Henry Austen Layard

Henry Austen Layard (1817 – 1894)

In the spring of 1817, in Paris, Henry and Marianne Layard gave birth to a son who was to make his mark on the world of Archaeology, then a relatively new discipline to the passions of mankind. It is pertinent to remind the reader that his birth was immediately following the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Both England and France, weary over the desolation of some thirty years of war, were to turn their national psyches to far more creative pursuits. Adventure and excitement were no longer to be gained on the battlefront and the era of great scientists, botanists and technologists were to change the human race dramatically. In Layard’s time personalities such as Darwin, Agassiz and Watt were typical of pinnacles that represented the new face of achievement in a world thirsty for knowledge in fresh arenas. The explosive growth of Archaeology from perhaps a souvenir gathering pastime to a respected science was driven by such pioneers as Layard, Botta, Champollion and the like. To contemplate why this growth occurred is beyond our present scope but one suspects that such endeavors can only flower in times of peace and for Layard and his contemporaries such a time was about to begin. Further to this, it is important, in our judgments, to remind the reader that Layard and his ilk were relative pioneers and should not be judged from our rigorous modern archaeological viewpoint. Rather, as Churchill is often quoted as urging, use the standards of the era in which that history unfolds.

henry austen layard

What separates the great Archaeologist, from what might be called merely the prominent? This is an elusive question that baffles searchers in all areas of human performance and it is not easy to measure. However these criteria are important, for what lies buried in the answer is the essence of Archaeology. The answer can be highly subjective and is often a slave to the time in which it is asked but it should bring clarity to our restless search for meaning in human endeavor.

If we are to answer the question imperative in the word great we will need some tools to relieve us of subjectivity and prejudice.

Apart from the 19th century scientist Galton, who was largely of the opinion that genius in all fields, was largely inherited our first modern study on greatness was initiated by L.M.Terman [1]. In this he discusses the possession of senior intellectual ability or genius. He notes,” Unfortunately eminence as measured by popular acclaim or even by spaces in biographical dictionaries (i.e. Who’s who) is influenced by other circumstances than intellectual achievement. The population it affords is the result of innumerable factors that may vary from Age to Age and Culture to culture “. He complains we need better measures than biographies, which overlook such crucial facts as childhood genius, which is often misinterpreted and is an effective marker for future greatness. His laborious trials followed 1300 intellectually superior children over some 30 years and in addition evaluated eminent people including philosophers, revolutionary statesmen, non-fiction writers, scientists, soldier’s artists and musicians. He noted that without exception, people who gain very high eminence are gifted in intelligence from an early age. However,[2]”…those who do achieve are characterized not only by superior intellectual ability but also by persistence of motive and effort, confidence in their abilities and great strength or force of character “We must also take note of the place played by chance. Thus, and this is important as it applies strongly to Layard, [3]”…one must be born not too far from a given time and place. It is an interesting game to try to imagine how differently any list of eminent persons might read if every one now in it had lived a generation or two earlier or later”. In this respect we might wonder how a Schliemann and his modern reputation for brutal Archaeology would have faired in our present, subtler scientific times. Layard certainly was a man for his time, with his bold thirst for adventure and Romanticism. He may of found difficulty fitting in with our committee approach to Archaeological endeavors. This again alleys Churchills insistence that judgments must match the time when a history is unfolding. Terrman also notes eminent people invariably have a benefactor or sponsor. For instance Sir Isaac Newton at 15 left school and was tending his mothers farm until the timely visit of an uncle who had attended Cambridge .Without the uncles sponsorship it is doubtful Newton would have ever received the education that made possible great discoveries. In Layards case three sponsors became initially important in launching his archaeological career. Firstly a relative who in 1839 offered to find him a post in Ceylon (Layard was 22)[4] this enabled him to travel. But for Layard it was the mode of travel that was to dazzle and inspire . Normally a leisurely sea route was in order, but Layard was eager to see the Middle Eastern lands of his youthful readings and so he chose the hazardous overland route that was to enmesh him in Mesopotamia and lead to his spectacular revelations at Nimrod and Nineveh. His second sponsor was the British resident (Ambassador) in Baghdad, Colonel Taylor. In many ways Taylor was to encourage him, with the use of his extensive library, sponsoring of trips with his junior officers and eventually as a reporting officer to the British ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Stratford Canning .On the journey he made his second visit to Nimrod and met the French Archaeologist and resident in Mosel, Emile Botta. The powerful Canning was impressed by the bearer of the report on the looming Persian Turkish war but also by Layard’s enthusiastic portrayal of the Archaeological potential of Nimrod. Canning was thus to become his third important sponsor. Not only was he to finance from his own pocket (60 pounds) a reconnaissance expedition to Nimrod in 1845 but also to later obtain funds from the British museum (2000 pounds) and exert his influence with Turkish authorities to excavate at Nineveh (1846).4 Without these important milestone influences it is doubtful that Layard could have performed with any great impact on the world of Archaeology. This ability to attract benefactors in other words was decisive to his success and we should note Ceram ‘s judgment on Layard to finalize this quality.5

