In his examination of the excavation of ancient Assyria by Austen Henry Layard, Shawn Malley reveals how, by whom, and for what reasons the stones of Assyria were deployed during a brief but remarkably intense period of archaeological activity in the mid-nineteenth century. His book encompasses the archaeological practices and representations that originated in Layard's excavations, radiated outward by way of the British Museum and Layard's best-selling Nineveh and Its Remains (1849), and were then dispersed into the public domain of popular amusements. That the stones of Assyria resonated in debates far beyond the interests of religious and scientific groups is apparent in the prevalence of poetry, exhibitions, plays, and dioramas inspired by the excavation. Of particular note, correspondence involving high-ranking diplomatic personnel and museum officials demonstrates that the 'treasures' brought home to fill the British Museum served not only as signs of symbolic conquest, but also as covert means for extending Britain's political and economic influence in the Near East. Malley takes up issues of class and influence to show how the middle-class Layard's celebrity status both advanced and threatened aristocratic values. Tellingly, the excavations prompted disturbing questions about the perils of imperial rule that framed discussions of the social and political conditions which brought England to the brink of revolution in 1848 and resurfaced with a vengeance during the Crimean crisis. In the provocative conclusion of this meticulously documented and suggestive book, Malley points toward the striking parallels between the history of Britain's imperial investment in Mesopotamia and the contemporary geopolitical uses and abuses of Assyrian antiquity in post-invasion Iraq.
Shawn Malley is professor of English at Bishop's University, Canada.
Prize: Shortlisted for the Historians of British Art Book Prize 2014 (Post-1800) 'This is cultural history at its best with great contemporary relevance. Malley has uncovered fascinating parallels between Britain's excavation, appropriation, and display of Assyrian artifacts in the mid-nineteenth century and recent efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq under the guise of preserving national heritage and Western Civilization. Enhanced by deep readings of exhibitions, museums, theatrical events, and science fiction film, this is a fascinating study of the linkages between archeology, empire, and cultural representation. Jeffrey Auerbach, California State University, Northridge, USA 'Bringing new rigor to museum studies, Malley's study shows how artifacts resonated within and without the gallery walls-in newspapers, popular culture, literary works, and film-and across centuries. The result is an entirely new history of the present, patiently constructed from archival shards and the forgotten fragments of history.' Robert D. Aguirre, Wayne State University '... [an] intriguing, provocative and well-researched book... it will surely be compulsory reading for all those interested in the history of archaeology and museums.' Times Literary Supplement '... the author successfully charts the successful career of a man who, by his excavations and also by his many publications, has undoubtedly increased our knowledge of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. His career illustrates the general success of English archaeologists in the nineteenth century in the Middle East, especially in competition with French scholars of that same time. That Malley succeeds so well in re-creating the milieu is a tribute to his scholarship and erudition.' Huguenot Society Journal ’...a very stimulating addition to the cultural history of empire in the Middle East and its broad comparatist approach of the re-inventions of Assyria’s past opens promising perspectives.’ Cahiers Vic