back to feature

The Rise and Fall of
Hermann Hilprecht

Top: Hilprecht in profile.
Above: A 1903 painting of the Nippur
excavations by Osman Hamdi Bey,
director of the Imperial Ottoman
Museum. According to University
Museum archivist Alex Pezzati,
Bey made it for Hermann Hilprecht
and even included what is assumed
to be the figure of the Assyriologist
in the picture.
Museum Archives)

The January 3, 1903, edition of Old Penn leads with a flowery account, typical for its day, of a public lecture given by a young, hot-shot professor named Hermann V. Hilprecht. His discovery of a temple library in the ancient holy city of Nippur will give future generations “considerable knowledge” of the ages before Abraham, “which only recently were regarded by many scholars as mythical,” the Gazette’s predecessor reports. Before this find, “the creation was reckoned at about 4000 B.C.,” but the University’s excavations “have changed all of this and pushed back the beginning of history several thousand years.”

Beside the article, a photograph of the German-born Hilprecht peers out. His high, starched collar and serious countenance are offset by a mustache curled up like the ringmaster’s in Georges Seurat’s Circus. In some ways the ancient Near East was a mysterious Big Top for Westerners of the early 20th century, and Hilprecht was its showman. In his heyday, holding forth to readers of the Sunday School Times (a religious newspaper), the German Kaiser, and the curious-minded of Philadelphia, Hilprecht was content to leave uncorrected the public’s impression that he had done most of the work in the desert. In fact, he was out there amidst the sandstorms and flies only twice in 11 years, spending most of his time back in Philadelphia, translating and publishing results; in Constantinople, where he curried favor with the Ottoman Sultan (and secured for Penn the gift of many tablets) by lending his expertise to the imperial museum; and at his home in Jena, Germany. The so-called temple library was discovered by director of exploration, John Henry Haynes, in January 1900, during the last of four digs at Nippur sponsored by the Babylonian Exploration Fund. As scientific director, Hilprecht came on the scene in March to try to bring order to the site, which had been sloppily excavated, and to interpret the finds.

Western explorers had been excavating Mesopotamia in earnest since the 1870s, when the British, and then the French, followed by the Americans, got into the game, explains Dr. Steve Tinney, associate curator of the University Museum’s Babylonian section and director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. “So part of it is competitive colonialist archaeology,” which had its impetus in the 18th century when travelers brought back accounts of the Near East.

There was also an ideological component to the expeditions. As Dr. Bruce Kuklick C’63 Gr’68, the Jeanette P. and Roy F. Nichols Professor of History, writes in Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930, the Babylonian Exploration Fund “encouraged the generosity of moneyed citizens” for whom “the hope of scientifically establishing the truth of the Old Testament was comfortingly high-minded in an age troubled by Darwin yet unwilling to give up religious verities.”

Like many drawn to the ancient Near East in his day, Hilprecht was fascinated by the rise and fall of great cultures: “Ninevah and Babylon! What illustrious names and prominent types of human strength, intellectual power, and lofty aspiration; but also what terrible examples of atrocious deeds, of lack of restraint, of moral corruption, and ultimate downfall!” As he wrote these words in his Explorations in Bible Lands, basking in the glory of the Penn expeditions, he little expected his own rise and fall in the academic firmament.

Trained in Germany under Professor Friedrich Delitzsch, Hilprecht, a Lutheran minister, came to Philadelphia to edit the Sunday School Times and was hired by Penn as a lecturer in Egyptology, and then as professor of Assyriology before being asked to join the expedition as co-Assyriologist. At that time, writes Kuklick, the German doctoral education system was more renowned than its American counterpart, and Hilprecht had the arrogance to show for it:

In his first confidential letters to Provost William Pepper C1862 M1864, during the Fall of 1888, Hilprecht was already critical of his colleagues’ abilities and pessimistic about the expedition’s chances for success. Not only does Dr. John Peters, the BEF’s first scientific director and also a professor of Semitics at Penn, possess “unsound and illogical judgement,” but he also administrates “as dictator, blind against our advices.” Peters won’t give Hilprecht money to buy a revolver to defend himself if “I am attacked by some robber or impudent beggar.” Haynes (who came on the first expedition as photographer and business manager), he huffed, is a “man of comparatively small knowledge,” while co-Assyriologist Frank Harper and architect Perez Hastings Field are spendthrifts. On top of that, Hilprecht had been requested to travel third or fourth class to Beirut, and thus “sleep on the naked floor of the steamer” surrounded by “the lowest class of Oriental paupers,” sheep, and swine. This he refused as “beneath my dignity & that of my University.”

