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Henry Layard - Famous Archaeologist - Excavator of Assyrian Nineveh


Image of the Ancient City of Nineveh


Sir Austen Henry Layard 1817-1894

From 1845, Sir Henry Layard performed the first significant archaeological investigations of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) along with Frenchman Paul Emile Botta. Sir Henry was a daredevil who strangely started out as a lawyer before undertaking unofficial 'diplomatic missions' (a sort of 18th Century James Bond against the Ottoman Empire) and then becoming one of the greatest archaeological pioneers of the Victorian era. Sir Henry was celebrated for his rediscovery of the great Assyrian cities of Biblical significance. In another about-turn, Sir Henry left archaeology to be come a successful politician and diplomat, ironically assuming the same role as the man who had employed him years earlier to take missions against the Turks.

Sir Henry's Work

Prolific Writer

Unlike many many other great early archaeologists, a lot is known about Sir Henry. Fortunately, Sir Henry was an extremely prolific writer. The British Museum is home to thousands of his notes, diaries and letters. Several of the books he authored are featured below.

Young Sir Henry

Sir Henry was born in Paris to British parents who were highly respectable although not wealthy. His father was a civil servant who suffered from asthma, making it difficult for him to live in England (it was also cheaper to live in Paris then). As a result Sir Henry spent of lot of his youth in France and Italy without much of a formal education. He was eventually sent to public school in England where he had a horrible time because the other students were antagonised by his Continental mannerisms. He was originally named Henry Austen Layard, but changed his name out of respect for his uncle, Benjamin Austen, who became the family benefactor when his father died early. Benjamin Austen was a successful lawyer who took young Sir Henry into his firm at the age of seventeen, hoping that he would eventually become a partner. Sir Henry was not suited to office work but managed to stay in the firm for six years and qualify as a lawyer. Through his uncle he met many notable people in that period, including Disraeli and several young men who had travelled extensively. He left the law and headed off on an overland horseback journey to Ceylon, travelling light but equipped with a double-barrelled rifle and a pair of pistols.

Portrait of a younger Sir Henry


Sir A. Henry Layard in Local Costume


Sir Henry's Eastern Trek

On July 10 1839, Sir Henry commenced his travels with a steamship trip to Ostend (Belgium). Although he had intended to go to Ceylon, he never went further than the Middle East. His explorations are thoroughly documented in his works. He was a true adventurer, fascinated by the Eastern people, ruins and culture. He had several notable encounters (detailed in his books) including one where he was faced with certain death. He was trapped by a large band of robbers. He escaped only because acted quickly before he was disarmed. He escaped because he rode right up to the leader and aimed his pistol directly at the man's head. It was during this initial period of travelling that his desire to excavate surfaced. Sir Henry experienced the following locations on his journey:

  • Montenegro, Albania, Balkans
  • Constantinople, Turkey, Anatolia
  • Syria, Jerusalem, Petra and Damascus
  • Mosul, Mesopotamia, Persia, Susa and Persepolis

Sir Henry ceased his plans to travel to Ceylon after spending time in Mesopotamia (where he met Paul Emile Botta) and instead returned to Istanbul. He met the British Envoy to the Ottoman Empire, Sir Stratford Canning, in Istanbul in 1842. Canning employed him to perform 'unofficial diplomatic missions' until he could save up enough money to begin his excavations. His books reveal much about his 'missions' and dangerous experiences during this period.

Map of Modern Iraq showing Mosul in the North


Sir A. Henry Layard


Another Book by Sir Henry Layard

Excavating Ancient Assyrian Cities

In 1845 Sir Henry returned to Mosul. He had been given £100 by Canning and used this to commence work at a site called Tell (artificial hill) Nimrud on the banks of the River Tigris, about 30 kilometres south-east of Mosul. On his first night there, he recounts his excitement, difficulty in getting to sleep and his dream:

Visions of palaces underground, of gigantic monsters, of sculptured figures, and endless inscriptions, floated before me. After forming plan after plan for removing the earth, and extricating these treasures, I fancied myself wandering in a maze of chambers from which I could find no outlet. Then again, all was reburied, and I was standing on the grass-covered mound. Exhausted, I was at length sinking into sleep, when hearing the voice of Awad, I rose from my carpet, and joined him outside the hovel. The day already dawned; he had returned with six Arabs, who agreed for a small sum to work under my direction.

(Layard I 1849, vol. I: 25)

On his first day of excavations he uncovered an Assyrian palace. Soon afterwards he uncovered another set of palace ruins at the site. In the space of two years Sir Henry revealed six palaces. All of these palace ruins featured the characteristic Assyrian limestone wall-reliefs, giant statutes of human-headed winged bulls and other art works common to royal palaces. Sir Henry believed he had discovered the ancient Biblical City of Nineveh (Assyrian capital from 700 BCE), but this was not so. What he did find was the Biblical city of Calah (Assyrian capital from the 9th Century BCE).

Sir Henry uncovered the 'Black Obelisk' among the palaces at Nimrud. The Black Obelisk depicted the military accomplishments of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, dated from 825 BCE. Shalmaneser III forced Jehu, a King of Israel, to bow down under the Assyrian yoke, an event depicted in the Bible.

Victorian Britain was a devoutly religious environment and Sir Henry's discoveries struck an extremely popular chord at home in some quarters. Others felt that Assyrian art was not aesthetically pleasing and therefore of limited value. At this time Sir Henry began to publish with an emphasis on the adventure of archaeology and the religious significance of what he had uncovered. French competition (Paul Botta had uncovered the ancient city of Khorsabad) spurred the British on and Sir Henry suddenly gained support and financial backing from home.

Sir Henry Layard's Autobiography


In 1849, after receiving £2000 from the British Museum, Sir Henry excavated another site, Tell Kuyunjik. Here he uncovered a series of spectacular finds including the palace of Sennacherib and thousands of clay tablets containing the library of Assurbanipal. There was no doubt that this was the city of Ninevah. Sir Henry published the story of his finds in 1853. The book, "Nineveh and its Remains" was an instant best-seller, sealing his success. The rich finds from Nineveh still form the pinacle of the British Museum's Assyrian Collection.

Bass Relief of Royal Lion Hunt from Nineveh Palace


Map of Biblical Sites


Video of Nineveh Ruins taken during the Iraq War by Sgt Brammer

Article about Sir A. Henry Layard 1894 upon his Death


Life after Archaeology

In 1852, Sir Henry left Iraq and returned to Britain where he entered politics. He became a member of Parliament and rose to the position of Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He was also appointed to the Privy Council. In 1869 he left politics and became a diplomat. Ironically, after some earlier initial posts, he took up the position held by Sir Stratford Canning in Istanbul many years earlier and became the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.  He died in 1894.  

Sir Henry led a life that was epic in scope and fascinating in detail.  His writings capture his adventures and open an insightful window into the politics, opportunities and intricacies of Victorian era Britain and the East.  He was a complex and extremely admirable man and his contribution goes beyond the remarkable archaeological heritage he left behind. 

Face Guarding Nineveh Wall



  • odysseyadventures.ca
  • Paul Bain (ed), (2008) The Great Archaeologists, Southwater, London


Mel Jay (author) from Australia on April 25, 2011:

Hey thanks Alastar :) I really enjoyed researching this bloke. As far as archaeologists go, he was pretty special. Sort of a combination between James Bond and Indiana Jones along with a really strong sense of chivalry. I don't know why he changed direction though. I would never leave archaeology for politics of all things.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on April 25, 2011:

Nicely done Mel Jay-layout and subject compliment each other.

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