LAYARD’S TREASURES: THE IMPACT OF NINETEENTH CENTURY ARCHAEOLOGY ON MODERN QUESTIONS OF ANTIQUITIES OWNERSHIP

Open Access
Author:
Briselli, Caroline Claire
Area of Honors:
History
Degree:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Dr. Christopher Lawrence, Thesis Supervisor
  • Kathryn Salzer, Honors Advisor
Keywords:
  • antiquities
  • Mesopotamia
  • Middle East
  • history
  • Layard
  • Museum
  • Assyria
  • Ottoman
  • Britain
  • repatriation
  • archaeology
  • privilege
  • provenance
  • Orientalism
Abstract:
This thesis uses the case of Sir Austen Henry Layard, a French-born Englishman who excavated the Assyrian site of Nimrud in the mid-nineteenth century, as a lens through which to study complex issues of antiquities ownership. For centuries, Western museums have been the stewards of non-Western antiquities. In recent years, non-Western countries have questioned this paradoxical arrangement, and the repatriation of antiquities to their sites of origin has become a hotly debated issue by historians, museum professionals, and even politicians. This issue has its roots in the nineteenth century, when Western archaeologists—often aristocrats with little formal training—led digs at some of the world’s most ancient sites and claimed the excavated artifacts for themselves and for their countries. This sparked a flood of antiquities into European museums and private homes, and the results of this influx are still on display in institutions like the British Museum, where Layard donated the Assyrian antiquities which he excavated. The life, work, impact, and ethics of Sir Austen Henry Layard are a valuable case study through which to explore the question ‘Who owns antiquity?’ This case study provides a concrete lens through which to study the broad topic of antiquities ownership and the ethics of nineteenth century excavations, characterized by themes of provenance, privilege, and nineteenth century Orientalism. The implications of Layard’s work—and the work of many archaeologists like him—influence modern museums. With the historical context gained through this case study, readers will gain a deeper understanding of the debate surrounding modern-day claims to antiquities.