The dislike was apparently mutual. Peters implied Hilprecht’s unfitness for travel in his book, Nippur, or Explorations and Adventures on the Euphrates, published in 1897. Describing one mishap involving Hilprecht, Peters wrote: “The water was only about three or four feet deep; but when a man who cannot swim falls into a river, especially if the river is icy cold and he is on the top of a plunging horse, he is very apt to feel sure that he is drowning and do everything but put his feet on the bottom. For everybody excepting Hilprecht, who thought that his last moment had come, and the horse, which seemed to share the same conviction, it was a very ludicrous five minutes before horse and rider could be pulled out of the shallow water and set on terra firma again.”

Hilprecht was convinced that the only hope for success lay in buying collections for the University, and he continually urged Pepper to call back the failed expedition. “Here we stand at the old stream of the lost Paradise. But the same angel who was placed as a guardian before the door of Eden, keeps still away all those from its hidden treasures who come without self-humiliation, and the earnest desire to serve God alone in all that they are permitted to do.”

Even without angelic opposition, there were plenty of natural and human hazards facing these explorers. Peters wrote one day in his diary: “The thermometer in my tent is 92 degrees, and there are at least ten flies for each degree.” Robbery and typhoid fever presented constant threats. The first expedition’s camp—built unwisely atop the mounds of Nippur—was burned by warring Arab factions, each of which staked claims to the territory.

But the first season ended in success, and Hilprecht was quick to turn those and all subsequent finds at Nippur into good publicity for himself and the University.

Besides a series of swooning articles in Old Penn, the Nippur finds even made their way into a 1910 Mask & Wig production. The plot for The Desert of Mahomet goes something like this: Henry Hilton, a student in Penn’s Department of Assyriology—who happens to be a millionaire—finds a cuneiform tablet in the University’s collection which “states that a certain tablet which is a ‘key’ to the cipher in which all the cuneiform tablets at the University are written, was centuries ago removed from its resting place in Babylonia and secreted in a temple located at an oasis in the desert of northern Arabia.”

As young Henry treks out there to bring it back for the University, quick on his heels is Dr. Diederich Donnerwetter—a Penn instructor of German extraction—who learned about the student’s caper while traveling in Europe with his niece, Hilda Hennig. A robbery at gunpoint, an imposter sultan given away by fake turban and wig, and a catchy Bedouin love song add to the dramatic mix, according to Old Penn.

But as the curtain rose on that faux desert oasis, Hilprecht’s star was already descending.

Years earlier, Delitzsch, his former mentor, accused him of falsely taking credit for what others had done. Old Penn rushed to his defense, reporting in 1903 that as a result of the “gratuitous attack” by Delitzsch and his associates, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm had invited Hilprecht to repeat his lecture before the imperial court. “Instead, therefore, of this attack, which is of a personal nature, having done Professor Hilprecht harm, their efforts to belittle his great accomplishments have simply brought his works into prominence.”

But even the Kaiser’s favor was not enough to protect Hilprecht against his enemies. A group of American scholars led by Peters cast doubt on the Assyriologist’s claims of finding a temple library and charged him with academic dishonesty for publishing misleading information about the finds. They also raised a stink about artifacts in Hilprecht’s personal possession that they believed should instead have gone to the University Museum, including a pair of intricately carved goat-heads that Hilprecht claimed to have bought with his own funds.

The University committee set up to look at the charges finally acquitted Hilprecht. But another committee of scholars from the American Oriental Society continued to informally depose the professor. (Though the tablets from Nippur were significant, Hilprecht probably was wrong about them being part of a temple library, notes Steve Tinney. “They were probably used in private houses for educating bureaucrats.”)

On top of this, G.B. Gordon, the new University Museum director, notified Hilprecht in 1910 that he was planning to make an inspection of his department. Gordon had heard that the Nippur tablets were “in a bad condition” because of improper storage. When Hilprecht suddenly sailed off to Europe for the summer, taking his keys with him, museum officials broke into his office and found many tablets moldering away in their original packing boxes. Furious to learn of this trespass, Hilprecht quit.

Backed by European colleagues and local clergy, he appealed, unsuccessfully, to retain his exclusive lifetime rights to catalogue the tablets and to control the details of scientific publications based on them. In 1912 Penn’s trustees filed his last letter of complaint.

“As far as American universities were concerned,” writes Kuklick in Puritans in Babylon, “Hilprecht dropped off the face of the earth. He did, however, travel back and forth from Germany, and he held up his head in Philadelphia society ... But he did no more significant writing.” By the age of 50, “his career had ended” and he wrote to one friend of “‘my life’s shattered work.’”

—Susan Frith

 back to feature

Jan/Feb Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 01/05/03