a priority right to any post that could have given discoveries, but to behave cautiously, and with due respect not only for the rights of others, but above all taking into account their jealousy.
The others were obviously the French, the only ones digging in the Middle East at that time besides the British, who had tried to block the unauthorized British excavations at Nimrud, while at the same time trying to obtain permits for them precisely for that site.

Strong of that permit, in addition to continuing the excavations at Nimrud, now funded by the British Museum, he began surveys in other sites, including the Tell of Kouyunjik. The French consul, meanwhile, learned of the letter, became nervous and insisted on seeing it, while at the same time claiming the rights to the Tell of Kouyunjik. In response, Layard made him observe the enormous vastness of the Tell, whose circumference measured about a mile, and suggested that they join their efforts. So the French and the English dug in Kouyunjik but it was Layard who obtained the first results by bringing to light the palace of Sennacherib (1847).

A second excavation campaign was conducted by Layard between 1849 and 1851 both at Kouyunjik and Nimrud, aided in his work only by Hormuzd Rassam, bringing back to England orthostats, portals, winged bulls and a considerable number of tablets.

He returned to London for good in 1851.



1852 - Rassam

In that same year the new French consul, Victor Place, during his journey to Mosul, which lasted a good four months, met in Samsun, on the Black Sea, the English Rawlinson who was returning to Baghdad. Both agreed on the general conduct to be respected during the excavations: not to compete with each other and not to harm each other. Rawlinson also opened his yard in Kouyunjik to his French colleague and offered him, given the vastness of the Tell, to work together, each on their own site: the French to the north and the British to the south of the hill. Place, after a moment's hesitation and after seeking the minister's approval, accepted the deal. It goes without saying that the terms of the agreement were never respected, due to the demerit not of the two architects, but of Layard's successor in the Middle East, Rassam, the former aide, who in 1852 was commissioned by the British Museum to resume excavations in Mesopotamia. Rassam committed numerous misconduct to the detriment of the French, for example, taking advantage of a momentary absence of Place, he occupied, aided by his Arab workers, the site of Assur by planting the English flag. But let's hear Rassam's version of the finding of Ashurbanipal's palace:

In late 1852, after reaching Mosul, I wanted to excavate the north corner of Kouyunjik Hill where Sennacherib and his royal descendants had resided, as I was convinced that part of the hill had not been fully examined. I learned, however, to my great irritation, that Monsieur Place, the French consul in Mosul, who at that time was engaged in exploration in Khorsabad for the French National Museum, had requested and obtained permission to excavate there from Major Rawlinson. , before my arrival in Mosul; but for some reason he had not begun the excavation either before or after my return to Mosul.

Some scientists, including André Parrot, discoverer of the city of Mari, claim that Place was by no means absent and that he was already digging on that site. Rassam continues:

I must point out that the Kouyunjik hill is private property and that we were in possession of a decree from the Sultan of Turkey which allowed us to dig where we wanted and liked, once we had obtained permission from the owner of the land. Nevertheless, there was a recognized rule of conduct among explorers: when a representative of a nation was digging in a certain Tell, the others had to refrain from digging in the same place. Therefore I was jealous of the intention of the representative of the government of France to meddle in our field of operations.

If this rule had always been respected, the British would never have excavated at Kouyunjik, given that the first to excavate in that site were eleven years earlier the French with Botta, moreover it was Rawlinson who offered Place the possibility to excavate in the northern part of the Tell and not the latter to ask. Rassam resolutely admits:
[...] My target was always the north corner of Kouyunjik, which thankfully Mr. Place had never touched, and which I was determined to explore before my return to England, whatever the consequences.

