Nippur: The First Great Discovery

Abbey Stockstill; Halpern-Rogath Curatorial Seminar

The 1894 season that Joseph Meyer spent making archaeological sketches at Nippur was one of the most productive and best documented seasons of all Penn’s expedition. His drawings of the sites there drew praise from the Babylon Expedition Fund, encouraging the field team and in particular, John Henry Haynes. For Haynes, Meyer’s companionship was a much-needed break from the stress of running a dig single-handedly at a treacherous site; for Meyer, Nippur was the tail-end of a world tour sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to practice his architectural drawing. 

Haynes and Meyer met in Baghdad, which might seem coincidental, since it was an out-of-the way city on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, but by the late 1800s Baghdad and its outlying sites had become remarkably important geographically, archaeologically, and politically, such that Meyer’s journey there not quite so unusual. Having traveled throughout Europe and India, Meyer was privy to various diplomatic circles that welcomed Western scholars into their homes abroad. In his journals, Meyer frequently refers to the Europeans that he meets in Baghdad. On his excursions around the city he was accompanied by the current U.S. consul at that time, a man named Sunderberg, as well as by a Carmelite priest, Father Polycarp (real name Geyer). It was Sunderberg who introduced Meyer and Haynes.

In Baghdad for a little under two months, Meyer spent most of that time sketching mosques, bazaars, and vistas. Meyer’s journals and sketches give the reader a detailed picture of a vibrant and healthy city and portray little to none of the surrounding landscape, save for a few panoramas that put an architectural subject into context. Meyer was abroad, after all, to gain architectural experience by drawing the sites and ruins of various foreign cultures. He ventured outside the city very little unless accompanied by Sunderberg, but this was hardly unusual for foreign visitors. Sunderberg, however, never took Meyer to Babylon. The only sketches of Babylon that appear in Meyer’s journals are merely marginal sketches in his journal, drawn from afar on the road to Nippur. (unpublished journal transcript, 1894, UPM Archives)

Far more often, Meyer’s sketches of architecture and ruins are meticulous, as can be seen in Meyer’s study of the Palace of Chosroes/ Khusrau at Ctesiphon. He draws his subject from various cardinal points, noting thoroughly the palace’s angles, shadows, and state of ruin. Little is given in the way of surrounding landscape except for a singular sketch that depicts Ctesiphon from a distance in the southeast. The drawings are seamlessly integrated with Meyer’s notes; he gives further detail to the palace by describing elements of the architecture that could not be captured by sketches. These notes might have helped him to reconstruct the site at a later point (perhaps for publication), but with his untimely death, that project never came to fruition.