Archaeology – full introduction

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From its birth at the beginning of the 19th century, until the end of World War I, oriental archaeology was practised across a vast territory under the authority of the Ottoman Empire. Oriental archaeology concerned Anatolia, as well as Egypt and the entire Near East.
However, the close connection between the discovery of cuneiform inscriptions in Persia and the development of the first archaeological projects, means that the field of oriental archaeology should be extended to Iran.

The history of this discipline is set in an international political context, which determined how it was exercised and developed. Thus, it is not possible to analyse French oriental archaeology on its own, while ignoring other enterprises carried out by other western countries (Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the USA), in the common perspective of dominating the struggles of influence and interests with the Ottoman Empire and in the countries born from its dissolution. Oriental archaeology and its development are linked to the political situation of the countries in question and the foreign policy conducted by the western powers. For example, the Expedition to Egypt and Syria, the foundation stone of Egyptology, was primarily a military campaign conducted by Bonaparte to counter Britain’s “Great Game”.

In the Near East, as in North Africa, French archaeology had to adapt to the political upheavals that occurred in the countries where it was being practised, for example 1946 for the Near East, and 1952 for Egypt.

Plan of the article:
I - Philology and the birth of archaeology
II - The organisation of oriental archaeology 1850-1914
III - Oriental archaeology and politics in the Near East (1918-1945)

   I-Philology and the birth of archaeology


The interest of Europeans in the Orient goes back much further than the 19th century, with merchants, travellers and adventurous scholars nourishing this curiosity thanks to their discoveries and tales. However, the very end of the 18th century marked a decisive turning point in the knowledge of oriental languages and cultures when, in Paris in 1795, the École des langues orientales vivantes was founded, which soon became the seedbed of all of Europe’s Orientalists. As for the Collège de France, it gradually established chairs of Persian, Sanskrit and Arabic. The Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres (AIBL) included a large majority of orientalists and supervised the running of scholarly works. The progressive institutionalisation of research into oriental civilisations could also be seen in the creation in 1822 of the Société asiatique which immediately started a Journal asiatique and played an important part in the rise of archaeology.


The orientalists in these prestigious institutions were mainly philologists and sedentary scholars, who focused their work on the discoveries made in the Orient in very different ways. Among the precursors should be mentioned J.J. Barthélemy (1716-1795), the guardian of medals in the Cabinet du Roi, who discovered Aramaic from the inscriptions of Palmyra, brought back by an Englishman, R. Wood (circa 1717-1771), then re-established the Phoenician alphabet. As for A.H. Anquetil du Perron (1731-1815), he was both an adventurer and scholar, in 1754 he travelled to India and brought back the Zend Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians, thus opening the way for I. Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) and the identification of one of the three languages of the cuneiform inscriptions of Naqsh-e Rustam, thus leading to their decipherment. The story of this adventure has a distinctly international character, given that it was a Dane, K. Niebuhr (1733-1815), sent on a mission by his sovereign, who discovered these inscriptions, the decipherment of which was to be pursued by a German, G. Grotefend (1775-1853), and a Frenchman E. Burnouf (1801-1852) who provided his British colleague H.C. Rawlinson (1810-1895) with the results of his previous research.

Philology and epigraphy had a fresh opportunity to enrich themselves from fieldwork when, in 1798, the Expedition to Egypt and Syria was organised. This association of a military campaign and a scientific exploration was then totally new, and created a model, reproduced on several occasions during the 19th century, in Greece, North Africa and Phoenicia. By founding the Institut d’Égypte and the commission in charge of producing the celebrated Description…, Bonaparte provided an institutional framework for this new science. Not only was the Pharaonic civilisation revealed, but the key to its writing came to light, thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which allowed J.F. Champollion (1790-1832) to decipher the “hieroglyphic system” (1822). For Champollion, philology could not exist without archaeology, and by associating them in his approach to this ancient civilisation, he set about getting to know it through the study of the monuments and objects it had produced. In 1828, he organised a fresh, and pacific Franco-Tuscan “Expedition to Egypt”, with I. Rosellini (1802-1843) which, with its international character, founded the model of the strictly scholarly mission, reproduced ten years after Champollion’s death by K.R. Lepsius (1810-1884), the founder of German Egyptology.