As the time of departure approached, I ordered my tents to be set up on the hill of Kouyunjik, thereby showing that I was ready to leave for Europe, but the reason for this was to be able to dig with great simplicity, at night, in the north corner of the hill without being detected. after waiting a few days for a full moon night, I chose some old and faithful Arab workers capable of keeping the secret, with a very faithful guardian, and I gave them an appointment at a certain point on the hill two hours after sunset. When everything was ready, I gave them three different places to dig. There were already some trenches dug earlier, and I ordered the workers to dig into them by going deep. After checking the work personally until midnight,

The next morning I examined the trenches and, seeing some traces of Assyrian remains, I doubled the number of workers and made them work hard for the whole second night. As usual, I checked my work until midnight and went to sleep. But after less than two hours, my faithful Albanian guardian ran with the news of the discovery of some broken sculptures. I immediately rushed to the excavation site and going down into one of the trenches I could see in the moonlight the lower part of two bas-reliefs, the upper part of which had been destroyed by the Sassanids or by another barbaric nation that had occupied the Tell after the destruction of the Assyrian Empire. I was able to ascertain this thanks to my experience, examining the foundations and the brick wall that formed the basis of the bas-reliefs.
Indeed, Rassam's experience has often been questioned. Parrot for example, in the book Archéologie Mésopotamienne, presents it as follows:
Neither designer, nor architect. Thus no truly serious plant was ever detected, but numerous were the reliefs that, found in bad condition during the discovery, disappeared completely without the slightest trace of them left. There was actually that object hunt that will never be too deplored. On the other hand, Hormuzd Rassam had to distinguish himself for a long time in what Hilprecht could call an "unscientific looting system", in addition to a total lack of scruple that characterizes very well a character that we will find by now often and everywhere.
But let's listen again wat Rassam said:
So I ordered the workers to free the lower part of the sculptures and it became clear that the slabs belonged to the new palace; but digging around these we encountered bones, ash and other debris and no trace of other sculptures. On the third day of my nocturnal excavation, the secret leaked out in the city of Mosul, which did not surprise me as all the families of the workers engaged in the work knew that they were secretly digging somewhere, and besides, the other workers must have noticed the their colleagues leave the tents and don't show up for work the following day.

Not only was I afraid that the French consul would find out and come to prevent me from digging into what he believed to be his territory, but even worse that the Turkish authorities and the people of Mosul might think that I was looking for a treasure, since they always imagined that we were enriching ourselves with the discovery of fabulous treasures: so on the third night I increased the number of workers and decided to stay in the trenches until morning. [...] After less than three hours of excavation a bench fell and revealed an almost perfect bas-relief depicting an Assyrian king (who later proved to be Ashurbanipal) in his chariot chasing lions. [...] I had no doubt that this was a new building. During the day we cleaned Ashurbanipal's lion hunting room, that it is now on display in the basement of the British Museum, and in the center of this great room or corridor were piles of inscribed tablets; I think the famous Flood tablet was found among these. No doubt this was Ashurbanipal's library.
The news of the discovery of a new palace in Kouyunjik spread in a few hours like an uncontrolled fire in the city of Mosul and its vicinity and attracted hundreds of spectators curious to see the new discovery ... Monsieur Place was then busy in the French excavations in Khorsabad and of course, as soon as he heard of my discovery he came to the site of the excavation and protested against my intrusion into his legally recognized possession .. But after explaining to him how things had gone and after telling him that Major Rawlin had no power whatsoever. to dispose of a part of the land which did not belong to him, and that the owner of the hill had been compensated by us and that what I had discovered belonged by right to the British nation,he seemed to accept my reasoning and congratulated me on my success before leaving.

In reality Rassam did not appease Place's anger since a short time later Rawlin offered his indignant colleague the opportunity to choose some, and not a few, orthostats among those left in the trenches. A small compensation that Place did not refuse.



1852 - how the events unfolded ...

So far the official version, or at least that of Rassam on how the affair happens, but there is another one told by researches. here it is:

Rassam, convinced that in the northern part of the Tell, the one assigned to the French, there must be treasures and that the credit for their discovery belonged to His Majesty's Country, summoned the chief worker of the French mission, an Arab of Albanian origin who had previously worked for Layard, with the intention of entrusting him with a delicate task: he had to inform him every evening of what the French had brought to light during the day.

