Archaeology and the Near East

The Near East: Ancient and Modern

Map:Ancient Near East

The territorial terms "Near East," "Middle East" and "Far East" take as their given a Western European standpoint. Generally speaking, Near East refers to lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean: Asia Minor (or Anatolia), Syria and Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia, sometimes Egypt and parts of North Africa. Middle East designates the lands extending across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: Persia and Mesopotamia. Far East includes Central Asia, China, Japan, etc. Thus, "Asia" and the "Orient" are very broad designations indeed.

Accordingly, the history of the Near East encompasses a vast array of temporally overlapping cultures. The dominant politico-cultural groups of ancient Near Eastern history are the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Mediaeval history traces the rise of the monotheistic politico-religious superpowers: the Christian Byzantine Empire; the Islamic Arab dynasties; and the Islamic Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Empire, at various times during its millenium-long lifespan, from the 4th to the 15th centures A.C., controlled or influenced much of the Near East as well as Greece, Serbia and the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Control over much of this territory was taken, first, by the Arab dynasties, and ultimately, in the 15th century, by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire flourished into modern times, ending only after World War I.

The Great War, World War I, set in motion the modern history of Europe and the Near East as new borders came to be drawn on all sides of the Mediterranean. The Near East witnessed the dissolution of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and an intensified European and American presence. The victorious Allied Powers -- the United States, France and Britain -- parceled out parts of the once vast Ottoman Empire and its resources among themselves according to various treaties. The United States received the governorship of the capital city of Istanbul (Constantinople), France received Syria, and Great Britain, much of Anatolia, i.e. the newly established Republic of Turkey. Correspondingly, Turkey and its ally during World War I, Germany, suffered territorial and strategic losses.

This exhibition's concern with Near Eastern history bridges the ancient, mediaeval, and modern periods by viewing these eras through the lens of archaeology as practiced by Westerners. This brief synopsis of the partitioning of the Near East between the World Wars sets the stage for the arrival of the archaeologists. The archaeologists went to the Near East during this period of political upheaval, ostensibly to collect ancient and mediaeval artifacts, notably those associated with the Old and New Testaments of the Judaic and Christian religious traditions. Some of the artivacts collected then are presented in this exhibition in order to illustrate clearly the gradual insertion of Near Eastern history into the life of the modern West.

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Travel in the Near East: From Caravan to Railroad

One of the most important strategic resources fought over in the Great War was the Near Eastern railroad. Under the German-Turkish alliance it was called the Berlin-Bagdad Railroad. Later, when the railroad came under French control, the slogans were altered to "Bordeaux to Bagdad" and "Calais to Cairo." Great Britain favored "London to Bagdad," as seen on the travel poster featured in this exhibition.

The route followed by the Near Eastern Railroad had been of great strategic importance for centuries, in part, because it allowed access to the material resources of the area. The Near Eastern railroad, along with the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Suez Canal were intended as modern versions of the three great trade routes of the middle ages. The old caravan routes which had linked East and Near East were now extended directly into Western Europe by rail and to the Mediterranean by canal.

Westerners took various advantages of their new access to the Near East via the railroad. Allied troops were sent into the region in great numbers. Missionaries expanded their numbers and their projects. Americans, in particular, were able to exploit this new opportunity because their country and its wealth had not suffered the devastations of the Great War.

The railway was of interest to archaeologist as well. Archaeologists, travelling with the soldiers and missionaries, went to survey previously inaccessible sites. Two American archaeologists, James Henry Breasted and Francis Willey Kelsey, took the Near Eastern railroad on extended expeditions during the interwar years of 1919-1920. This exhibition recounts their goals and successes as both adventurers and scientists.

Francis W. Kelsey and missionaries on the Near Eastern Railroad

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Archaeology and the Near East: From Adventuring to Science

Archaeology did not emerge as a discrete discipline until the turn of the last century. The central notion from which archaeology developed is quite straightforward: humankind has left material traces of its history in and on the earth. The scholarly discipline of archaeology (from Greek words archn and logos meaning discourse about the past, or about origins) is one means of investigating that history. Whereas adventurers travelled to far-off places to seek novel experiences and exotica, archaeologists, on the other hand, surveyed and excavated at home and abroad in order to uncover the physical remains of history.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was the archetypal adventurer. Daring, ingenuity and impropriety were his trademarks and formed the wellspring of his popularity. Although a gifted linguist and indefatigable amateur anthropologist, he was best known for his adventures. He sought the legendary source of the White Nile. He journeyed to Mecca in the disguise of a pilgrim from Afghanistan. He translated erotica such as the Kama Sutra of Vatsayana and the Arabian Nights into English. Above all, he brought the strangeness he sought in the Near East home to the West in his carefully cultivated persona and in his writings about his travels.

