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Penn Student Curator Explores the Human Side in Archival Exhibition The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia

Penn Student Curator Explores the Human Side in Archival Exhibition

The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia

Penn Museum is world renowned for its extraordinary collections of art and artifacts—about a million pieces from around the world and throughout time. Part of what makes those collections so valuable is another kind of collection—the letters, photographs, detailed drawings, field notes, and diaries from the Penn Museum expeditions that reside in the Museum Archives.

Visitors can get a sense of the real depth of the archival collections, and how they set the excavations’ discoveries in time and place, via a new exhibition curated by Penn Museum Fellow Kamillia Scott. The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia, on view in the Museum’s Archives Corridor, explores the early history of the Museum’s archaeological investigations in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) through pioneering expeditions to Nippur, (1889-1900) and Ur (1922-1934)—expeditions which resulted in some of the most spectacular finds, including the Temple Library at Nippur and the Royal Tombs of Ur, ever made by the Penn Museum. 

The five case hallway exhibition, on view through August 31, 2016, introduces many individuals involved in the excavations.

A Student Curator’s Perspective

Curator Kamillia Scott, a Penn undergraduate and senior in Classical Studies, has taken a special interest in the people behind the excavations for some time. A work-study student in the Museum Archives for the last three years, she was inspired to delve deeper into the Penn Museum’s excavations at Ur, via Penn’s University Scholars program. Her University Scholar focus: an examination of partage, a system in place in the early 20th century to divide up ownership of excavated artifacts between the host country and foreign excavators. Ur— a joint project between the British Museum and the Penn Museum working in the newly formed Iraq— provides a particularly rich case study of the partage system.

The Boys of Sumer

Building on her University Scholar work, Kamillia turned her research into a senior thesis, “Conflict and Value at Ur,” completed in the fall 2015 semester.

Already steeped in Penn Museum research, she applied for one of three annual Penn Museum Fellow positions which offer a small stipend and are open to Penn undergraduates. It was a natural fit to take up a project in Archives working closely with Senior Archivist Alessandro Pezzati—this time, taking the lead in an Archives exhibition that built upon her knowledge base.

The People of Sumer

The exhibition’s title, The Boys of Sumer, was selected for its fun word play, but Kamillia noted that the exhibition is far from being all about boys, or men.

In addition to men like Herman Hilprecht and John Henry Haynes, excavators at Nippur; Osman Hamdi Bey, the Ottoman Empire official who assisted in Nippur excavations; and Ur excavator Leonard Woolley, “we have highlighted a number of very influential women.” Included are Katherine Woolley (the excavator’s wife); Gertrude Bell, English archaeologist and policy-maker; and even murder mystery writer Agatha Christie, a guest at the Ur excavations.

A full case in the exhibition is devoted to lesser-known people at the Mesopotamian excavations. “I wanted to focus on the local people and their contributions to the work, which was enormous and usually goes unacknowledged,” she noted. The case features photos, field notes, and newspaper clippings.

Kamillia pointed to a Philadelphia Press newspaper clip, dated November 4, 1900, that she had unearthed. The headline proclaims: “BEDOUIN OF THE DESERT COMES TO PHILADELPHIA,” and a second headline: “As a Reward for Faithful Work Dr. Hilprecht Brings Him to See Civilized Cities.” The young Arab was Nassir el Hussein.

Digging through the Nippur records, she came across Hussein’s name in the 1899 workbook that lists him as a “basket carrier” and records his hours of labor. The workbook, in the exhibition, details the activities of the hundreds of local workers involved in the massive excavation projects. Making the connection between the laborer at Nippur and the Bedouin Arab who came to travel to Philadelphia was one of many archival discoveries that add up to tell a richer story of the expeditions and the human interactions behind them.

Making connections via the Archives can be a daunting task; Kamillia looked at “about 10 linear feet” of archival materials on the two famous excavations as she worked to focus her story and select the original materials that would best tell the tale. All told, the exhibition features about 94 photos, 4 letters, 19 drawings, and field notes, several books, about a half dozen artifacts from the collections, and even one “interactive”: facsimile pages of the illustrated journal of Joseph Meyer, an MIT trained architect, who came to Nippur. His original pencil drawings and careful notebook records can be perused, page-by-page, at a side table, the individual pages encased in protective plastic. A talented and perceptive scholar, he contracted cholera and died at Nippur.

Next Steps for a Scholar


Though her undergraduate career concludes in the spring of 2016, Kamillia’s own journey is far from over. The daughter of a U.S. Army parent, she has traveled to many places in her childhood. Next year, she plans to attend law school. And the legacy of her work at the Penn Museum?

"Working in the museum and with these collections over the years has really heightened my interest in heritage preservation,” she said. “Going to law school, I hope to integrate these experiences by working to expand cultural rights for all people.”

The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia, is presented in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania’s 2015-2016 Year of Discovery.

Editor’s Note: Kamillia wrote about her research experiences at the Penn Museum in a blog post on the Penn Provost’s Arts & Culture Initiative website.

Photos. Top: Kamillia Scott, Penn Museum fellow and undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alessandro Pezzati, Penn Museum Senior Archivist, examine archival materials in the Museum Archives. Kamillia is curator of the Museum’s new archival exhibition, The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia. (Photo: Penn Museum) Bottom: Archival image depicts the Penn Museum’s Nippur Expedition party, circa 1899-1900. Included in the photo are Clarence Fisher (third from left), who would serve as Curator of the Museum’s Egyptian Section from 1914 to 1925, and Herman Hilprecht (second from right, with golf club), Curator of the Museum’s Babylonian Section from 1888 to 1910. The image is one of more than 100 items included in The Boys of Sumer: Discovery in Mesopotamia, an archival exhibition at the Penn Museum. (Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.)


Jill DiSanto, Public Relations Director