The French mission, unaware of Rassam's maneuvers, continued to dig despite the initial unsatisfactory results. But their patience and tenacity was rewarded by luck. Descending to a depth of three meters, they came across a room whose walls were all decorated with sculpted orthostats. In them are depicted scenes of war and especially hunting. Place ordered all the workers to remain silent until the consistency of the discovery was ascertained. Then at night he went, accompanied by three workers, to the excavation site and entered the second room, also decorated like the first. There were no longer any doubts: Place had stumbled upon the royal palace of Ashurbanipal.

A week later on Kouyunjik's Tell there was strangely great agitation. Not only were the French digging there, but the British also had reopened their shipyard. The French, having entered the fifth room of the palace, and having removed the earth on the right, discovered a door which led into another room full of burnt and broken tablets; the library. The discovery was made on a Thursday; the next day was a feast day so the excavations were interrupted. Rassam, hearing the news, decided to hire, as quickly as possible and in the utmost secrecy, a team of 50 workers. During the night, by candlelight, while the French were asleep, he had a tunnel dug, starting from the place assigned to the British, which reached the rooms of the palace that the French were laboriously bringing to light.

Great was the surprise of the latter, when, on Saturday morning, they found not only the room, which they had glimpsed, completely empty; but also the other rooms in which the Royal Library of Nineveh was collected. The official protests of the archaeologists first and the French government afterwards were of no avail. Rassam denied and perjured that he had not plundered. Until two months later the tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal arrived in the British Museum, where they are still preserved today.

In France, meanwhile, Place was taking back a small revenge, as Rassam observes in a note in his book:
The loss of this booty had a bad effect on the mind of Monsieur Place who in his book on research published in 1866-69, under the title of Nineveh et l'Assyre, completely ignored my discoveries, but gave the impression that Mr. Loftus, and even its designer, Mr. Boutcher, were the lucky explorers.
What became of the tablets "discovered" by Rassam and piled up in the warehouses of the British Museum?

It is not known whether due to bad organization or to hide the real extent of the theft of the Library of Ashurbanipal, these tablets were mixed with those previously found by Layard not in the palace of Ashurbanipal, but in that of Sennacherib, so today it is difficult to know which ones belonged to one building and which to the other. Also, where was Smith found the fragment containing the 17 missing lines of the Flood Table? In the palace of Sennacherib discovered by Layard or in that of Ashurbanipal? it is certain that it was found in the palace of Ashurbanipal, where Smith also found two fragments of the sixth table of the epic of Gilgamesh and a syllabary. So how many libraries were there in Nineveh? A real one, from the palace of Ashurbanipal, and a kind of Archive, in that of his grandfather Sennacherib.

However, scholars are all in agreement in believing that the Epic of Gilgamesh partially found by Smith comes from the Library of King Ashurbanipal as this is remembered in the colophones written at the end of each tablet.



Insights and Notes:


Paul-Emile Botta, first physician and naturalist, was French consul in Alexandria in 1833. In 1840 he was consular agent in Mossul, a city located on the upper Tigris. He was struck by the magical atmosphere of a desert populated by nomads and shepherds whose history only the Bible spoke of, full of strange hills smoothed by time where the Bedouins stopped their caravans, and from which the shepherds took bricks, vases , shards of clay with strange cuneiform signs. Those were the traces of ancient civilizations whose deeds were now forgotten in those depopulated deserts. Botta began to buy everything he could but when he begged the men to show him where those shards came from he always received the same answer "Allah is great and he has scattered a little everywhere".

Botta saw that by questioning the natives he was unable to identify a particularly rich excavation site and it was decided to begin excavations on the first hill that came to his hands, near Kujundshik. After a year of digging he found nothing, so he felt like he started in the wrong place. In reality if he had dug again he would have found the palace of Ashurbanipal (the Sardanapalo of the Greeks), but it was others who had the luck and therefore the merit of this discovery.

