In the late 1800s, the University of Pennsylvania began excavating the ancient city of Nippur, located in present-day Iraq.
This marked the first American expedition in the Middle East. Over the period of a decade, the excavation team unearthed a remarkable collection of nearly 30,000 cuneiform tablets. Archaeologists & Travelers in Ottoman Lands tells the stories of three men whose lives intertwined during the Nippur excavation, as well as the story of Penn’s first excavation. Osman Hamdi Bey, director of the Imperial Museum in Istanbul (now called the Istanbul Archaeological Museum) was the gatekeeper for all excavations in the Ottoman Empire. Also an accomplished painter, Hamdi Bey created a painting of the excavations at Nippur. This painting, along with another Hamdi Bey painting in the Penn Museum’s collection, will be featured in the exhibit.
While he spent only a few weeks onsite, Penn professor Hermann Hilprecht was named the excavation director. Hilprecht spent much of his time at Hamdi Bey’s museum, where he translated some of the tablets in their collection. He claimed sole credit for the discoveries made at Nippur, and for a time, gained great renown. His results were eventually questioned and his integrity challenged. He retired in disgrace in 1910.
Archaeological photographer John Henry Haynes spent much of his life working and traveling in the Ottoman Empire before joining the Nippur expedition. Haynes was the only expedition member at Nippur every season, holding positions from photographer to business manager. Because of its inhospitable climate, he was often the only American onsite. Following the expedition, Haynes returned to the United States where, after being discredited by Hilprecht, he suffered a nervous breakdown and died in 1910.
Even though their work ended over 100 years ago, the contributions of Hilprecht, Haynes, and Hamdi Bey are still being studied today. The expedition to Nippur established the beginnings of the Penn Museum’s collection, and paved the way for the many excavations undertaken since then. Haynes’ photography is being rediscovered and recognized for the history it provides. Hamdi Bey’s paintings are highly sought after around the world.
Archaeologists and Travelers Online Catalogue
This accompanying catalogue frames the time in which the Nippur expedition occurred, looking at American engagement with the Ottoman Empire. Visit the website
September 26, 2010 - June 26, 2011