Western fascination with Near Eastern history was not founded solely on perceived differences between East and West, but derived also from the fact that the region was the locus for Old and New Testament events, early Christian history, and the development of Judeo-Christian religious traditions. For that reason, Western European scholarly interest in the Near East has long been focused on the origins of Western European culture. Western scholars have been noticeably less interested in the religious history of Islam and Islamic cultures. Biblical archaeology (extending from about 9000 B.C. to about 700 A.D., a few generations after the Arab conquest, and including all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and the Near East) began early in the 19th century. The investigations of Sir Austin Henry Layard at Nineveh in the middle of the 19th century were followed by George Koldewey's excavations at Ur of the Chaldeans where the "Tower of Babel" was believed to have been found, and a continuous stream of other discoveries was made until the time of Kelsey's expedition in 1919.

Most famous of the new "scientific" archaeologists who emerged at the turn of the century was the British scholar, Sir William Flinders Petrie of the Egypt Exploration Society. Petrie excavated an enormous number of sites and developed a theory with extraordinarily practical ramifications: the study of broken pottery, the most common artifact of daily life, yields many indications of not only habitation, but also of chronology. Superimposed layers of pottery remains provide clues useful for dating the stratigraphy of a given site.

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Popular Interpretations of Archaeological Discoveries

In the West, public awareness of the Near East continued to grow during the interwar years as access to the Near East increased. Photographers, painters, poets, architects, archaeologists and scholars drew upon a rich, long-admired and appropriated heritage of forms and images. During the course of the preceding century, these Orientalists had come to describe themselves as Western students of Eastern history, lore, myth, religion, art and artifacts. Many specialized in periods of ancient history associated with the Bible; others focused on the mediaeval Christian era; far fewer in mediaeval or modern Islam.

Books, newspaper and magazine articles and poems inspired by archaeological discoveries of the interwar years show how historical descriptions intended for public consumption tended to be romanticized vignettes which were interestingly, if sometimes anachronistically, combined. Even "scientific" archaeologists of the interwar period were not immune to the temptation to romanticize discoveries. They were well aware that artifacts evoke emotional responses, that they are at once concrete manifestations of history and changeable ephemera. They and other popularizers shamelessly evoked nostalgia and the desire for adventure. Those emotions continued to be the chief characteristics determining the enthusiastic reception of archaeological discoveries just as they had been for the explorers of earlier generations.

The new breed of "scientific" archaeologists working in the Near East presented a stream of discoveries to the public during the interwar years. Most well-known for its archaeological showmanship, perhaps, was the discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, "the boy king" (1922-31). Newspapers such as the Illustrated London News and journals such asArt and Archaeology and National Geographic kept public interest at a peak.

Significantly, it was during this time of the West's heightened awareness of the Near Eastern past that the "scientific" exploration of the earliest Christian communities began in earnest. Investigations of Biblical sites were undertaken on a massive scale during the few years between the Wars, supported, in part, by funds collected from the general public (as was the case, for example, with the British-based Palestine and Egypt Exploration Societies). Popularization was important not only for the general good and education of the public but for the funds it generated as well.

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The New Breed of Near Eastern Archaeologist: James Henry Breasted

James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) was an American Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. His Orientalist (Eastern) contribution to archaeology, history and the history of art is immense. In recognizing the influence of the ancient Near East on the subsequent development of Western Europe, he broadened scholarly attention from a narrow focus on the achievements of Greece and Rome.

Breasted was one of the first archaeologists to travel via the Near Eastern Railroad during the interwar years. His 1919-1920 Near Eastern expedition for the Oriental Institute journeyed all the way to the railway's end at Bagdad, where he proposed to stay and carry out several research projects. While there he received a note from Gertrude Bell, an eminent British archaeologist, concerning a recent discovery made by a British officer at Dura-Europos (also called Dura-Salahiya, and Deir es-Zor). She asked him to travel there under British protection and survey the site.

Breasted was very much aware of his position as one of the first Western scholars to survey the site (so much aware that he downplayed the published information of German scholars who had visited there previously). It is clear that he was also aware of the glamour long since associated with archaeological adventure. Even as he presented thorough "scientific" documentation of the remains at Dura, his account of this discovery emphasized the romance of danger:

