Diplomacy: America Begins Archaeology

How An Archaeological Expedition Found Its Way to Nippur

Christine Wells; Halpern-Rogath Curatorial Seminar

In the late 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was relatively unexplored territory for American archaeologists. The Germans, French, and British had already begun expeditions to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-nineteenth century, and excavations had already been conducted at Pergamon, Troy, and elsewhere.  The desire to send American archaeological expeditions to Mesopotamia stemmed from a growing interest in discovering ancient texts that could elucidate Biblical events. The age of industrialization in the United States had created wealthy businessmen whose interests extended beyond their mercantile endeavors, creating an ideal environment for partnerships between academics and the businessmen for the pursuit of knowledge. One such cooperative effort was organized in Philadelphia. The Babylon Exploration Fund was incorporated in March of 1888, with William Pepper, the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, as president and Professor Hilprecht as secretary. The primary financers were Edward Clark and his brother Clarence Clark, who came from a prominent banking family in Philadelphia. Even prior to their involvement, the BEF had already made an application to the Ottoman government for permission to excavate in Mesopotamia. Ambassador Straus, the American consul at Constantinople, had filed the request in February of 1888 (Meade, Road to Babylon, 53).

American diplomatic interactions with the Sublime Porte had primarily consisted of trade and travel treaties, and the complications that arose from the efforts of Protestant missionaries in the region. The United States’ disengagement in the revolution in Greece resulted in an 1829 treaty, in which the Ottoman Empire gave Americans the right to pass through the Dardanelles (“Uncle Sam and Turkey," 21), thereby enabling American Protestant missionaries to increase their efforts to bring their faith to the non-Muslim populations of the region. Occasionally these missionaries required diplomatic interventions on their behalf. Issues included the many Protestant schools set up in Constantinople without the Sultan’s permission, the burning of a missionary institution near Smyrna, and an assault on the American College at Merzifon. The advent of American efforts to conduct excavations in the region opened a new arena for diplomatic maneuvering.

As soon as the BEF was incorporated, the University of Pennsylvania applied for a firman. An excavation permit application cost 20 liras and a 100 lira deposit was required if a firman was issued (a gold lira coin was then worth around $5, the equivalent of $100 today). Permission to excavate ran for two years, with the option for a one-year extension. While the application was supposed to designate a specific site, the Babylon Exploration was unable to complete this section since they had not yet been to any sites.

 The antiquities law in the Ottoman Empire stated that that all objects found in excavations belonged to the Ottoman Imperial Museum in Constantinople and that it was illegal for foreigners to take antiquities out of the country. To ensure compliance, an excavator was required to hire a Turkish commissioner (Peters, Nippur, 6). These requirements posed an issue for the Babylon Exploration Fund, since their intention was to take their finds back to Philadelphia to create an archaeology museum at the University of Pennsylvania. Thus, the expedition hoped not only to receive a general permit to dig, but also to obtain special permission to export some of the objects found.

The Nippur expedition director, John Punnett Peters, was an Episcopal priest and scholar of Semitic languages who spoke no Arabic and had no actual archaeological experience. Peters recounts that “we believed that everything in Constantinople was managed on the principle of corruption; and that everything could be had for money; and that there was no real care for the antiquities, but only a desire through the law to find an opportunity of extracting money from foreigners”(Peters, Nippur, 6).

Letters asking the Sultan Abdülhamid II for a special firman to export were sent through the Turkish legation at Washington and the U.S. legation in Constantinople. President Cleveland also wrote a personal letter of support to Ambassador Straus. Popular interest in ancient cultures brought the expedition into the limelight, leading to criticism of the local nature of the effort and the suggestion that it become a national expedition. Patriotic critics suggested that the German-born Hilprecht, the expedition’s Assyriologist, be replaced with an American.   However, the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Williams, Columbia, Cornell, and Michigan, as well as representatives of the Metropolitan Museum and Archeological Institute of America all forwarded letters of support to the State Department, which put the expedition back on track (Peters, Nippur, 8). The additional publicity brought in more donations.

