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The Nippur temple excavation photographed by John Henry Haynes in 1893.
(Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

In 1889, University of Pennsylvania archaeologists began excavations at Nippur—one of the world's earliest cities and the most important religious center of the Sumerian civilization—located in modern-day Iraq. Archaeologists & Travelers in Ottoman Lands, which will be on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology until June 26, tells a tale of discovery, diplomacy, and deception involving the three men responsible for much of the early archaeology at Nippur: John Henry Haynes, Hermann Vollrath Hilprecht, and Osman Hamdi Bey.

Haynes served as field director on Penn's excavations at Nippur. Hilprecht, who officially led the project, avoided the harsh conditions on-site, instead staying back in relatively cozy Constantinople. There, he ingratiated himself with Hamdi Bey, the director of the Ottoman Empire's Imperial Museum, founder of what would become the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, and author of a restrictive set of laws limiting foreign excavations within the empire. To gain access to sites and artifacts, Hilprecht arranged for Penn to award Hamdi Bey honorary degrees and buy some of his paintings for exorbitant prices; two of these paintings are on display.

The exhibited artifacts from Nippur illustrate the trio's story. Particularly noteworthy are never-before-seen black-and-white and sepia-toned landscape photographs that chronicle Haynes' extensive travels around the Ottoman Empire. While the exhibition tells us more about the three men than it does about ancient Sumer, a collection of 16 cuneiform tablets provide details about life in Nippur. A severely fractured piece bears an inscription that uses sexual imagery to describe digging a canal. Another is a receipt for the sale of a slave for 20 silver shekels. Several school tablets clearly contrast the meticulous, tiny cuneiform of an advanced scribe and the clumsy, large markings of a novice.

During a decade of excavating at Nippur, Haynes helped uncover the Temple Library, which held 23,000 of these tablets. Hilprecht, however, stole the credit for this and other finds, earning him headlines in The New York Times and eclipsing Haynes' career. After being revealed as a fraud and accused of mismanaging the collection of tablets, Hilprecht resigned from Penn in 1910—the same year that both Hamdi Bey and the emotionally shattered Haynes died.

In the final analysis, Archaeologists & Travelers in Ottoman Lands is aptly named. It offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into what impelled these three personalities with different motivations to dedicate themselves to Nippur.