”Layard must have been an unusually charming man, a master in the Art of dealing with people “

To return to Terman and his evaluation of genius he finally notes,6 “…the direction of later achievement is to be foreshadowed by interests and preoccupations of childhood.” He notes for instance that MacCauley begun his career as an historian at the age of six. We shall return to Layard on this matter when we note his early reading of Sir Walter Scott, Arabian nights and the earlier Archaeologist Rich. Further Terman nominates versatility as a key component of genius. The popular assumption that genius are the same as mere mortals , except in one particular field , is erroneous .Their unusually high skills lay across a wide spectrum . Terman quotes Cox who studied 23 fields of genius and noted that geniuses displayed superior ability in 5-10 fields 7Layard fits in well with this measuring stick As we shall see later, his skill as a writer, politician, ambassador, artist, surveyor, linguist and medical expert were in addition to his ability as a pioneering Archaeologist.

One more skill inexorably associated with a successful genius is stability. “ In my gifted group success is associated with emotional stability rather than instability, with absence rather than prescience of disturbing conflicts, with happiness of temperament and with freedom from excessive frustration “8Thus achievement beyond a certain level is associated with non- intellectual factors. Our evaluation of Layard in this light is useful. His stability under the most trying of circumstances, for instance in the handling of the nefarious local governor in Nimrod, Keritli Oglin, is remarkable as an exercise in patience, steadfastness of purpose and adaptability. 9 Further his whole career speaks of persistence and clarity of purpose. The ability to mix cheerfully with the tribes of Bakhtiyari and empathies with their traditions and methods, aptly illustrates his social skills. His success as diplomat in times of war and a politician (1852-1857 and again 1860-1869) demonstrate a character not easily swayed by life’s adversity and well able to maintain wide popularity and support for his causes. This by his own efforts not as one born into prestige and inheritance.

One further study by Ann Roe is useful in our evaluation of Layard. 10 She notes the propensity to take risks amongst the highly gifted creative individual and whilst doing so be prepared to be wrong or out of step with accepted theories. This preparedness to be censured and not rely on a well-worn set of principles may well explain the attitude of established archaeologists to the pioneers of the art. They invariably scoff and criticize their methodology if they do not conform to modern practice. Cropley sums this up nicely 9 ‘The wide categorizer genius is prepared to attend to a broad category of environmental information, continually run the risk making mistakes, or look foolish “.

We will come back to this quality amply displayed by Layard.
But lets summaries the qualities we would seek to find in Layard to confirm his greatness as an Archaeologist.

1. Gifted from an early age

2. Persistence of motive and effort

3. Confidence in abilities

4. Strength or force of character

5. Timing and luck

6. Benefactor attraction

7. Childhood foreshadowing of interests

8. Versatility in several fields

9. Stability

10. Willingness to risk intellectual chastisement.

We will note these qualities as we develop our theme of Layard the famous pioneer of Archaeology.

