Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sir Austen Henry Layard’s excavation of the ancient site of Nineveh provided crucial evidence of the antiquity and achievement of Assyrian civilization.

Summary of Event

Although he is recognized as the one of the premier British archaeologists of the nineteenth century, Austen Henry Layard was not trained as a professional archaeologist, nor did he set out to discover the ancient ruins of Nineveh that he brought to life for the Victorian public. Like other educated Victorians, Layard did not confine his intellectual pursuits to a single discipline or subject. He was, therefore, well equipped for the range of experiences and occupations that marked his spectacular life. Assyrian civilization Archaeology;Assyrian Layard, Sir Austen Henry Nineveh [kw]Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins (1839-1847) [kw]Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins, Layard (1839-1847) [kw]Excavates Assyrian Ruins, Layard Explores and (1839-1847) [kw]Assyrian Ruins, Layard Explores and Excavates (1839-1847) [kw]Ruins, Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian (1839-1847) Assyrian civilization Archaeology;Assyrian Layard, Sir Austen Henry Nineveh [g]Middle East;1839-1847: Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins[2090] [g]Iraq;1839-1847: Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins[2090] [c]Archaeology;1839-1847: Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins[2090] [c]Architecture;1839-1847: Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins[2090] Rawlinson, Sir Henry Creswicke Rassam, Hormuzd Guest, Enid

The son of Peter John Layard, a member of the colonial civil service in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Austen Henry Layard was born in France and moved at the age of three to Florence, Italy. There, he became fluent in Italian and familiar with the masterpieces that had become the subject of intensive pursuit in European intellectual circles. As a boy, Layard struggled with the restrictions of formal schooling. To focus his mind, his father tried to steer his son toward the legal profession. An uncle, Charles Layard, suggested that his nephew practice law in Ceylon, and thus, on July 10, 1839, he set out on the journey that would ultimately lead to his travelogue Nineveh and Its Remains: With an Account of a Visit to the Chaldæan Christians of Kurdistan, and the Yezidis, or Devil-Worshippers, and an Inquiry into the Manners and Arts of the Ancient Assyrians (1849), better known by its shorter title, Nineveh and Its Remains.

Layard set out for the east with a travel companion, Edward Mitford Mitford, Edward , a relative of the renowned historian of Greece, William Mitford Mitford, William . The two planned their trip carefully, and it seems likely that they anticipated publishing an account of their journey. Leaving Western Europe through the Balkans and the capital of Constantinople, the pair turned south at Aleppo and visited Jerusalem Jerusalem and Petra before returning by way of Amman and Damascus. In April of 1840 they entered the desert region of Mesopotamia at the city of Mosul. There, Layard first viewed the ancient monuments that would lead to his fame. After exploring the mounds of Nineveh briefly, Layard and Mitford left for Baghdad, where they stayed for two months. Soon, however, the two parted company. Mitford continued east, while Layard obtained permission to explore the territory of the Bakhtiari tribe in Luristan, described in his two-volume Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, Including a Residence Among the Bakhtiyari and Other Wild Tribes Before the Discovery of Nineveh (1887), published more than forty years after the journey.

Assyrian monument in Petra, photographed during the early twentieth century.

(Library of Congress)

In 1845, Layard began excavating at the site of Calah, just south of Nineveh on the Tigris River. There he unearthed a treasure trove of Assyrian monuments and cuneiform inscriptions, which he sent to the eminent Assyriologist Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. Rawlinson, Sir Henry Creswicke In 1849, Layard combined detailed descriptions of his excavations with a narrative account of his arduous overland journey, publishing the account as Nineveh and Its Remains, a book of nearly nine hundred pages. Although he identified the site as the great Assyrian capital of Nineveh, it was later learned to be Nimrud, which served as a temporary capital under the reign of Ashurnasirpal II during the ninth century b.c.e.

In Layard’s account of his second Mesopotamian expedition, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, with Travels in Armenia, Kurdistan, and the Desert: Being the Result of a Second Expedition Undertaken for the Trustees of the British Museum (1853; better known as Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon), he correctly identified remains at the mound of Kuyunjik as the true Nineveh. The latter book, an account of the expedition undertaken between 1848 and 1851, presents a more comprehensive and scholarly view of the ancient sites. In the work, the suspense-filled narrative style that defined Nineveh and Its Remains is combined with academic objectivity, and the book yields a greater sense of the expedition’s magnitude and finds. Because the excavations took place before the era of photography, Layard recorded his finds in detailed drawings, which quickly captured the imagination of the public back home.

At the time of Layard’s publications, the grandeur of Nineveh was well known to Victorian Great Britain through the Bible; Bible;and archaeology[Archaeology] however, before his excavations at the site, there was no tangible proof that the city ever existed. The seat of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh had fallen to enemies in 612 b.c.e., and it was so thoroughly vanquished that by the nineteenth century no one knew precisely where it stood. Despite the obvious historical significance of the Mesopotamian sites, Layard’s excavation was poorly funded by British Museum Museums;British trustees, who were dubious of the aesthetic value of the Assyrian remains. The British reading public, on the other hand, was enthralled by the excavations. They followed Layard’s exploits in periodical articles beginning in February of 1846 and visited the British Museum in unprecedented numbers to view its Assyrian collection.

