Ur Digitization Project: January 2014

January 24, 2014

Personal Records, 1926
Continued Spotlight on Legrain’s travels
through his Letters and photos

We have now completed scanning the curatorial records of Father León Legrain, or at least those that most directly concern the ancient city of Ur. I have now read through many of them, particularly those sent to Penn Museum director George Gordon, and have begun placing them on UrCrowdsource.org for primary transcription by volunteers.

First page of Legrain letter to Gordon, 30 March 1926
First page of Legrain letter to Gordon, dated 30 March 1926

My last blog post covered photos and drawings by Legrain, claiming the ones in the post were made on his trip back from Ur in 1925. In fact, there are several letters in archives that prove that they were drawn in the following season, coming back from Ur in 1926; it is Legrain’s handwritten number 6 that looks like a 5 and not, as I had assumed, the other way around. A series of letters with clear dates cover the places he visited, the same ones he drew plus a few others, and they provide details on the modes of travel he used to traverse the distances.

So, apart from correcting my mistake in the previous blog, I want to share a bit more about this most interesting journey through Legrain’s words, and discuss one or two of the legs of the journey itself.

In a letter dated February 16, 1926, as the field season at Ur was winding down, Legrain mentions heavy rains that flooded the dig house. He says that after the storm, the house looked “a mess like the day after battle. We seat where we can, smoking, drinking liquor to get a little warmth, and writing home.” He mentions that the Victrola (78rpm record player) Gordon sent to them had gotten wet, but they wiped it dry, then “put on some of the best Jazz to cheer up a bit.”

By March 30, 1926, Father Legrain had boarded the S.S. Pierre Loti, a ship sailing from Beirut to Marseille. On board, he wrote again to Gordon explaining his journey thus far. He had left the site with Woolley and crew on March 18th. On the 19th, he was in Baghdad and “learned that a Nairn convoy was leaving the following Monday over Palmyra and Tripoli for Beyrouth.”

This statement intrigued me, so I set about to learn what a Nairn convoy was. It turns out that the Nairn Transport Company was a car (and later bus) service set up by Gerald and Norman Nairn, New Zealanders who had served with the British in WWI. After a failed attempt to sell cars in Beirut, they set up a kind of taxi service that became very successful, ferrying people across the desert. Their business expanded, and by 1923 they were taking on important customers like the British consul, and carrying mail (even at times gold bullion) in record time. The 550 mile trek from Baghdad to Damascus was made in convoys of cars over the course of three days. For an excellent article on this service, see this link.

Legrain Photo of the site of Palmyra in Syria, 1926.
Legrain Photo of the site of Palmyra in Syria, 1926.

Some troubles arose in 1926, the year Legrain took a Nairn convoy, with tribal uprisings being the chief concern. By the end of that year, the Nairns had to change the route they took. But Legrain describes his journey as successful: “We were a large party of four cars including a 7 passengers Limousine and Wednesday 24th we arrived at Beyrouth for lunch without the least trouble.” He seems to have enjoyed the stop at Palmyra, a Roman site in the Syrian Desert. Several of his photos show this impressive place, as does one undated and unlabeled drawing.

Legrain drawing, probably of Palmyra's colonnaded street.
Legrain drawing, probably of Palmyra’s colonnaded street.

The three-day trip cost thirty pounds, a substantial sum in those days. The boat trip to Marseille cost him almost exactly the same at thirty-one pounds. The exchange rate reported on the accounting Legrain made shows that one pound was equivalent to $4.86, making these trips each around $145. To put this in perspective, the trans-Atlantic ship back to the States was $225.

Legrain had about six weeks’ time off, which he was going to spend visiting family and traveling to other ancient sites: “My intention is to visit North Africa on my way but I will cross again from Marseille, which we reach tomorrow April 1st,” he said, and the drawings confirm that he did cross to Algeria and Tunisia. Legrain’s final report, dated June 8th, 1926, written when he was back at Penn recaps the journeys through the desert and across the water: “A three weeks trip enabled me to visit North Africa from Algiers to Tunis.” He then went on to London on April 26th to talk Ur publications with the British Museum. He left there on May 9th to return to New York and then Philadelphia.

For the updated map of Legrain’s travels in March-May of 1926, see this link.