To understand Layard and his contemporaries, such as Botta, it is essential to understand the Archaeology of his generation, itself a reflection of the attitudes and drivers of the time. During earlier centuries the ways of the Christian faith, as portrayed in the Bible, were sacrosanct. However with the developments of the French and Industrial revolutions, the rule of reason and science, inherent in the 19th Century philosophies, certainly urged strong doubt on the Bible and it’s teachings. However it also led to an insatiable thirst for new scientific knowledge .and a search for the roots of mankind . Much new evidence was coming to light that some of the Bible script contained factual knowledge of ancient empires. This was the age where Darwin and Agassiz proposed startling new ideas on the world and human evolution. According to Ceram, Professor Bruno Meissner’s publishing of his book,” Kings of Babylon and Assyria “, helped popularize the fascination with ancient Mesopotamian civilization that had hitherto been only mentioned in the Bible12. This and other books (E.G. Rich’s” Narrative of,” a visit to the site of Babylon “. — Rich actually sketched Nineveh around 1815) presented a rich tapestry of possibilities to receptive minds such as Layards. Henry Layard was thus part of a generation stimulated both by romantic visions of the past and a strong sense of scientific endeavor. His adventurous obsessions began at an early. Cotterell quotes him in his book. 13“Before I had reached the age of 13 I had read all the novels of Sir Walter Scott …but the work I took most delight in was Arabian Nights … they had no little influence over my life and career; for them I attribute my love of travel and adventure which took me to East and led to the discovery of the ruins of Ninevah “. But precisely what does Layard mean by this pervading influence? A reading of the Arabian Nights is enlightening .In this day and age of exciting films and dramas, computer games and boundless novels, it is a little harder to relate the impact that one book could make. But when we consider this delightful book filled with drama and fruitful lessons we begin to understand the fascination. No equivalent existed in French or English literature and the Oriental slant encoded in the tales were a revelation to a formative mind. Husain Haddawy explains this quality in his translation.14 “ The tales (originating from Syria) are enriched by the pleasure of marvelous adventure and a sense of wonder that makes life possible …escape into an exotic world of wish fulfillment…” Layard could doubtless also identify with it’s moral lessons15.” Not with a mission trust another man , for none is as loyal as you yourself . And did not the Lion struggle by himself he would not prowl with such a mighty mane “ This exemplifies the quality attached to Layard’s greatness. That of boldness and belief in himself and Layard was to potently possess this from an early age. Thus Layard was preparing his vision for future journeys but in addition he was to prepare for its practical implementation and thus was to set himself apart from the mere dreamer and adventurer.

This rebellious schoolboy was educated haphazardly, not only in France but also in Italy, England and Switzerland and this explains his amazing facility in Languages for he not only mastered these languages but taught himself Arabic, Persian and other tribal dialects. However this haphazard education was also to contribute to his rebellious nature. Cotterell again quotes him.16 “I was accused (In England) of preaching sedition and revolution and of attempting to corrupt my schoolfellows and to incite them to rebellion… I was very indignant at what I considered an undue and tyrannical interference with my political views “ In this regard, willingness to risk intellectual chastisement and force of character, it is interesting to compare him to Sir Arthur Evans who was risen to similar indignation as a correspondent in Greece. Cotterell notes Evans as “…and a champion of the oppressed minorities of Eastern Europe 17 this ties in with our measure that great men have a resolute resistance to being dictated to

