Paul-Émile Botta (December 6, 1802 – March 29, 1870) was a French archaeologist and diplomat. He was one of the first to study the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia (today's Iraq), conducting successful excavations resulting in numerous significant findings. Botta became famous for his search of the ancient city of Nineveh, although he did not succeed in uncovering the ruin himself. His most significant discovery was of the palace of the Assyrian King Sargon II. He unearthed not only beautiful artworks, which continue to be displayed in the Louvre, but also numerous cuneiform inscribed tablets, which reveal much about ancient times. Botta pioneered the archaeological work in this part of the world, an area significant for its centrality in human providential history. His work opened the way for scriptural accounts of places and events that took place there to be validated.
Paul-Emile Botta was born on December 6, 1802, in Torino, Italy. His father was the distinguished Italian historian and physician, Carl Botta, who immigrated to France in 1814. Botta at first wanted to follow father’s steps, so he studied medicine, but then decided to turn to politics.
Botta joined the French diplomatic corps, and was initially sent to Alexandria, Egypt. However due to his interest in archaeology, his knowledge of the Arabic language, and with the help of his friend, Julius Mohl, a famous scholar of Middle Eastern civilizations, he was transferred to the city of Mosul in Mesopotamia, which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Botta quickly became keen to discover the long lost cities of Assyria. The only accounts of their locations were found in biblical references and some ancient texts, but no contemporary accounts existed.
In 1842, Botta started excavations in Kuyunjik, a town not far from the Tigris River. After years of digging he found nothing promising, and soon decided to move his entire team to a nearby village of Khorsabad, in 1843. There, only after few weeks of digging, he found the ruins of a large infrastructure, which turned to be the palace of Sargon II, an Assyrian king who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C.E. The palace was a part of Sargon’s ancient capital of Dur Sharrukin. It was the first Assyrian site ever excavated.
Botta believed the site in Khorsabad to be the site of ancient Nineveh, mentioned in the Bible. He cabled news of his discovery—"Nineveh est retrouvé"—to Paris. The French government immediately released substantial funds to finance his excavations there. They even sent a famous artist, Eugène Flandin, to document Botta's discoveries. That turned out to be good move, since many discoveries afterwards suffered damage by erosion due to their sudden exposure to moisture and atmospheric pressure. Many artifacts from the site were also lost during transportation back to France.
In 1846, many statues from Khorsabad were moved to Paris and were exhibited in the Louvre. In 1847, the Louvre opened a separate section dedicated to Assyrian art.
Botta retired from archeology in 1848. After the success of his diplomatic mission in Mesopotamia, Botta was transferred first to Jerusalem (1846), and then to Tripoli (1868). He served diplomatic posts there until his death in Achères, France in 1870.
Botta's passion was to find the lost cities of Assyria, famous in historical and biblical texts, but lost to the contemporary world. Assigned as consul to Mosul, in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), he started his search for the ancient biblical city of Nineveh. At the time little was known about the exact location of the city, and Botta mostly relied on references from the Bible or other ancient texts. Based on local stories he had the idea that the site of the city was in Kuyunjik, a small village near the Tigris River. He started with excavations, but after a few years with no result he decided to stop and try somewhere else. As it turned our later, Botta simply did not dig deep enough, and the archaeologists who continued with the excavations later actually found the ruins of an old city that proved to be of Nineveh, in the location of Botta's original excavations.
After unsuccessfully digging at Kuyunjik, Botta heard that at the nearby village of Khorsabad residents had found bricks and sculpted stones that seemingly dated from ancient times. He started excavations there and immediately found a large infrastructure that laid beneath the surface. It turned out to be the palace of Assyrian King Sargon II. Botta’s team uncovered hundreds of artifacts, among which were statues of winged animals with human heads and relief pictorials. Also among the treasures uncovered by Botta were the remains of the great library of Assurbanipal, a royal archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions, in the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Botta shipped several boatloads of artifacts from Khorsabad back to Paris.
In 1855, Victor Place, Botta's successor tried to send his finds from Kish, Khorsabad, Nimrud, and Assurbanipal's palace in Nineveh, 235 cases total, from Mosul down the Tigris to Basra, where they were to be loaded on a ship bound to Paris. One barge and four rafts were used. The rafts transported two winged bulls and two winged Genii, as well as other works of art. All the vessels were overloaded. During the journey, they were attacked by "Arab pirates." After passing the toll station at Zejeyyak, the barge was rammed by pirates and sunk down river from Qurna, on the left bank of the river. One raft, laden with a winged bull later sunk in the middle of the Shatt-al-Arab near Kout el Fiengoui.
Only two rafts reached Basra. Those finds are currently displayed in the Louvre and the British Museum. Several attempts to recover the boats in 1855 failed. Among the lost artifacts was the famous relief depicting the sack of the Urartian town of Musasir during Sargon II of Assyria's eighth campaign.
Paul-Émile Botta significantly contributed toward our knowledge of the ancient civilization of Assyria. The discovery of the palace of King Sargon II revealed many beautiful artifacts, many of which are still exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris. His excavations were the first that were ever undertaken on an Assyrian site and as such played a key role in the establishment of the branch of Middle Eastern archaeology. The discovery of these ancient cities and numerous artifacts, including writings detailing the lives, knowledge, and activities of historical people, is of profound significance for our understanding of human history.
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