Boys of Sumer: Nasir and Clarence – by Kamillia Scott

May 4, 2016

This is part of a series of three blog posts by the 2015-2016 Penn Museum Fellows. The Penn Museum Fellows program is a new initiative that aims to support and promote advanced undergraduate research at the Penn Museum.

As a Penn Museum Fellow I have worked with an abundance of materials in the Archives, and the stories that I uncover are often unique and entertaining. “The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia” archival exhibition tells many stories of the Museum’s earliest expedition to Nippur. Among these is the case of Nasir el Hussein, an exceptional individual in the eyes of his American counterparts.

Nasir was a 19-year-old Bedouin tribesman commissioned by John Henry Haynes in the city of Hillah to work on the Museum’s fourth expedition to Nippur, as a basket-carrier, in 1899. According to an article by the Philadelphia Press, Nasir’s mastery of the Arabic language intrigued Penn Museum archaeologists Herman Hilprecht and Clarence Fisher. He was soon promoted to assist in the survey work of Clarence Fisher and Valentine Geere. As a reward for his service, Nasir and Clarence went on a tour of the world which ended here in Philadelphia. Their travels included a two-month tour of Turkey before journeying to Aleppo and North Africa. They most likely reached the Mediterranean, traveled to Europe, and finally to Philadelphia where Nasir mystified the local press. Charmed by his childlike fascination and confusion with American customs, his compatriots seemed to find Nasir surprisingly “civilized,” having been an educated, hard-working, and free enterprising individual who was proud of his independence. As a subject to no government other than tribal chiefs, Nasir says, “We roam about Arabia at our own will and live by raising and selling camels, horses, sheep and goats”.

"Bedouin of the Desert Comes to Philadelphia." Philadelphia Press, November 4, 1900.
“Bedouin of the Desert Comes to Philadelphia.” Philadelphia Press, November 4, 1900.

When I realized Nasir had been a basket carrier for the excavation, I wondered if his service was recorded elsewhere in the Nippur correspondence. Clarence Fisher only speaks vaguely about his work with the Arabs at Nippur in his daily journals. However, I was able to uncover a February 1899 workmen’s time book that lists Nasir’s perfect attendance record. You might notice the newspaper article spells the tribesman’s name Nasir el Hussein, while in the workmen’s time book he is listed as Nasr el Hussein omitting the “i.” You can see the news clipping, time book, and more for a limited time in the Archives corridor of the Penn Museum.

Nippur Timebook
Nippur Time Book