The Father of Assyriology

3-d of SusianaOne of the problems of being declared the Father of X must be that a skewing of perception takes place. Think of Herodotus, the Father of History, always shown as an ancient (though he may not have lived beyond sixty). Flinders Petrie, the Father of Egyptology, is also most frequently shown as a bearded sage: what a pity there are no pictures of him in his youthful working gear of pink long-johns (intended partly for comfort but also to keep British tourists from coming too close to the apparently naked madman and interrupting his work).



Herodotus (allegedly)

Herodotus (allegedly)


Two bearded sages




Layard: Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Layard: Credit: Wellcome Library, London


Likewise with Sir Austen Henry Layard, the Father of Assyriology (though he himself would probably have applied the epithet to Sir Henry Rawlinson, who is coming soon!). Layard (1817–94) published Nineveh and its Remains in 1849, and Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon in 1853, and his later career encompassed politics, art criticism and diplomacy before his retirement to Venice, where along with Rawdon Brown he was a leading light of the expatriate intellectual community.

Ca' Cappello, Layard's home in Venice

Ca’ Cappello, Layard’s home in Venice









On Christmas Day, 1887, his friend Lady Eastlake wrote to thank him for her copy of his just published Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia: ‘The only wonder is that you lived to tell such tales: I was obliged to stop and remind myself that you really had not perished by treachery, hunger, fatigue, or nakedness, but had to my certain knowledge been in a flourishing condition for years, before I could turn over the next page and see what it brought.’

His intention in retelling the story of his earliest travels was to explain how ‘my attention was directed to the ruins of Nineveh, and that I was able to carry on the excavations among them that led to the discovery of the Assyrian remains with which my name has been associated’ – a ‘prequel’, as it were, to the archaeological discoveries described in the two earlier books.

Layard’s father had been sent abroad for his health, and Henry was born in a Paris hotel. The family settled in Florence, and he regarded Italy as his home, but aged 12 he was sent to live with his mother’s brother, a solicitor, to be educated in England. In 1834 he entered his uncle’s office, changing the order of his forenames from Henry Austen to Austen Henry; but the work was so uncongenial that he gave up the prospect of a partnership and eventual succession at which the name-change hinted, and decided to travel to Ceylon [Sri Lanka], where another uncle suggested he could find work as a barrister.

The same uncle put him in contact with Edward Ledwich Mitford (1811–1912 (!!)), another would-be traveller to Ceylon, who had such a fear of the sea that he was proposing to travel overland. This appealed massively to Layard’s longing for adventure and romance, and he was not to be deterred by the possibility of danger in the little-known and potentially dangerous lands through which he would pass: ‘I was too young, enterprising, and robust in constitution to think of such things.’

The planned route was ‘Central Europe, Dalmatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bulgaria to Constantinople. Thence to cross Asia Minor to Syria and Palestine, and the Mesopotamian desert to Baghdad, which was to be one of the stages of our long journey. From Baghdad we believe that we should be able to reach India through Persia and Afghanistan, and ultimately Colombo, always travelling by land’ except for the English Channel at the outset and the final crossing from India to Ceylon.

The prospect which especially enthralled Layard was the Middle East: Damascus, Baghdad, Aleppo, Isfahan … Hoping one day to reach these exotic lands, which he had read about not only in the Arabian Nights but also in the accounts of earlier travellers such as Burckhardt, he had attempted to teach himself Arabic and Persian. He was, however, practical in his approach, taking advice on, for example, painting his watch black, so that it appeared valueless, and doing a crash course in likely medical hazards (which later came in very useful, as did his medicine case). Knowing that they would be travelling light, he reduced his luggage to what would fit into two saddlebags, plus a double-barrelled shotgun.

On 8 July 1839, aged twenty-two, Layard set off. He may have been a rather infuriating travelling companion to the older and more experienced Mitford, who clearly just wanted to arrive, while the Tiggerish Henry was all for travelling hopefully and taking as many detours en route as possible. They split up on several occasions before finally parting company in Persia in August 1840. Mitford wanted to press on, Layard wanted to see more.

Mitford wrote (also forty years later) an account of their journey, and Layard deliberately omits most of their travels together from his own narrative, on the ground that it had been covered by his companion’s work. He also deliberately doesn’t reproduce his notes on sights and sites which had become much more familiar to the reading public in the intervening years. But his account of his own adventures, encountering tribal wars, brigands, and life-threatening snowstorms, experiencing Arab dentistry (yuck) and minor surgery (even more so), wrestling with camels, mules and horses, and evidently revelling in all the uncomfortable experiences that the Middle East could throw at him, is a gripping read in the best Indiana Jones tradition (or rather, Indiana Jones is in the best tradition of Layard).

Much of the two-volume work is taken up with descriptions of the time Layard spent among the tribes of the Bakhtiari mountains, who were in revolt against the oppressive regime of the Shah of Persia.

The frontispiece of Volume 1

The frontispiece of Volume 1


The frontispiece of Volume 2

The frontispiece of Volume 2









He was greatly impressed by these people, and their culture of hospitality and honest dealing (which he contrasts with the behaviour of those Bedouin tribes who in his opinion have been corrupted by contact with their Turkish rulers).

The Bakhtiari stronghold

The Bakhtiari stronghold

However, in poor health and trapped amid increasing hostilities, he realised that he needed to head back west, though the difficulties and dangers did not decrease, and his enthusiasm for ruins of the distant past was unabated.

Arriving at Constantinople in the summer of 1842, he was taken up by the British ambassador, whose factotum in matters of Turkish–Persian relations he became. (He also spent some time on diplomatic missions in European Turkey.) Finally, in 1845, he persuaded the ambassador (using the argument that otherwise the French might get there first) to subsidise excavations at the ancient mounds near Mosul. And the rest, as they say, is archaeology.


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5 Responses to The Father of Assyriology

  1. joanleo says:

    who was Layard’s uncle the solicitor?

  2. His mother’s brother, Benjamin Austen, son of Nathaniel Austen, banker, of Ramsgate. He may be the one born on 21 March 1789 in Ramsgate, but I’m not sure of this.

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