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When the real-life Indiana Jones came to Southern Arabia

US archaeologist Wendell Phillips headed a star-studded exhibition to uncover two ancient cities of South Arabia. A new exhibition explaining his importance is on show.
Wendell Phillips discovering an ancient identification 'dog tag' of a Qataban resident. Courtesy American Foundation for the Study of Man.
Wendell Phillips discovering an ancient identification 'dog tag' of a Qataban resident. Courtesy American Foundation for the Study of Man.

When a young archaeologist decided to excavate sites in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, he might have hoped that coverage of his mission would detail only logistical triumphs and historic finds. But in February 1952, The New York Times reported he and his team had been forced to flee Yemen under gunfire, “across a desert inhabited by hostile tribes”.

A similar report appeared in The Times of London later that month. “Yemeni soldiers with an ancient machine gun surrounded their camp and beat the field director Mr Robert Carmean with rifle butts. Screaming soldiers kept the party awake all night. Professor Albert Jamme was ordered to stop copying inscriptions and was held captive for 28 days. A soldier shot the party’s pet dog,” it read.

But such were the risks of archaeology in Southern Arabia in the 1950s.

And the story of how Wendell Phillips led an expedition, sponsored by none other than Dodge and Coca-Cola, to the remote Arabian sands of present-day Yemen is one of courage, intellectual curiosity and awesome determination.

According to Massumeh Farhad, the chief curator, the exhibition at the Smithsonian tries to give a “behind the scenes” look at what it meant to organise an expedition of this magnitude then. It recreates the journey to Southern Arabia through notebooks, witness accounts, photos, videos and more than 70 artefacts dating from the eighth century BC to the second century AD.

Phillips’s background had been palaeontology, and he graduated from the University of California with a degree in the discipline in 1943. “He was smart, bright and adventurous and was fascinated by ancient cultures,” Farhad says. “It was an interesting region to be in.”

In 1949, when Phillips was just 28, he began to assemble a team to locate and excavate two ancient cities: Timna, the capital of the Qataban kingdom, and Marib, said to be the home of the Queen of Sheba, that had flourished about 2,500 years earlier.

First, they began work at Timna in 1950. They excavated the cemetery, a temple and some houses close to the city gate. “At the cemetery they found a large amount of sandstone and alabaster commemorative sculptures. It really shed light on burial practices in ancient Arabia.”

Religious and administrative inscriptions were also uncovered, suggesting a highly literate culture. From these inscriptions it was possible to decipher the South Arabian alphabet – the precursor of Arabic script.

Another important find was two bronze lions. These are now known as the Lions of Timna, a famed pair of striding Hellenistic bronze lions surmounted by a boyish rider. “They prove there was a thriving bronze-casting industry in Southern Arabia and it also shows the relationship with the Mediterranean world, which was really not known before, and that’s thanks to the incense trade,” says Farhad.

Southern Arabia was the centre of the incense world and made the people of the region immensely prosperous. Incense, essentially tree resin that emits a fragrant aroma when burnt, was popular across the ancient world as early as the eighth century BC for use in religious ceremonies and for masking other smells.

“The incense road was the artery, the lifeline for these settlements. It grew exclusively in what is now Oman and part of Yemen and had to be carried out of that area. Along the incense route there were numerous villages and settlements. And as the caravans came through, they levied taxes and that’s how they became rich.

“In one house they found an inscription saying: I’m adding a second level to my house. So clearly it’s an important event. So clearly there was wealth. The temple that was excavated was huge. So that tells you it must have been a wealthy society.”

From Timna, Phillips then moved to Marib in northern Yemen. Marib was the reputed capital of the legendary Queen of Sheba and the focus was the Awam Temple, the largest of its kind on the Arabian Peninsula. Before the team arrived, only the tops of the temple’s eight pillars and a wall were visible. Here they slowly, and painstakingly, uncovered stairways, bronze sculptures and many inscriptions.

But trouble was brewing. Timna was part of the Aden protectorate – under British control and safe – but Marib was not. Much like the situation in Yemen today, local tribes controlled different areas and the country was racked by instability. “When he does get permission to go to Marib, he gets permission from the king. But like today, there’s the ruler in Sanaa, and then there are the local tribes. There was resistance from these tribes.”

So Phillips and his team were forced to flee in 1952 and he would never return. However, some excavations were carried out 50 years later under his sister’s stewardship by the American Foundation for the Study of Man, which Phillips had founded in 1949.

Phillips’s legacy remains in the scientific approach he brought to archaeology in the region and the meticulous records he left behind. “It lays the groundwork for the archaeology of that area and understanding the impact of the incense trade and contact with the Mediterranean world. To his great credit, he really gathered the best scholars, archaeologists and epigraphists that he knew. The team he put together was really exceptional.”

Some have dubbed Phillips a real-life Indiana Jones, others an American Lawrence of Arabia – he was even made a sheikh by one of the tribes. But he remained an enigma. After the expedition he spent time teaching and writing, and for a time got very rich in the oil business. He died in 1975 from a heart attack. He was just 54.

“Wendell Phillips’s great contribution was that he led the first scientific excavations to these areas He had a passion for ancient Arabia,” says Farhad. “There is no study of South Arabian archaeology or of the Arabian Peninsula that does not depend on the work that Wendell Phillips and his team accomplished.”

Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips runs at The Smithsonian in Washington until June 7. Visit asia.si.edu/unearthingarabia for more information.

John Dennehy is the deputy editor of The Review

Updated: November 13, 2014 04:00 AM



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