Paul Emile Botta

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Paul Emile Botta


French Archaeologist and Diplomat

Paul Emile Botta was among the first archaeologists to study the ruins of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. In 1843, he discovered the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II near what is now Khorsabad, Iraq.

Botta was born in Turin, Italy. His father, the Italian historian and physician Carl Botta, became a French citizen in 1814. Paul Botta also studied medicine, but then entered the French diplomatic corps.

Initially assigned to Alexandria, Egypt, Botta secured an appointment to the city of Mosul in Mesopotamia, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Julius Mohl, a well-known scholar of Middle Eastern civilization, had convinced the French government that someone interested in archaeology would be right for the consulate post, and Botta fit the bill. He was the son of a historian, he spoke Arabic, and he was fascinated by the prospect of discovering the lost cities of Assyria. Their locations had been forgotten; the cities were known only from biblical references and other ancient documents, some of which contradicted each other.

For the first year, Botta dug at Kuyunjik, close to the Tigris River. This was a site that Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) would later realize was the biblical city of Nineveh. But Botta wasn't digging deep enough, and his results there seemed unpromising. Meanwhile, he had heard that the nearby village of Khorsabad sat on a mound of inscribed bricks and sculpted stone, a rumor that he had at first refused to credit.

When an assistant returned from a scouting mission talking of carvings lying on the ground, Botta immediately moved his entire entourage from Kuyunjik. After only a week of digging at Khorsabad, the team began to unearth the palace of Sargon II, who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C. It was part of Sargon's ancient capital of Dur Sharrukin, and was the first Assyrian site ever uncovered. Its riches included fabulous statues of winged animals with human heads, relief sculptures, and a number of inscriptions in the characteristic cuneiform, or wedge-shaped, writing of ancient Mesopotamia.

Botta mistakenly believed that he had found Nineveh, and reported as much back to Paris. The French government immediately declared itself the leader in the study of antiquities and further financial support was quickly forthcoming, allowing Botta to continue excavating.

An artist, Eugene Flandin, was sent over to make on-site drawings. This was particularly important because under the dry earth of the Middle East, the ruins had been protected from air as well as moisture. Some relief carvings and other artifacts began to crumble as soon as they were exposed, particularly those made brittle from ancient fire damage.

Botta shipped hundreds of statues and other antiquities back to Paris. Unfortunately, one shipment sunk to the bottom of the swiftly flowing Tigris, but statues of Sargon and the winged bulls from his palace did make it safely to the Louvre. They went on display in 1847, in a newly established Assyrian Museum there.

Later, Botta served diplomatic posts in Jerusalem and Tripoli. He also wrote accounts of his discoveries and studied cuneiform writings. He died in 1870 in Acheres, France.