However, another fortune happened to Botta. An Arab, whose name is never known, learned of the French's desire, came to visit the Kujundshik camp trying to persuade the consul to follow him to a place where he would find all the wonders he was looking for. While distrusting the strange individual, who said he wanted to help him because he loved the French, Botta sent some of his men with him. The locality was 16 km from Kujundshik and was called Khorsabad. A week after Botta had sent his men on a reconnaissance, he received an excited message that reported that as soon as the spade sank in Khorsabad they had come out of the walls. And as soon as these were cleared of the thickest filth, scary inscriptions, figures, animals appeared. Having rushed to the site, Botta immediately realized the exceptional nature of the discovery and soon recalled all his workers from Kujundshik. His excavations thus brought to light an entire palace and therefore irrefutable proof of the existence of an advanced and ancient civilization.

The news went around the world, in fact up to now it was believed that Egypt was the cradle of civilization because nowhere else could you go back so back as in the land of the pyramids. Only the Bible had spoken of Mesopotamia, which for nineteenth-century science represented only a "collection of legends". What did these legends talk about? There was talk of the divine scourge of the Assyrians, of the tower of Babel, of the seventy years of captivity of the Jews and of King Nebuchadnezzar, of God's vengeance on the "great harlot", of the cups that his anger poured out by seven angels on the lands of the Euphrates . The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah described their terrifying visions of the destruction of the most beautiful of kingdoms, of the splendid magnificence of Ur of the Chaldeans overwhelmed like Sodom and Gomorrah. And there was also talk of the splendid Nineveh that Botta had just brought to light! In the centuries of the Christian faith, the word of the Bible was sacred and unassailable. The Age of Enlightenment produced historical criticism. But the criticism now turned into doubt and more attention was paid to the scant news of the ancient writers, which were not unfaithful, but were often contradictory and often at odds with the data of the Bible.
Sargon II
Sargon II
France was enthusiastic about the idea of ​​the discovery of a powerful and rich civilization, ancient and perhaps older than the Egyptian one, and probably consumed more than by time, by iron and by fire. Botta thus received ample means to continue the work. He dug for three years, from 1843 to 1846, bringing to light a new palace built on vast terraces. Scholars recognized it as the home of the conquering Assyrian king of Babylon, Sargon, mentioned in the sentences of Isaiah, a summer residence, a kind of Versailles, on the edge of Nineveh and dating back to 709 BC The palace was full of rooms brightly decorated with frescoes and bas-reliefs reproducing scenes of domestic life, war and hunting. There were also richly decorated portals, a terraced tower and even a tripartite harem.

Henry Layard begans working in 1839 at the English embassy in Constantinople. He arrives in Mosul and visits the great stone mountains on the east coast of the Tigris, generally believed to be the ruins of Nineveh. Here, riding through the desert, he encountered new hills, most notably that of Kalah Shergat, on the Tigris 50 miles south of its junction with little Zab. On that journey he spent the night in a small Bedouin village and from the top of an artificial hill he saw a vast plain from which only the river course separated him. The plain was bounded to the east by a series of hills of earth, one of which was higher and pyramidal in shape; beyond it the course of the waters of the Zab could hardly be distinguished, but its position made it easy to identify it. It was the pyramid described by Xenophon, near which 10,000 had been expected. They were the same ruins that the Greek general had seen 22 (?) centuries before that were already the ruins of an ancient city. Xenophon had mistaken the name spoken by a foreign people for the familiar name of Larissa. But tradition hints at the origin of the city, and attributing its foundation to the same Nimrud whose name these ruins still bear, links it to the first settlements of mankind. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men. They were the same ruins that the Greek general had seen 22 (?) Centuries earlier that were already the ruins of an ancient city then. Xenophon had mistaken the name spoken by a foreign people for the familiar name of Larissa. But tradition hints at the origin of the city, and attributing its foundation to the same Nimrud whose name these ruins still bear, links it to the first settlements of mankind. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men. They were the same ruins that the Greek general had seen 22 (?) Centuries earlier that were already the ruins of an ancient city then. Xenophon had mistaken the name spoken by a foreign people for the familiar name of Larissa. But tradition hints at the origin of the city, and attributing its foundation to the same Nimrud whose name these ruins still bear, links it to the first settlements of mankind. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men. Xenophon had mistaken the name spoken by a foreign people for the familiar name of Larissa. But tradition hints at the origin of the city, and attributing its foundation to the same Nimrud whose name these ruins still bear, links it to the first settlements of mankind. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men. Xenophon had mistaken the name spoken by a foreign people for the familiar name of Larissa. But tradition hints at the origin of the city, and attributing its foundation to the same Nimrud whose name these ruins still bear, links it to the first settlements of mankind. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men. In chapter X of Book I of Moses (i.e. Genesis) it is said, in fact, that Chus, son of Ham, fathered Nimrud. Ham's father was Noah, who with his three sons, their wives and all kinds of cattle, began to reproduce, after the Great Flood, the lineage of men.

