Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 24.

Debbie Challis, From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus: British Archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire 1840-1880. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. xi + 211. ISBN 9780715637579. UK£18.00.

Michael Greenhalgh
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

The acquisition of classical antiquities by Britain was predicated on the benefits of education, the eventual extension of the Grand Tour beyond Italy by rich, enthusiastic or (sometimes) foolhardy travellers, and an increasing interest in precise and measured scholarship concerning the past (used sometimes to erect classical- seeming buildings). One of the avenues of scholarship was the development of archaeology, and another the rise of public institutions called museums (defined by ICOM as ‘a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment’), which developed from private collections large and small, themselves often open to the public. With such antiquities conceived as for the public good, diggers could often call on the Royal Navy (its officers usually classically educated, just like the French) for the tricky business of dismantling, trucking, loading and shipping the finds back home.

Nor were such activities confined to Britain -- a country usually behind the rest of the Continent in respect of Classical antiquities. The Residenz at Munich, for example, contained an Antiquarium built in 1568-1571 for the collection of Albert V; France had the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (founded as the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Médailles in 1663; and French warships were scouring the North African coast to assuage Louis XIV's thirst for spectacular marbles with which to decorate his palaces, especially Versailles (first extended from 1664). A map of the Mediterranean (excellent free ones are available for download from the web) would have further helped the author in fixing the context, as would the essential text for these activities, namely Henri Omont's Missions archéologiques françaises en Orient aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles in two volumes (Paris 1902).

Obviously, British digs in the Ottoman Empire need to be set within the European context, because both excavation and the retrieval of trophies for the home country were often seen as intensely competitive, archaeology being war by other means, so to speak. This attitude was never fully official, in the French sense, but was pursued with vigour, as when Canning wrote to Sir Robert Peel in 1846:

‘M. Botta's success at Nineveh has induced me to adventure in the same lottery, and my ticket has turned up a prize. On the banks of the Tigris not far from Mosil there is a gigantic mound called Nimrud. My agent has succeeded in opening it here and there, and his labours have been rewarded by the discovery of many interesting sculptures, and a world of inscriptions. If the excavation keeps its promise to the end there is much reason to hope that Montagu House will beat the Louvre hollow.’[[1]]
The Rosetta Stone, discovered by the French in 1799, but seized (along with many other souvenirs collected by the French for the Louvre) by the British Army and transported in triumph to the British Museum, is a still-painful example, prominent because of its importance in the decipherment of hieroglyphics. Examples of such competitiveness are especially rife in the age of Elgin[[2]] when many antiquities were damaged by nonchalance and incompetence[[3]] and when the searched sites were still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Given this context, Dr Challis' book,[[4]] with its narrow field of forty years, and focus on things British, classical, and Ottoman, underplays the Europe-wide reach of the competition, and misses setting the scene, as it were, and without getting embroiled in the Elgin Marbles saga, with the exploits of Cockerell and others when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire -- Aegina (sculptures removed in 1811 to Bavaria); Bassae (explored 1812, sculptures removed to the British Museum). At the other end, it could usefully be extended by consideration of the Palestine Exploration Fund, founded in 1865 (‘to promote research into the archaeology and history, manners and customs and culture, topography, geology and natural sciences of the Levant the southern portion of which was conventionally named “Palestine”’), and the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe, founded in December 1881 by the Khedive Tawfi.[[5]]

In terms of quality, also, some of the finds left much to be desired. Wood went after the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus at least in part because it was one of the Wonders of the World -- but common sense should have told him that, given the way in which the main site at Ephesus had been stripped (as he knew full well), little could be left of the Artemision. Indeed, all the early travellers puzzled over its location, and the ‘wonders of Ephesus’ of the book's title were few indeed. Shovelling silt was not a good example of time- or money-management, and the profoundly unimpressive remains at the site set one wondering what other more visible monuments might profitably have been attacked in its place. The same might be said of Carthage, a site which was a dog's breakfast long before Davis and others got there. These scholars should have known that its beauties had been stripped away for centuries, for mosques and churches all over the Mediterranean. Europeans and Americans viewed points East through the ancient authors; and although it would be excessive for travellers to have left Virgil, Homer, Pausanias, the Tabula Peutingeriana and other texts at home, an objective assessment of classical survivals, rather than trying to read the landscape through the texts, would have produced a more balanced and coherent collection of loot for the institutions back home.

