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Digging the Dirt…

On an Archaeological Scandal

America’s first archaeological adventures in the Ottoman Empire combined good intentions with diplomatic ineptitude and outright skulduggery. The wrong man was rewarded for groundbreaking discoveries. As those early excavations come under the spotlight with an exhibition and a new book of photographs, Robert Ousterhout and Renata Holod recount the bitter rivalries, the culture clashes – and the crucial role of the artist Osman Hamdi Bey

  • Hermann Hilprecht, dressed as an Ottoman gentleman, relaxes in his study in the 1890s, while overseeing American excavations in Mesopotamia from a safe distance. Professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania, he courted Osman Hamdi with his smooth European ways. But self-aggrandisement and academic dishonesty finally forced him to resign in disgrace in 1910

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology owns two paintings by the distinguished artist and statesman Osman Hamdi Bey. All but unknown today, the paintings reflect an important early chapter in American diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire. Just as there is an art of diplomacy, there is a diplomacy of art, and the paintings figured prominently in the museum’s early negotiations with the Ottoman authorities. At stake was the Americans’ participation in the field of archaeology, which they joined relatively late in the game. Their British, French and German colleagues had begun decades earlier to excavate and collect antiquities from across the Mediterranean, with much coming from the Ottoman Empire. Competing with their European counterparts, both American scholars and the mercantile aristocracy viewed archaeology as a required activity of a modern nation, and the possession of antiquities as a sign of status and culture.

In 1879 the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) was founded under the leadership of Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard professor of the history of art, who encouraged American institutions to engage in excavation in the eastern Mediterranean. He urged the United States to look to its roots in the democracy of ancient Athens, and to look to the classical art of antiquity as the visual manifestation of its social values. The elite could cross the Atlantic to view masterpieces in the British Museum and elsewhere, but, for the majority of Americans, classical art was only accessible second-hand, through photographs, publications or plaster casts. While excavation could further the progress of human knowledge, as Norton and others saw it, collecting ancient art for public display was a moral imperative. In this spirit, in 1881 the AIA, supported by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, launched its first excavation, at Assos, near Troy, in northwest Asia Minor. At the time the Assos excavations were begun, it was standard practice for foreign excavators to divide the artefacts with the Ottoman authorities, and the Bostonians looked forward to forming their own collection of antiquities in “the Athens of America”.

Everything changed with the appointment of Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) as director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum in 1881. An accomplished artist, archaeologist and diplomat, Hamdi Bey had studied painting in Paris with Gustave Boulanger in the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme. He had also served in the retinue of Midhat Paşa in Baghdad and spent time in India. Fiercely nationalist, he was a reformer with a European perspective and manner of living. His attitude towards antiquity, too, was not unlike that of his Western counterparts, recognising “the material advantages and eminent honor derived from the possession of classical remains”.

In 1883–84 Osman Hamdi Bey rewrote the standing laws governing antiquities to prohibit archaeological finds leaving Ottoman territory. Rather than continue to allow the Empire to be the passive setting for the activities of foreign excavators and treasure-hunters, he shifted the balance of power, effectively laying claim to all archaeological sites within the Empire. As director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum, Hamdi Bey became the gatekeeper to whom all foreign archaeologists were answerable. In this way the Ottomans took ownership of the multiple pasts of the territories they held, with physical as well as symbolic control of sites and artefacts.

The Americans, having entered the field of archaeology late in the day, slowly realised the necessity of diplomacy if they were to succeed. The excavators at Assos were young, naive and inexperienced, and they were concluding their expedition just as the law changed. Their brash young leader, Joseph Thacher Clarke, failed to secure the proper export permit, then offended Hamdi Bey with his condescension and his failure to send publications from the excavation. “I have been courteous and obliging to them,” Hamdi Bey remarked, “and they have not been courteous to me.” As tit for tat, he refused to sign their permit. It took time and personal diplomacy to set matters right. Two years after the end of the excavation, crates destined for Boston languished on the beach at Assos. John Henry Haynes (1849–1910), who had been the photographer for the expedition (and was subsequently tutor at Robert College in Constantinople), had to intervene with gifts of books and photographs. Even so, the AIA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts received considerably fewer artefacts than they had expected…

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