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  • Syrian Heritage in Jeopardy:The Case of the Arslan Tash Ivories
  • Annie Caubet

Between 2005 and 2009, the Louvre Museum cooperated with the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums on the analysis and conservation of a hoard of ancient ivories, excavated at Arslan Tash in 1928–1929 and shared between Paris and Aleppo. Since the beginning of the civil war, the fate of this hoard in Aleppo is a matter of concern. According to Dr. Maamoun Abdelkarim, Director of Antiquities and Museums of Syria, the collections in the Aleppo museum have been evacuated to a safe hiding place.

Discovery of the Arslan Tash Ivories

In the autumn of 1928, a French archaeological expedition headed by François Thureau-Dangin began excavations at a site in northern Syria, known as Arslan Tash, the “Lion Stone,” in the local Kurdish dialect (Fig. 1). This was the period of the Mandate at the end of WWI, when France and Great Britain were entrusted by the Allies to administer areas of what were to become Syria and Iraq that were formerly part of the dismantled Ottoman empire. In Damascus, an agency for the conservation of antiquities and museums was established and archaeologists were encouraged to take part in the scientific and systematic exploration of Syria’s ancient heritage. The newly established authorities for the antiquities of Syria were concerned about the preservation of a number of sites, especially in the northeastern confines, the Euphrates valley and its tributaries.

The first mention of the stone lion at Arslan Tash appears in the 1850 publication of the British expedition directed by F. R. Chesney, which in 1835–1837 aimed at establishing a route between the Mediterranean and India by way of steam navigation on the Euphrates River. Thereafter, a number of scholars and travellers visited the site. This included Hamdi Bey, director of the Istanbul museum, who in 1883 seized a group of basalt orthostats decorated with military scenes and sent them to Istanbul. In the following year, William Hayes Ward paid a visit to the site on behalf of the American Oriental Society and the Institute of America, sponsored by Catherine Lorillard Wolfe. Ward reports:

From Jerablus we went up the river to Birejik, where we crossed the Euphrates on rude boats, and found ourselves in Upper Mesopotamia. A day’s journey from Birejik, at Arslan Tâsh, we found and photographed two enormous lions in black basalt, which must have guarded the gateway of a city of Assyrian antiquity. One of them is still standing, while the other has been thrown down on its side. They are of ruder workmanship than the alabaster lions and bulls of Nineveh. The slabs on which the lions are sculptured in high relief are eleven feet ten inches long, by seven feet ten inches high; and the lions are represented, as is common in Assyrian sculpture, with five feet and legs. Near by is a prostrate bull, broken into two pieces. With the help of the people of the neighborhood we got them into position to photograph.

(Ward 1886: 11–12)

François Thureau-Dangin’s first visit to the site in 1927 came as a consequence of the report written by Paul Perdrizet (1870–1938), on a trip in preparation of his taking charge of the Antioch excavations. His exploration led him into inner Syria, in the company of two young members of the French School at Athens, Henri Seyrig and Daniel Schlumberger, who both were to pursue a distinguished career in Near Eastern archaeology.

Based on the evidence collected by previous visitors, Arslan Tash promised to be an important site, and the choice of a famous Assyriologist to investigate it insured it would receive the scientific expertise it deserved. By that time, Thureau-Dangin (1872–1944) was an immensely respected epigrapher and philologist, author of, among many major works, a pioneer survey of the inscriptions from Sumer and Akkad (1905) and a commentary on the annals of Sargon’s eighth campaign (1912), which is still a classic. Most of his career was spent in the Louvre Museum where he worked on the collection of cuneiform [End Page 92]

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