Layard also possessed a useful blend of skill sets that seemed to mesh beautifully with what was to become a passionate adventure in Archaeology. Let us examine them and their usefulness in the context of Ninevah . We have already discussed his facility in Language, his force of character and his construction of a driving romantic vision but now we turn to his brilliance as a descriptive writer and raconteur. This cannot be to highly accented as it enabled him to enchant his, if you like, audience. Possibly, in this day and age of constant advertising and documentaries, we do not understand this ability in Layard It was then a requisite for success and necessary to promote projects out if insignificance into greatness. For instance, his book,“ Nineveh and its remains “, helped popularize his projects. Today patronage by governments, universities, corporations and magazines editorials are more the routinized norm .In fact most of the great Archaeologists arguably had a dash of this skill. Layard’s memoirs reek of tantalizing episodes but they also contain skillfully described factual accounts 18 “They had uncovered the upper part of a figure, the remainder of which was still buried in the Earth. I saw at once the head must belong to a winged Lion or Bull, similar to those of Khorsobad or Persepolis. It was in admirable preservation. The expression was calm yet majestic, and the outline of the features showed a freedom and knowledge of Art, scarcely to, be looked for in works of so remote a period “. This skillfully ties a simmering drama with nicely placed facts and illustrates his literary skills. It also notes a little of his other facility, both fine appreciation of and the practice of fine art. As Cottrell quotes him. 19.” I acquired a taste for the fine arts, and as much knowledge of them as a child who was constantly in the company of artists and connoisseurs “ In fact his sketching and intricate attention to fine detail in his copying of tablets and rendering of effigies was remarkable. In an era where photography was unavailable and in areas where the services of other professionals were quite unobtainable it was a critical skill. In later years he was to publish,” A hand book of painting “(1887), write an introduction to Morelli’s ”Italian painters “and edit Murray’s “Handbook of Rome”. Both critical appreciation and artistic practice were highly developed and exceptional skills.

He also took it upon himself to learn cartography and map reading and navigation in preparation for his Mesopotamian adventures.20 Again we should remember that this was an era when surveying and accurate maps were only available in “civilized” countries In what were remote areas to Europeans a lot of guess work and tapping of local knowledge was necessary To this same end he learnt practical medical skills so necessary in a country of warring factions and fatal diseases such as, Cholera (Of which Rich died in Baghdad), Malaria. (Which were to kill so many troops in the Crimean war and of which he was asked to give authoritative evidence for the British army.) And Dysentery. To his intellectual skills should be added the more robust skills of horsemanship and weaponry in an age that was only just seeing the introduction of railways (but not yet in Mesopotamia) this was a vital asset to flexible travel. A modern archaeologist could produce much more output without these hindrances to rapid travel and transport. Even in Layard’s generation, the Royal Navy could assist in transporting artifacts from excavations in Greece and Egypt. However Nineveh was a great distance from the Persian Gulf. We should thus note Layard’s exceptional skill in mustering local sources to transport and preserve his valuable artifacts .An example of this is his moving of the massive Nineveh Bulls by roller to the Tigris thence by raft to Baghdad.” The cart followed dragged by 300 men … all screeching at the top of their voices “.21Is accomplished by men dragging the huge Massives. The arranging of this amongst Turks, Arabs, Kurds and Musselmen, in the midst of insurrection, was a fine attainment that again reflects his charming force of character and mastery of local politics. Also note that his accomplishments progressed on a shoestring budget that necessitated mastery of resources and a powerful intuitive direction. For instance Canning financed his first expedition for a mere sixty pounds, which when compared to the simultaneous expedition of Botta, liberally financed by the French Government, is staggering when the outcomes are matched. His scholarly attributes were matched by his intuition, which seemingly led him to obtain results at Kuyunjik (Nineveh) where Botta, had struggled.21 By the standards of the day his excavations were cleverly crafted and bought immediate results. They took into account local rumors and were doubtless aided by his wide travels in Persia, which greatly honed this archaeological cunning. For instance his sighting of the Cuneiform script at Behistin and observation of Rawlinson ‘s decipherment work in Baghdad had honed his appreciation of that priceless record of the past. No less his experiences whilst traveling in Persia and ingratiating himself with the Bakhtiyari tribes of that region had sharpened his language and instinctual skills that enabled him to seize on vague evidence.