Although negotiations for a permit had begun, it remained uncertain whether it had been granted.  Nevertheless, throughout the course of the summer of 1888, members of the expedition left for “the East” (Hilprecht, Babylonian Expedition, 301). At the advice of Pendleton King, interim Chargé d’Affaires in Constantinople, Peters waited in Dresden with his family for news from Constantinople. He departed for Constantinople in September after receiving a disappointing letter from King informing him that the Council of State had ruled that they could not deviate from the existing excavation regulations, since other countries would make the same request – but that the Americans might be able to buy discovered antiquities that were not needed for the Imperial Museum (Peters, Nippur, 19). 

Although rifles, revolvers, and cartridges were not allowed to be brought into the Ottoman Empire, Peters was able to bring three rifles, one shot-gun, and six revolvers, with their cartridges through the custom house in Constantinople by bribing an agent. He said there was some dispute about the amount of baksheesh, which was eventually fixed at one mejidie, the equivalent of eighty cents at the time. After his arrival, he joined King in a meeting with the Grand Vizier, Kamil Pasha. He suggested that the expedition file additional applications using the names of all the expedition members. According to Peters, he implied that it would not be difficult to buy any artifacts from the museum, because they would gladly sell them (Peters, Nippur, 22). Peters and King were advised to see the Minister of Public Instruction, Munif Pasha, who told them, however, that the museum would not sell them anything and that exportation was impossible. The meeting was not promising but the Minister said he would talk with the director of the museum, Osman Hamdi Bey.

At their meeting, Hamdi Bey denied that there was anything to be sold at the museum and disputed the Grand Vizier’s knowledge of antiquities (Peters, Nippur, 25). To the expedition’s detriment, Peters criticized the 1884 antiquities law. Hamdi Bey reminded him that he had written the law and also administered it for the protection of Ottoman archeological sites and finds. Despite initial misunderstandings, subsequent meetings between Peters, Ambassador Straus, Hamdi Bey, and the Grand Vizier resulted in the Sultan granting the Americans permission to excavate (Peters, Nippur, 42). There was some last minute haranguing, since the paper stipulated that the objects would be bought and not given, even though the Grand Vizier had promised they would be gifts. Nevertheless, the necessary papers were obtained, including a letter of recommendation to officials along their route, including the Governor-Generals of Aleppo and Baghdad. The Grand Vizier had advised the expedition not to travel unarmed. Permission to carry arms had been omitted from the letter of recommendation, but the Grand Vizier told Peters that he knew how to get arms through the custom-house anyway (Peters, Nippur, 43)

            In another effort to facilitate the work of the Nippur expedition, its organizers convinced the State Department to establish the position of consul at Baghdad. John Caldwater, Collector of the Port of Philadelphia, and Alexander McClure, founder of the Philadelphia Times, helped to create the position. There were already American consulates in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, as well as in Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, Sivas, and Smyrna (Potter, "1889 Consular Dispatch," 344-347). The consular position could also facilitate the shipment of coarse wool for carpet manufacture from Baghdad to the U.S. (until the McKinley tariff). John Henry Haynes was appointed Consul to Baghdad in August of 1888. Unfortunately, no appropriation was made for a salary. The Senator who was to introduce the amendment went to the Democratic Convention at St. Louis and forgot about it (Peters, Nippur, 11). Provost Pepper later wrote the State Department asking that Haynes be granted a salary. But in response, on 5 December 1889, Alvin A. Adee, Second Assistant Secretary of State, wrote to Pepper, stating that the position had been created largely to facilitate the work of the BEF and therefore Haynes was mostly away from his consular post in Baghdad. Diplomatic dispatches from Haynes did usually indicate permission to leave the post or requests to extend his absence.

The expedition met up in Aleppo in December of 1988 and then departed for Baghdad. After stopping in Baghdad to examine and purchase antiquities, they continued to Borsippa where they decided not to explore this site and instead to press forward to Nippur. The journey into unknown lands was fraught with hardships: sandstorms, rains, mud, insects, and disease. Upon finally reaching Nippur, there was additional concern for the group’s safety. This town had only recently acknowledged a nominal allegiance to the Ottoman government. Peters and Bedry Bey, the expedition’s Turkish commissioner, paid respects to the local governor and made the arrangements for sending and receiving mail (Hilprecht, Babylonian Expedition, 302). And then they went to work.

Thus the first expedition of the Babylonian Exploration Fund and the University of Pennsylvania was established in Nippur. Its beginnings had required ample diplomatic effort and bureaucratic wrangling for the Americans to receive permission and actually to set foot on their site and to excavate.