Scholarly expeditions then took on a different form, becoming associated with diplomacy; for example, that of the painter E. Flandin (1803-1876) and the architect P. Coste (1787-1879) who, in 1839, went to Persia with the embassy of M. de Sercey, who had the task of negotiating for France the same trading rights that Great Britain and Russia enjoyed. For two years, the two men travelled in Persia and Mesopotamia, noting inscriptions and monuments which were assembled in four volumes, thus opening the path to archaeological research, and marking a turning point in Orientalism. This mission was also decisive, because it allowed France to at least partly catch up with Great Britain, and led to an awareness in the French government that archaeology could play a significant role in the development of France’s influence in the Orient. From this moment onwards, the need to explore ruins and carry out excavations became established, as well as that of affirming and developing the French presence in the Near East. In 1842, the government of Louis-Philippe, inspired by the orientalist J. Mohl (1800-1876), the president of the Société asiatique, decided to set up a consular agency in Mosul, entrusted to P.É. Botta (1802-1870), with the project of exploring the surrounding Tells. The Englishman H.A. Layard (1817-1894), also a diplomat, met Botta and took up his mantle on the two sites of Khorsabad and Kuyunjik where he discovered the ruins of Nineveh. The friendship that had grown up between the two men did not prevent the competition between their two countries. P.É. Botta was the first of a rich line of diplomat-archaeologists which was to follow in Mesopotamia.

In 1851, after the excavations at Khorsabad had been suspended for several years, and under the threat of losing the French concession, V. Place (1818-1875) was appointed to Botta’s post and took in charge the work again, until 1854. At the same time, F. Fresnel (1795-1855) was entrusted with the direction of the scientific expedition to Media and Mesopotamia which ended in disaster, while the British carried out a large number of excavations throughout Mesopotamia. In Baghdad, where he had decided to stay until he died, Fresnel was aware of the handicaps that French oriental archaeology suffered from, and called in vain for the creation in Orient of a school similar to the one set up in Athens in 1846. He thus united with the programme of Oriental studies as proposed by J. Mohl for the Bureau des missions scientifiques et littéraires founded in 1842 by the Ministry of Public Instruction.

We owe to the final of these archaeologist-diplomats in Mesopotamia, E. de Sarzec (1837-1901), vice-consul in Basra, and explorer of the site of Tello from 1877 to 1900, the major discovery of a previously unknown civilisation, Sumer. Once again, there were considerable problems with the excavations, because of British rivalry and the ups and downs of Sarzec’s diplomatic career. F. Fresnel’s observations had now been confirmed, and there was a real need for an overall organisation of research, with sufficient funding.

As for Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, French archaeology was a late developer, while the British and Americans were extremely active. It was only in 1850 that, during a journey to Syria and Palestine, F. de Saulcy (1807-1880), an epigraphist and numismatist, undertook the first archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, thus launching Biblical archaeology. He was also close to Napoleon III and contributed actively to the establishment of a genuine “archaeological policy”.


II- The organisation of oriental archaeology 1850-1914

In 1848, E. Renan (1823-1892), in L’Avenir de la science, judged the embryonic organisation of archaeology in France to be utterly insufficient, and called for the creation of “a major scholarly organisation”. Instead, Napoleon III united around him a “team” of scholars specialising in classical and oriental antiquity, under the epigraphist L. Renier (1809-1885), who launched numerous large-scale projects. In particular, he based himself on the École française d’Athènes (EFA) which had been founded in 1846, and became the model for the schools and institutes which formed a genuine network, during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, in the countries of the Mediterranean basin. Even if it was tardy about declaring its scholarly vocation, in 1855 the EFA was joined by a generation of members determined to aid the development of ancient scholarship and above all archaeology. The Hellenists G. Perrot (1832-1914) and L. Heuzey (1831-1922) were among them, and were appointed by L. Renier to lead two scientific missions which were to help French scholarship to make a great leap forwards: while the latter went to Macedonia, the former extended his mission in Asia Minor by visiting the Hittite citadel of Bogazköy. The photographs taken there revealed a new civilisation which once more enlarged the field of oriental archaeology. As for L. Heuzey, the AIBL accorded him the direction of the work being done by E. de Sarzec in Tello and, convinced of the “corresponding action” between Greece and the Orient, converted to orientalism, thus supporting the excavations in Tello, and at the Louvre managing to obtain the opening of a Department of Oriental Antiquities (1881), under his direction.

At the same time, as of 1850, French Egyptology recovered the prestige that Champollion had given it, thanks to A. Mariette (1821-1881) who resolutely stood up to being an archaeologist and set about providing Egypt with essential institutions that were at the time unknown in the countries of the Near and Middle East: a department of antiquities (1858) and the museum of Bulaq (1863). When Mariette’s death was near, G. Maspero (1846-1916), who introduced Egyptology to the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE, founded in 1868) and the Sorbonne, suggested in 1880 the setting-up of an École d’archéologie orientale in Cairo, based on the model of the schools of Rome and Athens. As the director of the school and of the department of antiquities, he organised numerous excavations, committed to dividing them between archaeologists of different nationalities.

