Three Lives: The Aftermath and Fallout

The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia

Osman Hamdi Bey, The Excavations of the University Museum at Nippur, Mesopotamia

1903, Oil on canvas, 85.5 x 65.5” (with frame)

Provenance: Hermann Hilprecht, Jena, Germany from 1905; Elise Robinson Paumgarten until 1930.

Exhibitions: None

References: Susan Frith, “The Rise and Fall of Hermann Hilprecht,” The Pennsylvania Gazette (Jan./Feb. 2003); reproduced on the dust cover of Bruce Kuklick, Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Description: Osman Hamdi Bey’s painting of the Nippur excavation site depicts the “temple court” viewed from the top of the ziggurat. A rectangular tower pierced by a window stands in the middle foreground of the scene.  To the right and left of the tower, the earth has been cut away and three staircases descend into the lower levels of the excavation. Behind it, the excavated area forms a level platform that extends into the middle distance. A column of earth stands to the right of the tower, with another small mound beside it. A blue cloth is draped over the smaller mound, while a red and a yellow cloth lay strewn on the ground to the left. Behind these structures is an irregularly shaped pit, which several people are entering. All around the excavated area, the earth rises up sharply, while in the background at right, a steep path leads into the site, curving to the left and then back on itself. The excavation is surrounded by several low hills, which form an undulating landscape that recedes towards a pool of water in the background. Beyond the pool is a flat horizon line, and a blue, cloudless sky fills the upper quarter of the canvas. 

The scene has been rendered in a muted color palette in shades of beige and blue. This almost monochromatic landscape is enlivened by a few small splotches of bright color; these occur in the yellow, red, and blue cloths scattered between the tower and the column of earth, and in the clothing of the figures scattered throughout the scene, which is painted blue, white, dark brown, and orange. The figures are concentrated in the middle ground at right, where they form a sparse line along the path into the excavation site, but a few isolated figures in the middle- and foreground invite closer contemplation. At the left edge of the excavation, just behind the central tower, a man sits with a long staff by his side, while another man in a blue cloak stands beside him. Opposite these figures, on the right of the site stands Hermann Hilprecht, the Assyriologist at Penn who was one of the chief directors of research at Nippur.  Dressed in a khaki hat, shirt, and pants, he examines a collection of pottery assembled at his feet. Three more solitary figures are placed in the extreme foreground. In the left corner of the painting, a man sits on a rocky ledge that juts into the composition. Clad in blue, he draws his knees to his chest and faces the Nippur site, serving as a pendant to another man in the lower right corner of the scene, who sits at the edge of the excavated platform with his legs hanging off it, and looks away from it. In the depths of the site, just to the left of the central tower stands a shirtless figure with a basket at his feet, facing the viewer.

The painting was apparently commissioned by Penn in 1903 for its envisioned Nippur Gallery. However, when controversies erupted over the excavations at Nippur, the gallery was never realized, and the university balked at displaying the painting. It was then purchased by Philadelphia socialite Sallie Crozer Robinson Hilprecht as a gift for her husband, the archaeologist Hermann Vollrath Hilprecht, and taken to their home in Germany. The painting was bequeathed to the Penn Museum in 1948 from Mrs. Hilprecht’s granddaughter, Elise Robinson Paumgarten. Although it is based on a photograph taken in 1893, when Hilprecht was nowhere near Nippur, Hamdi Bey has inserted him into the painted view, examining the pottery, lower right. (UPM Archives)