Although Layard’s engaging narrative style certainly captured the imagination of his Victorian audience, most readers approached the subject first and foremost as a source of biblical proof. During the nineteenth century, Assyria was part of the living imagination of all schooled Europeans. The theme of degeneration filled literary descriptions of the ancient Middle East, as evangelical writers reasoned that the contemporary desolation of the ancient sites provided proof of the fall divined by the Hebrew prophet Nahum (seventh century b.c.e.). Within this milieu, Layard’s vivid descriptions of Nineveh found a ready audience with a feverish curiosity about his finds.

Layard’s discoveries appealed equally to British nationalism. The success of French excavations at Khorsabad and the triumphant display of the spoils at the Louvre Museum Louvre Museum Art;museums had constituted an affront to British imperial supremacy. Layard’s exploits in Mesopotamia and the immense success of his publications led, more or less directly, to his knighthood, a career in the foreign office, and a seat in Parliament. By the time Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon was published, Layard was being drawn away from the field of archaeology to a career in politics. From 1852 on, excavation work continued in Mesopotamia under the guidance of Layard’s former assistant, Hormuzd Rassam Rassam, Hormuzd , and others; however, Layard himself never visited the region again.

After a short stint as undersecretary for foreign affairs, Layard was asked to assist the British government in Constantinople, where the Ottoman Empire was deteriorating. In 1855, he was named undersecretary of state in the colonial office, and in 1865 he became a member of Parliament in the House of Commons for Southwark. Layard’s sympathy for the Turks made him politically vulnerable, and in 1869, the government named him minister of Spain in order to shift him away from the region.

Earlier the same year Layard had married Enid Guest Guest, Enid , whose father had been a major underwriter of Layard’s expedition. The two remained in Spain until 1877, when Layard was called back to become ambassador to Constantinople, where he served until 1880. Upon completion of his service, he and Lady Layard retired to Venice. There, he pursued his love of Italian Renaissance art and wrote prolifically on the subject before illness forced him to return to England in 1892. He died in London on July 5, 1894.


Sir Austen Henry Layard’s finds at the sites of Nimrud and Nineveh provided material evidence of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. Supplementing the finds of the French archaeologist Paul Emile Botta Botta, Paul Emile (1802-1870), he brought to light the artistic achievements of one of the major civilizations of the ancient world. Layard’s vivid travelogues created a fervor back home and brought Assyrian culture into the mainstream of British fashion, the arts, and literature. Victorian men began wearing lapel studs with embossed Assyrian bulls, and women wore jewelry bearing Assyrian mythological motifs. The fine lithographs illustrating Layard’s works were transformed into theatrical stage sets, and allusions to Nineveh appeared in the works of writers such as John Masefield and Rudyard Kipling.

Layard’s experience overseas and his great renown led to an impressive career in politics and diplomacy, during which he expressed strong sympathy for the Ottoman Turks and struggled on their behalf in the face of British imperial interests. He is best remembered, however, for bringing the ancient Assyrian past back to life for future generations. Along with the work of Botta, Rawlinson, and others, his archaeological finds laid the groundwork for modern Assyriology. The Sculpture;Assyrian sculptures unearthed during his excavations still exist in the collections of the British Museum Museums;British in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brothers, Barbara, and Julia Gergits. Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Travel Writers, 1837-1875. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. Explores Layard’s travelogues in the context of contemporary British writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kubie, Nora Benjamin. Road to Nineveh: The Adventures and Excavations of Sir Austen Henry Layard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. A detailed biography focusing on Layard’s travel and excavations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larsen, Mogens Trolle. The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land, 1840-1860. New York: Routledge, 1996. Describes Layard’s expeditions in the broader context of British archaeology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Layard, Austen Henry. Discoveries Among the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon: With Travels in Armenia, Kurdistan, and the Desert. . .. 1853. Reprint. Piscataway, N.J.: Georgias Press, 2002. Recounts Layard’s second expedition to Nineveh. Contains reproductions of more than two hundred of Layard’s own illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Nineveh and Its Remains. 1849. Reprint. Piscataway, N.J.: Georgias Press, 2004. Describes Layard’s excavations in Mesopotamia between 1845 and 1847. Intersperses descriptions of people and places with archaeological discoveries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, John Malcolm. From Nineveh to New York: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Reveals the fate of the objects excavated by Layard in the 1840’s in the context of Victorian antiquarianism and collecting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waterfield, Gordon. Layard of Nineveh. London: John Murray, 1963. A complete biography, including Layard’s archaeological work, political life, and later art-historical work.

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Categories: History