Three Lives: The Aftermath and Fallout


The excavations at Nippur caught the public’s attention, with many of the day’s most popular newspapers reporting on the discoveries. Hilprecht returned home in triumph, claiming responsibility for a decade of discoveries. He was showered with honors and praised as the “Columbus of Archaeology.” Then, in 1905, former colleague and director of the first Nippur expedition, J. P. Peters questioned Hilprecht’s claims. Accused of faking his results, pocketing artifacts, and taking credit for the discoveries of others, Hilprecht left the university in disgrace in 1910. His career never recovered.

When the scandals surrounding their discovery subsided, the cuneiform tablets began to garner news coverage of their own, as scholars slowly deciphered their texts. The headlines were often amusing, such as: “Creator a Woman, Old Tablet Says,” and “Noah, not Adam ate the apple: Sumerian Bible startles theologians.” The newspapers seen here reveal the continuing interest in Penn’s excavations at Nippur.

After a decade of privation in harsh and hostile conditions at Nippur (which he called “Robberdom and Murderland” in his diary), Haynes was ignored and discredited by Hilprecht, suffered mental collapse, retreated from public life, and died in 1910. His obituary read, “Broken in Body and Spirit.” Most of his photographic work remains unpublished.

Osman Hamdi Bey died in 1910, but the antiquities law he created still stands,  his museum has become one of the foremost in the world, and his paintings fetch top prices on the art market.

With the scandals surrounding Hilprecht fading, the cuneiform tablets took center stage. Their new information about the ancient Near East excited the popular press, while scholars deciphered more and more details about life, society, business, education, literature and religion. Penn’s success at Nippur led to a second Mesopotamian excavation, at Ur in the 1920s, jointly undertaken with the British Museum. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago returned to Nippur to excavate in 1948-90, occasionally in collaboration with the Penn Museum. 

Osman Hamdi Bey’s painting of the Nippur excavation site, based on a photograph by Haynes as it appeared in the frontispiece of Hilprecht’s 1903 book, Excavations in Bible Lands, was sidelined by the Hilprecht scandal. When the Penn Museum balked at its purchase, Hilprecht’s wife (Sallie Crozer Robinson Hilprecht, a Philadelphia socialite) purchased it as a gift for him. After his death in 1925, it was given to the Penn Museum.