Indeed, part of the problem in setting a context for the story of this book is the point of such excavations. The excavators gave their own views, but was there any kind of strategic direction from the British Museum? That is, what some (not all) of us today might call a mission statement -- or was this understood to be wiping the eye of the upstart continentals, especially the French, in peace as we had done in war? I can find no clear ‘mission statement’ in any of the voluminous publications devoted by the 19th-century British Museum to their antiquities. There appears to have been no overriding concept or even game plan, and materials arrived through the initiatives, exertions and often cash of enterprising individuals, so that the BM grew just like Topsy, with the rationale imposed afterwards. Thus when the French state collared Egyptian antiquities (L'Etat, c'est moi, as Napoleon no doubt modestly thought), these came to the British Museum via the fortunes of war, not the initiative of her governors.[[6]] Others were accessioned by simple scavenging, as a result of travel by individuals to foreign parts.[[7]]

There is certainly a lot more material that could have been used to round out what is an interesting but restricted book. Unfortunately, there is little use made of archives (surely there is plenty of pertinent material available?), and this reader at least would like to know much more about the possible interplay between the British Museum Standing Committee and the men in the field, or who wanted to go there. Indeed, the book's focus is almost entirely on the field (where they are indeed called ‘archaeologists’), whereas more attention to the reasons for collecting (political, prestige, trophy, throwover from earlier private collecting) would have been helpful - - and especially to comparisons with the situation on the Continent beyond the Channel, and cut off as so frequently by fog.

The restrictions of scope are also to be seen in the bibliography, where there are very few items in foreign languages, and too much secondary and not enough primary material, beyond the accounts of the author's featured diggers.[[8]] What, indeed, is the book's theme? Certainly, as the introduction avers, it ‘tells the story of British classical archaeology through the travel journals of the archaeologists who led the excavations, with the Indiana Jones prototypes[[9]] working to ensure that antiquities are safely brought back to their 'proper' place -- the museum’ (pp. 2f.). But why is this their proper place? More attention to the state of the arts in 19th-century Britain, to education, and to the development of both museums and tourism (interrelated, of course), would have helped provide explanations.

Again, the book lacks a convincing conclusion. Challis simply ends Chapter 8, ‘Cypriot Excursions’, -- and why deal with Cyprus when di Cesnola, the star excavator, is an American? -- with the statements that:

‘Retelling and reappraising the past tells us as much about ourselves now as about how these people lived -- whether in the classical world or in the Victorian period. Most importantly, the traveller-archaeologists tell great stories and, as long as there are archaeological discoveries and interest in those discoveries, great stories will always be told and retold.’
Instead of such platitudes, which have no place in a scholarly account, an opportunity has been missed to point out directions for further research, and to explore international rivalry. And there is very little on (as the author remarks a few lines before the end) ‘how the classical world and objects from that world were viewed in the nineteenth century and how the Oriental lands and peoples in which these remnants of the classical past were located were perceived.’

If the focus of the book is to be a mere forty years, then it could also be tighter, more accurate, and less whimsical. Francis Beaufort became a knight only in 1848; the hydrographic survey he did not commission (the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty did that), but completed in HMS Frederickssteen, and then drew the charts himself. The institution is the British School AT Athens NOT the British School OF Athens. The museum in Vienna is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, not the Kunsthistorishes (p. 139). She gives 1831 as the date of the French occupation of Algeria (p. 104) whereas the invasion was in June 1830. We are treated to picturesque and unnecessary details about the railway and its stops from Tunis to Carthage (p. 81). Why bring in Flaubert and Salammbo for no apparent reason (pp. 87f.), and when the author doesn't suggest the book was in any way influenced by the excavation? Then on to Delacroix and his work (p. 89), again for no reason. A further egregious excursion is on Tunis, where: ‘One of the most impressive things about struggling to walk through the Souk today is the sheer mass of humanity, and proceeding through the medieval Souk towards the Great Mosque is a fascinating experience’ (p. 82). I get similar feelings at Holborn underground station, but don't (with the current exception) find the need to express them in published work. The author continues that: ‘The Great Mosque is a fine fifteenth- century building . . .’ and she recognises the use of Roman remains in Al-Zaytuna, some from Carthage -- but the likely erection period for this mosque was in the 8th century. This is more than a quibble, since that early date underlines just how early material was taken from nearby Carthage and elsewhere for building purposes. Furthermore, it would be interesting to learn just why the Continent overtook Britain in the acquisition of antiquities, at a time when the Empire was at its height[[10]].


