Rediscovering the first American archaeological expedition to Persia.
Erich Schmidt had fought on the eastern front in the Great War, escaped from a Siberian prison camp to get home to Germany, and studied at Columbia University under Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. But as a hand-cranked movie camera rolled film on this sun-beaten day in central Iraq, the witnesses to his greatest adventure yet comprised a troop of Boy Scouts in matching neckerchiefs.
As seen 75 years later through the scratches and splotches of antique black-and-white film stock, the boys march in double-file formation over a bone-dry basin pockmarked with old ruins. They squint at grown men who make declarations instantly lost in the absence of a microphone. Finally, gathering in a neat line at the edge of a 25-foot precipice, they peer into the depths of the Mesopotamian bedrock, looking right down into the Bronze Age.
Erich Schmidt was one of the first archaeologists to incorporate moving images into fieldwork, and he was on his way to begin an even more momentous endeavor: the first American excavation in modern-day Iran. Along with some flickering snippets of men shoveling sand at a slightly-faster-than-life pace, this footage is part of a uniquely rich Penn Museum collection that has rarely left the archives. But its recent rediscovery shows it to be one of the great coups of the institution’s first 50 years.
In the summer of 1931, the Penn Museum teamed up with the Pennsylvania Museum of Art (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art) to send Erich Schmidt to Iraq and Iran. The primary goal was to excavate Tepe Hissar, a 6,000-year-old site located about 200 miles east of Tehran. Up to that point, the French had enjoyed a monopoly on archaeological digs in the country. Schmidt’s team would signal not only the arrival of a new nationality on the scene, but of a new approach to unearthing the past. Ultimately his work would provide the basis for interpreting the succession of civilizations in a region whose history stretches further back than the pharaohs of Egypt.
Last year Dr. Ayse Gursan-Salzmann Gr’92, a research associate at the Penn Museum, began looking into Schmidt’s old boxes and folders. She was preparing for her own visit to Tepe Hissar, which has been essentially off-limits to American archaeologists since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Although another American expedition revisited the site in 1976 under the leadership of Dr. Robert Dyson, emeritus director of the Penn Museum and emeritus professor of anthropology, the objects and data from Schmidt’s original dig remain important. But what really captured Gursan-Salzmann’s attention were his photographs. Along with ink drawings and watercolors and that film strip commemorating the Boy Scout visit, Schmidt had sent back over 2,600 black-and-white images. Documenting a broad range of subject matter in vivid, artful detail, they are like postcards from two bygone eras: the deep past Schmidt was digging through, and a largely pre-industrial Iran that was on the cusp of complete transformation.
In Exploring Iran: The Photography of Erich F. Schmidt, 1930-40, just published by the Penn Museum, Gursan-Salzmann reproduces 64 of those time-capsule images to tell the story of the young archaeologist’s travels and pioneering field research. The collected correspondence from the expedition—telegrams, letters penned in looping cursive upon hotel stationery, typewritten progress reports—paints Schmidt as a man with one foot in the discipline’s treasure-hunting past and another in its scientific future. “He was one of the last excavators of the heroic age of archaeology,” wrote the Dutch archaeologist Maurits van Loon decades later. “Some of his qualities were those of a general, as when he directed the expedition’s twin-engine plane, five horses and sixty-five donkeys.”
The romantic aura of leading pack animals through the Near East was certainly something that Schmidt knew how to play up—especially when petitioning benefactors for funds. Describing one such pitch to a longtime supporter in Paris in 1931, Schmidt wrote: “For two days I painted Persia with words of the color of a mirage with mosques and minarets silhouetted against the background, Persian rugs draping the sides, cool scented gardens filling the center, and Persia’s past rising from deep trenches in the foreground!” He left with a check for $10,000, more than enough to defray the cost of his palatial 23-room excavation headquarters, which rented for $9 per month.
In reality, the expedition’s work was more the stuff of sandstorms than scented gardens. Schmidt poured most of his funds into hiring hundreds of local workers, while routinely putting in 15-hour days himself. Potable water was occasionally hard to find and travel was a plodding affair, even in the “Ship of the Desert,” as Schmidt christened the Ford truck he bought in Baghdad. Securing permits required bureaucratic finesse as well as the charm to win over tribal leaders. His talent in this area was reflected in the menagerie of pets given to him by local men, which included a hedgehog, an owl, and a gazelle photographed nursing at the udder of a goat.
It’s not hard to sense a faintly colonial spirit in some of these scenes, but Schmidt’s motives and methods represented a revolutionary shift from the status quo of only a decade before. The primacy of the Bible as a guiding tool for Western archaeologists had already begun to diminish, but the search for priceless booty remained paramount. Although Schmidt extracted some 5,000 artifacts from Tepe Hissar—half of which remained in Tehran—he wasn’t after gold ornaments and turquoise effigies purely for their own sake. He was most interested in placing them in a larger context. By investigating multiple sites, painstakingly recording the contents of burial sites right down to the orientation of the bleached bones, and pioneering the use of aerial photography in archaeological fieldwork, Schmidt helped to change the discipline’s focus away from treasure and toward history.
The photographic record of his expedition, with its dual focus on Iran’s ancient sites and the country’s living inhabitants, provides an eloquent requiem for an archaeologist who bridged two distinct eras. The deep past was a great mystery to the men and women peering out of these black-and-white frames, but the near future was perhaps even harder to imagine. —T.P