So we have discussed at length Layard’s character and command of the environment he so excelled in but what were his enduring achievements in the Archaeological field. ? Let us quickly touch on what that era lacked, as tools .It did not have Petrie’s. brilliant innovation of pottery dating. Certainly no modern procedures such as Carbon dating, tree ring sequences or even a calibrated or fixed Egyptian King list by which to compare relative chronology let alone overall time fixing. It basically could only guess from Biblical text and possibly local sources when warlike kingdom, such as Layard’s Assyria, had existed. Layard’s era did not have an appreciation of stratigraphy and even an appreciation of Iron Age versus Bronze Age civilizations therefore their understanding was limited to the time of Ashbanipal, Ezarhaddon, and Senncharib. (Iron Age) Thus Layard’s achievements were limited to a pioneering status. However, given this, his appreciation of those kingdoms was quite staggering His discovery of the Royal library of Ninevah and more particularly, engaging Rawlinson in helping to decipher it, showed a perception of its importance. The over 26,000 tablets yielded a knowledge of medicine, mathematics, business practice, history magic and Astronomy quite beyond the previously understood Assyrian capabilities Its arsenal of drugs in combating disease was revealed in over 500 tablets showing a knowledge of plants, medicines and procedures.22 The uncovery of the ‘Venus “ tablets revealed a comprehension of the Iron Age watchers of the sky that was totally unexpected 23

Previously we have noted his faithful portrayal and recording both in writing and rendering his artifacts, archeological experiences and methods. Now comes his appreciation of the Assyrian empire. His deduction of the capabilities of the Assyrians was scientific, intuitive and insightful. Their brutish love of war, their joy of the hunt, their use of innovation in warfare and their celebration of barbaric rights as well as their enigmatic mastery of scholastic knowledge is exampled in the following passage from one of the tablets. “I slew one of every two. I built a wall before the great gates of the city; I flayed the chief men of the rebels and I covered the wall with their skins…” Lanyard himself was deeply moved by these archaeological finds and stimulated his and future generations with their Aura,” I used to contemplate for hours these mysterious emblems and muse over their [5]intent and history…”24. He appreciated the empires Artistic merit, their huge reservoir of knowledge, their warlike pursuits and ruthlessness and their religious awe. A part of his genius, thus, was in passing this awe, by writing and rendering, on to his own and future generations. This was to add to the stimulation of archaeological endeavor, which fascinates so many of us.

Finally his practical Archaeological career spanned 6 years at Both Nimrod and Nineveh .At the time he and Botta excited the world with their rediscovery of Mesopotamia but the rich excitement of that era still percolates his writing. Layard was a man for his time and one would, “Doubt he’d suit the 21st Century office “, to paraphrase Banjo Patterson. In his own time, he was acclaimed and today, looking back, we cannot help but admire this resourceful, enthusiastic and adventurous character. However it was his deep fascination for the Mesopotamian past and a concern for method added to bold insight that sets him apart as a great Archaeologist. ,[6]


[1] L.M.Terman “ Psychological approaches to the study of genius “ Papers on Eugenics no. 4 1947 pp3-20.

[2]Terman Ibid

[3] Terman. Ibid

4 L.Cottrell Lost Cities Pan. London 1957 pp 11-37

5 C.W.Ceram Gods, Graves and Scholars Lowe & Brydone London 1971 pp255

6 Terman Ibid

7 Cox (mentioned by Terman) Journal of Social Psychiatry 1931 pp46-89

8 L.Terman. Ibid

9 L.Cottrell. Lost Cities. Pan Books. London. 1959 pp21

10 A.Roe. A Psychologist examines 64 eminent scientists. Scientific American Vol 187 1952 pp 21-25

11 A.J.Cropley. Creativity Longmans & Green 1967 pp123

12 C.W.Ceram Gods, Graves and Scholars. Love and Brydone . London 1971 pp. 212

13 Cottrell Ibid.pp11

14 Hussain Haddawy. Arabian Nights. Norton. 1990 pp11

15 Haddawy Ibid.

16 L. Cottrell. Ibid

17 L Cottrell The Bull of Minos Pan. London 1964 pp 94.

18 H.A. Layard Ninevah and its remains ed. H. Saggs. London AKP 1970 pp 98

19 Cottrell. Lost Cities Ibid pp13

20 Cottrell. Ibid.

21 C.W.Ceram Ibid

21 Ceram. Ibid.

22 R .Campbell Thompson “ A Century of exploration at Ninevah “ London 1929

23 H.G.Rawlinson & G. Smith “ Table of the movements of the planet Venus and their influences. “ as noted in by I Velokovsky “worlds in Collision Victor Gollancz. London 1960 pp195.

24 C.W.Ceram ibid pp256

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