The last scholarly mission mandated by Napoleon III was the famous Mission to Phoenicia entrusted to E. Renan in 1860. It reproduced the model inaugurated by Bonaparte in Egypt, since it was conducted during a military expedition to Syria, with the purpose of defending the Christians against the Druze. Renan and his collaborators thus benefited from the contribution of the soldiers during the excavations. By publishing Mission de Phénicie, Renan founded Phoenician archaeology and gave the scholarly world a fundamental work which was to keep its importance for several decades. Subsequently, after the fall of the Second Empire, Renan pleaded for the establishment of chairs of oriental philology and archaeology at the University, and above all supported the application of Maspero’s project for an École du Caire.

Renan’s pioneering work was then to be pursued by a diplomat; for it was C. Clermont-Ganneau (1846-1923), appointed dragoman-chancellor in Jerusalem in 1867, who gave himself the objective of promoting archaeology and philology in Phoenicia and Palestine. He organised a network of informers and carried out certain systematic explorations himself. Without being able to give up his diplomatic career, he was still responsible for the Conférence d’archéologie orientale of the EPHE, established for him with the support of Renan and M. de Vogüé (1829-1916), and collaborated on the Corpus Inscriptionum semiticarum, under the direction of Renan who, in 1890, obtained for him the creation of the chair of Semitic epigraphy and antiquities at the Collège de France. Clermont-Ganneau himself played a key role in the promotion of research in the Near East, while remaining aware of the need for a “centre of continuous and methodical research”, for which he conceived a plan in 1882, but failed to bring it to fruition. In Palestine, Father A. Lagrange (1855-1938) answered in part to Clermont-Ganneau’s desires, by setting up in Jerusalem the École pratique d’études bibliques (1890), but carrying out archaeological excavations was not part of its vocation.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, higher education was profoundly reformed, as can be seen in the creation of new establishments and university chairs, above all benefiting oriental philology, epigraphy and archaeology. However, in 1914, the situation was not far from being catastrophic for French archaeology throughout the entire Ottoman Empire: the only active excavation site was Tello, to which was added, in 1913, the mission of G. Contenau (1877-1964) to Sidon, interrupted by the declaration of war. In this context, the German influence on the Sublime Porte grew, while the British exercised an incontestable supremacy and the Americans gradually affirmed their presence.

However, it was in Persia that oriental French archaeology flourished, after the creation in 1897 of the Délégation archéologique française, under the direction of J. de Morgan (1857-1924), the acting director of the department of antiquities in Egypt since 1892. He intervened on the continuation of the work carried out on the site of Susa by Marcel (1844-1920) and Jane (1851-1916) Dieulafoy. The Delegation had a considerable budget and stands as the largest archaeological enterprise ever organised by a European country. We cannot but wonder if the amplitude of this initiative partly explains the “poverty” of the means given to archaeology in the Levant, Palestine and Mesopotamia, especially as the large investments demanded by the schools of Cairo, Athens and Rome and by classic archaeology in France and North Africa should not be forgotten.

World War I shook up the situation in the Near East, both in political and archaeological terms.


III- Oriental archaeology and politics in the Near East (1918-1945)


While in 1914 French Near Eastern archaeology clearly lagged behind classic archaeology and Egyptology, which benefited from the setting-up of schools or institutes (EFA, EFR, IFAO) or else excavation services (in Egypt and North Africa), paradoxically, World War I allowed it to catch up in the Near East. This remedial approach was all the more urgent given that the other western nations –Germany, Great Britain and the USA above all –reinforced their presence in the Near East and Egypt, multiplying initiatives led by specialised societies and the creation of the Deutsches Institut für Ägyptische Altertumskunde (1897). G. Maspero remedied this situation of intense competition by orienting the department of antiquities towards international collaborations, thus creating a concerted archaeological exploration and a cooperation favoured by the British and French mandates, which were established in the Near East after 1918.