and Chus begat Nimrud, who began to be powerful on Earth. He was a mighty hunter in the sight of the Lord; therefore it is said: "Like Nimrud, mighty hunter in the sight of the Eternal." And the beginning of his reign was Babel, Erech, Akkadi and Chalne in the land of Sinear. From that country he went to Assur and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir and Kalach; and, between Nineveh and Kalach, Resen, the great city ".

Back in Constantinople, he convinced the English ambassador, thanks also to Botta's recent discoveries near Khorsabad, to finance the excavations on the Nimrud hill which began in November 1845.

Unfortunately, compared to 5 years earlier, the country had changed and was in revolt. The territory between the two rivers was under Turkish domination and a new governor had been appointed as despotic as cruel. The country rose and rose all the peoples who inhabited the steppes around Mosul. And they did it their way. Incapable of an organized revolution, they opposed plunder to plunder; there was no longer a quiet street, no stranger could be sure of his life. The conditions in which the country was found were not long hidden from Layard. After a few hours, he had already understood that in Mosul he should not let any of his plans for him leak out.

He asked for labor from the head of a tribe of Bedouins who was waiting near the hill of Nimrud who provided him with six excavators and began by digging a tunnel in the hill. The first objects they found after a few hours were some stone slabs placed by right. It was a plinth of the so-called orthostats, that is, the cladding of the walls of a room which, due to the richness of its decoration, could only belong to a palace. In the sudden doubt that there could be even richer excavation sites, and also in the hope of ending up on intact walls (the newly discovered ones showed traces of fire), he ordered three of his men to work in a completely different point of the hill. What the second team managed to find was grandiose: a wall covered with carved slabs, separated by a frieze with inscriptions. He had happened upon the corner of a second building!

The darkness in which Mesopotamia was shrouded in the eyes of the European world suddenly dissipated: in 1843 Rawlinson was in Baghdad deciphering the Behistun inscription. In the same year Botta began excavating near Kujundshik and Khorsabad, and in 1845 Layard excavating near Nimrud. How many clarifications the work of those years brought, can be deduced from the fact that the Behistun inscription alone offered a knowledge of the lords of Persepolis far more precise than that which all the ancient authors had handed down to us combined.

Meanwhile the governor of Mosul had fallen and so Layard was able to continue the work more freely and unearthed a giant winged lion head carved in wonderfully well-preserved alabaster. We know today that he was one of the Assyrian astral gods residing in the four corners of the world: Marduk as a winged bull, Nebo as a man, Nergal as a winged lion, and Ninurta as an eagle.

New sculptures were then unearthed and soon no fewer than 13 pairs of lions and winged bulls appeared, two of which were sent to Europe. In the splendid building that Layard slowly unearthed in the northwestern corner of Nimrud Hill, he later recognized the palace of Ashurbanipal II (884-859 BC), the king who had moved his residence from Assur here to Kalchu.
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