It was good fortune of the University of Chicago expedition to make the first dash undertaken by white men after the Great War across the desert region and the newly proclaimed Arab state, from Bagdad to Aleppo and the Mediterranean. . . .Creeping up the Euphrates as quietly as we could, and making every effort to elude the treacherous and hostile Beduin, we reached Dura-Salihiya just as the British were about to begin their retirement down river. After a hasty preliminary inspection for which we ran up by automobile from the British headquarters at Albu Kamal we found ourselves at Dura with but a single day which we could devote to making our records of the place. Without the protection of the British Indian troops it was not safe to remain a moment longer at Dura, and this first publication of the Oriental Institute represents a single day's field work of the expedition. [Breasted's italics]
(J.H. Breasted, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1924, pp. 1- 2)
More importantly as concerns this moment in the development of Near Eastern archaeology, Breasted's point of view remained typically and essentially Western insofar as he saw his task as an Orientalist archaeologist to trace the Eastern origins and evolution of European and American civilization. Breasted successfully discovered the West in his dash across the Near East:
It is a matter of gratification to its members that the first volume of a series to be known as the Oriental Institute Publications should contain these materials which so unequivocally illustrate the process of culture transition from the Orient to Europe. The recognition of this transition is daily revealing to modern men that there is no sharp cleavage between the Near Orient and Europe. The successive rise of both from prehistoric savagery has been one evolutionary process, the recovery of which will enable us to write the coherent and unified story of mankind. Writing these words, as I do, overlooking the hills of Tuscany but a few hours away from Ravenna, and contemplating the roofs and towers of Florence spread out below this historic villa where it is believed by many that Boccaccio found the scene of his immortal Decamerone tales, it seems peculiarly fitting that these prefatory words should be penned in the midst of surroundings which reveal at every turn how great a part in the revival developed so richly here in Florence, and especially the art of painting, was based to no small extent upon that of Byzantium, of which we must evidently recognize the ancestry in the wall paintings of Dura.
Villa Palmieri
Florence Italy
June 1, 1923
(Breasted, 1924, p. 8)
Breasted's publication of those frescoes as Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting helped to shape the field of early Byzantine archaeology and art history as we know it today: subsequent excavations at Dura Europos, a military outpost and caravan site on the Euphrates, furnished our oldest examples of Christian art; later studies investigated the ways in which the art of Dura was seen to lead to the development of Western Christian art.

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A Classical Scholar in the Near East: Francis Willey Kelsey

Another important archaeologist working in the Near East in the interwar years was Francis Willey Kelsey of the University of Michigan. F.W. Kelsey (1858-1927) came to the University of Michigan in 1889 as a professor of Latin language and literature. From the beginning of his Michigan career, he promoted archaeology as a new field of science. He was active in shaping its scholarly societies and major publications, in publishing his own translation, and in undertaking excavations in the field. Moreover, he formulated a definition of archaeology as the study of ancient and mediaeval monuments and written sources, to be correlated with the sciences of minerology, physical geography, ethnology, and anthropology, as well as the history of art. The destruction of artifacts by water, weather, and the acts of man fascinated him and moved him to advocate both the excavation of sites and the collection of artifacts by museums and private individuals.

We must beware and not limit the field of archaeology too much; the arrow head found around Ann Arbor, the walls in Central America -- almost as much of a puzzle today as a hundred years ago -- the relics of the Mound Builders, all these fall in the range of archaeology just as much as Greek and Roman relics. There is no object that bears the imprint of human mind, that shows purposeful expenditure of human energy in past ages, that does not come under this science. This opens an immense field, a bewildering one; it may seem strange to compare the statues of Phidias with an arrow head, yet each shows the purpose of the maker; the same set of muscles made the two objects; they have something in common. Such is the breadth of the subject, that while the limits are fairly clear, it is hard to fix them. . . . Again, where does the ancient stop and the modern begin? This is equally hard to answer; in general, men will extend it to the close of the classical period. But too we have the Christian archaeology later; this has a wide range running on into the middle ages and even into modern times." [Italics added]
(from F.W. Kelsey's unpublished Lectures on Archaeology, 1896, in the collection of the Kelsey Museum Library)
Kelsey and other archaeologists of the new breed considered themselves to be scientists, and more. They intended to provide a link between ancient history and the modern world as well. He and his colleagues saw it as their duty, as citizens of the word, to involve themselves in political and military matters as well as in their more abstract, scholary pursuits. Both aspects of their archaeological investigations were linked by their own cultural backgrounds.

Kelsey's 1919-1920 expedition to the Near East, undertaken via the reopened railway like Breasted's expedition of the same year, is presented in detail in Part Two of the exhibition. It is important to note in this context that Kelsey's archaeological and other interests were located squarely within the Graeco- Roman continuum. In all ways, Francis Kelsey remained a classicist, more specifically a romanist, unlike the Egyptologist-Orientalist Breasted. Kelsey never travelled any further east than Aleppo. The Mediterranean was at the center of his map of the ancient world. The sites Kelsey chose for excavation form a ring around the Mediterranean, in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia: Kelsey traced the rise of Greek and Roman cultural dominance at these sites. As a classical scholar in the Near East he was not so much interested in the evolution of ancient Near Eastern into Western culture as he was interested in finding traces of Greece and Rome in the Near East.

Whereas the opinions of James Breasted, Kelsey's contemporary and colleague, were sought on political and military matters by various powerful individuals, Kelsey's great energy and determination were spent without attracting particular notice. His articles on the Near East, based on his travels in Syria and Turkey, were published in archaeological journals or local newspapers, rarely in the national or international presses.

Reception of Emir Feisal (later, King Feisal) at the R. R. station. Picture taken in
room at station by arrangement with the police. Feisal at left with Arab headdress.
January 16, 1920
Photograph by G. R. Swain
Negative no. 7.229
(Swain's notes)

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