Before and during the war, the French and British, worried by Germany’s ambitions, reached an agreement in 1912 to define their zones of influence: Syria for France and Palestine and Iraq for Great Britain, this division being confirmed by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 16th May 1916. The instauration in 1920 of the French and British mandates in the countries of the Orient led to the spectacular rise of archaeology, by the setting-up of institutions and the multiplication of excavation sites organised thanks to the concerted action of the French, British and Americans. After 1920, when the Institut français d’archéologie et d’art musulman was set up in Damascus, Syria was given a department of antiquities under the authority of the High Commission and directed by the Hellenist and member of the EFA, J. Chamonard (1865-1936), then the Orientalist C. Virolleaud (1879-1968), who was succeeded in 1929 by H. Seyrig (1895-1973), also a Hellenist and member of the EFA. At the same time, the AIBL, which had set up a Commission of Syria and Palestine, was applied to by J. Garstang (1876-1956), the British Egyptologist and orientalist and director of the Department of Antiquities of Palestine, with the suggestion that France should set up a French school of archaeology in Jerusalem, with the idea of collaborating with the British School of Archaeology, which he directed, and the American School of Oriental Research (set up in 1921). So it was that, in 1921, the École française d’archéologie was set up alongside the École biblique de Jérusalem. Unable to open excavation sites, because of a lack of means, it developed epigraphical research and the teaching of the most modern archaeological methods. 

In these conditions, quite similar to the situation of archaeology in Egypt, international archaeological research blossomed, allowing the entire proto-history of the Orient to be reconstituted, from the end of the 5th millennium. In France, R. Dussaud (1868-1958), the curator of the department of oriental antiquities at the Louvre and member of the AIBL, became the project manager of French archaeology in the Near East, developing an extremely active excavation policy and suggesting the choice of the sites of Byblos, Ras Shamra and Mari-tell Hariri. Furthermore, in Iran, the convention that governed the French Delegation was modified in 1928, and a department of antiquities was set up along the lines of those in the Near East. Its direction was fought over by E. Herzfeld (1879-1948), the German architect and archaeologist, and A. Godard (1881-1965), also an architect, who won the day, and passed a law covering the discovery and conservation of antiquities inspired by those in force in the Near East. Work continued in Susa under the aegis of the Louvre, which entrusted R. Ghirshman (1895-1979) with a mission on the Iranian plateau, where prehistoric sites closely associated with those in the Near East were discovered. When, in 1930, the Institut français d’archéologie of Istanbul was opened, and then, in 1946, that of Beirut, French archaeology was now represented on the entire Mediterranean rim, from Morocco and Spain, to Iran.

The Near and Middle East had become a genuine laboratory of French archaeology, which had been profoundly transformed by its contacts with foreign missions associated with the collective exploration of the prehistory of these regions. Cultural and scholarly transfers allowed for the affirmation of an archaeology based on rigorous excavation and research methods. In the Orient, archaeology was now consecrated as a science exercised by a real “corps” of specialists, backed up by institutions in France and in the countries placed under the mandates. All that remained to be done, to answer to the desires of E. Renan, was to set up a federate body covering all of these scholarly institutions, which was done in 1939, when the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) was founded. All forms of archaeology were represented there, with classic and oriental archaeologies occupying an equal and dominant position. In 1942, two distinct commissions were formed within the CNRS, the 15th, for “archaeological excavations in mainland France” and the 16th, for “archaeological excavations outside France”. In 1945, the CNRS transferred its role of coordinating all the archaeological projects abroad to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which set up a “commission of archaeological excavations and missions”, in which R. Dussaud was responsible for the sub-commission for the “Near-East/Inner Asia”, where he pursued the development of oriental archaeology. In 1946, the commission was applied to for the creation of the Institut de Beyrouth, suggested and obtained by H. Seyrig, who became its director, when the authority of France over Syria and Lebanon came to an end, and there began a new era of equitable collaboration between the new institute and the Syrian department of antiquities, which together trained young archaeologists and conducted common missions.

At the same time, in Palestine, archaeological research developed under the guidance of RP. R. Guérin de Vaux (1903-1971), the director of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem from 1945 to 1965.

In Egypt, the effect of the 1952 military uprising was to bring the department of antiquities under Egyptian direction, while until then it had been under French responsibility. As for the IFAO, its activities were suspended in 1956, during the Suez Crisis, which led to the breaking-off of Franco-Egyptian diplomatic relations. However, French collaboration continued by the intermediary of UNESCO, solicited by the Egyptian government to train archaeologists and set up a Centre d’étude et de documentation sur l’ancienne Égypte (CEDAE).

This long march of oriental archaeology was made up of numerous steps – sometimes scattered with obstacles – but it led to the creation of a genuine science, equipped with rigorous principles and methods, and maintained by institutions which, as well as giving it the means for its development, have also provided it with occasions to affirm its humanist vocation.

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