Sir Austen Henry Layard [1817-1894] -- By: Milton C. Fisher
BSP 1:4 (Autumn 1988) p. 2
Sir Austen Henry Layard [1817-1894]
What is so remarkable about Austen Henry Layard? Is it (a} He discovered so much so quickly? (b) He did so at an early age without prior schooling or experience? (c) He worked “on a shoestring,” without adequate government or institutional support? (d) He dropped archaeology abruptly for a political and diplomatic career, or (e) All of the above? The answer is E!
Henry Layard was, above all, aggressive and adventuresome. So courageously impetuous was he most would call him foolhardy. But because he learned by doing, his activities got biblical archaeology off to a fast start. Caution and refinements had to be introduced to get the most out of artifacts recovered; but it was Layard, more than anyone else, who captured the attention and admiration of the (British) public, thus popularizing the challenge of Near Eastern archaeology.
The Illustrated London News (Nov 3, 1855) said, “In 1853 the Assyrian Excavation Fund was established in London for the purpose of prosecuting still further the researches which have conferred such well-deserved honour and fame upon Mr. Layard.” By this date, Layard had completed two digs and won a seat in parliament. Widely travelled as he was while still young [his productive days as an excavator lasted only from age 28 to 34!], he twice served as Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, as well as ambassador without portfolio, and political observer in the Crimean War and in India. A lover of art and of intriguing surroundings, he retired in Venice, to which he had been attracted on his first trek to the Near East. He died in London at the age of 77.
The rapid pace of Layard’s career was achieved by a seemingly unconventional route, due to his insatiable curiosity and indefati-
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gable energy. But his parents started it all, one could say, by their own wandering ways. They moved about in civil service and were too poor to provide Henry a college education. Yet he grew up multilingual, being born in Paris and educated in Italy, France, Switzerland, and England. He also travelled Europe on his own, as far as Finland and Russia.
On his first trip farther east, adventures like exploring Jordan’s Petra — where he was threatened by local tribesmen, then attacked and robbed in the mountains of Moab — only whetted his appetite for excavation. He was also further equipped to anticipate and forestall or handle trouble when working in Mesopotamia.
Friendship with Paul Botta, French vice-consul at Iraqian Mosul (near ancient Nineveh) who pioneered some excavations himself, confirmed Layard’s determination to dig. Downstream by raft...
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