[[1]] Lane-Poole, Stanley, The life of the Right Hon Stratford Canning, London 1888, II, 149.

[[2]] Cf. Léonce Pingaud, Choiseul-Gouffier; la France en Orient sous Louis XVI (Paris 1887) 161f., on the subject of Choiseul-Gouffier and the collecting of antiquities; ibid., pp. 280f. on the vicissitudes of getting the cases to Paris during wartime. For Wellington's forcing the French to hand over the antiquities etc looted throughout Europe, cf. Charles Saunier, Les conquêtes artistiques de la Révolution et de l'Empire reprises et abandons des alliés en 1815: leurs conséquences sur les musées d'Europe (Paris 1902).

[[3]] W. Froehner, Notice de la sculpture antique du Musee National du Louvre, (Paris 1878) 1.156: Des artistes français détachèrent alors plusieurs sculptures du Parthénon. En descendant une des métopes (lisez: une dalle de la frise), la poulie cassa, et cette sculpture fut mise en pièces.’

[[4]] The blurb states: ‘According to a historian of the time, the huge influx of antiquities into the British Museum in the nineteenth century was the result of “English pertinacity and Oriental cunning”. This book explores the fascinating stories behind the collection of antiquities from the Ottoman Empire between 1840 and 1880. The men who led these collecting expeditions published journals detailing their adventures as well as their archaeological labours, and this did much to feed Victorian interest in archaeology and the Orient … Dr Challis examines the complex depiction of the Orient in these journals, as a place to be both feared and admired, and above all concentrates on the invention of the modern idea of the adventuring archaeologist, on the personal stories of the archaeologists, on their feelings about the antiquities they discovered and the lands in which they discovered them. The book includes a selection of evocative contemporary illustrations.’

[[5]] Cf.

[[6]] David Masson, The British Museum historical and descriptive (Edinburgh 1850) 15: ‘The next great addition was in 1802, when there arrived in this country a vast collection of Egyptian sculptures and monuments, acquired by our army on the capitulation of Alexandria by the French in the previous year. These monuments, which had been collected by the orders of Napoleon, and were on the point of being shipped for France, when they were surrendered to the British, formed a spoil such as the fortune of war rarely bestows.’

[[7]] A. H. Smith, A catalogue of archaic Greek sculpture, in the British Museum (London 1892) 11: ‘Finally, it may be observed that not a few sculptures in the British Museum have been found under peculiar circumstances in this country. Such specimens have been brought to England by travellers, whose collections have afterwards been broken up, lost or neglected, and have been rescued by chance from warehouses, gardens, or masons' yards.’

[[8]] For example, p.97: when the author notes French excavations at Carthage, the reference is to a secondary work in English, not to the plentiful excavation accounts of Beulé himself. Cf., e.g., M. Beulé, Fouilles et découvertes résumées et discutées envue de l’histoire de l’art (Paris 1873), II, 237-8: ‘ce qu’il faut admirer, c’est la persévérence des Anglais, c’est la continuité de leurs sacrifices, c’est leur vigilence qui ne laisse échapper aucune occasion, c’est l’intervention toujour prête du gouvernement, qui donne des instructions à ses agents dans les terres classiques, leur envoie de l’argent, des hommes, des navires,les soutient avec énergie contre le mauvais vouloir ou l’indolence des orientaux et provoque par cette intelligente politique les plus importantes découvertes’ -– and France imitates Britain in voting money for her consuls in Asia Minor, and should do likewise in the Levant. Again, Texier is mentioned in the text, but is not in the bibliography. Also to be added is D. W. J. Gill, The British School at Athens and archaeological research in the late Ottoman Empire,’ in D. Shankland (ed.), Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage in the Balkans and Anatolia: The Life and Times of F.W. Hasluck, 1878-1920 (Istanbul 2004), I, 223-55.

[[9]] Cf. Edward T. Cook, A Popular Handbook to the Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum (London 1903) xxi.

[[10]] Adolf Michaelis, A Century of Archaeological Discoveries (London 1908) x-xi, quoting Percy Gardner in the preface: ‘It is necessary to confess that since 1875 the share of England in the work of discovery has diminished, while the shares of France and Germany have increased … we cannot blame Greece and Italy for being determined in future to keep the works of art, the possession of which constitutes the great distinction of those countries in the eyes of the educated world . . . We must learn to work for science, not for reward.’