Life and Accomplishments of Sir Austen Henry Layard

British archeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard

Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was a British archaeologist, adventurer, and diplomat, best known for his excavations in Mesopotamia, especially those at the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh.

Below, World History Edu provides some key points about the life and achievements of this British archeologist.

Layard was born in Paris and initially studied law but was deeply drawn towards adventure and archaeology.

In the 1840s, Layard undertook excavations at Nimrud and Nineveh, which are located in modern-day northern Iraq. At Nimrud, he uncovered the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, and at Nineveh, he unearthed significant parts of the city, including the palace of Ashurbanipal.

Rediscovery of the Library of Ashurbanipal

Among the most significant discoveries made by Layard was a part of the Library of Ashurbanipal.

Leading a team of archeologists that included Ottoman Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam, Layard’s discoveries of the collection of clay tablets from the 7th century BC provided a wealth of information about the ancient Assyrian empire. They famously include “Epic of Gilgamesh“, a poem considered to be the oldest-known literature in history.

Most of Layard’s finds were sent to Britain and are now housed in the British Museum in London, England.

Ottoman Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam served as Layard’s assistant during excavations at Nimrud, a nearby ancient Assyrian excavation site. Imge: Hormuzd Rassam in Mosul c. 1854

Later Career

After his archaeological pursuits, Layard served as a diplomat. From 1877 to 1880, he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and played a role in the politics of the region. Prior to that he had served as the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in February 1852 and from 1861 to 1866. Also, he held the position of First Commissioner of Works from December 1868 to October 1869.

Layard’s Writings

Layard documented his adventures and discoveries in several books, most notably “Nineveh and its Remains” (1849), “Discoveries among the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon” (1853), and “The Ninevah Court in the Crystal Palace” (1854).

  • “Nineveh and Its Remains” (1849): This two-volume work was Layard’s first major publication about his excavations. It detailed his findings in Nineveh and Nimrud, giving a comprehensive account of the monuments, sculptures, inscriptions, and other artifacts he discovered. The book, interwoven with tales of his personal experiences and the challenges faced during the excavations, became immensely popular and was akin to a bestseller of its time.
  • “The Monuments of Nineveh: From Drawings Made on the Spot” (1849): This publication featured illustrations based on Layard’s expeditions, with a focus on the massive bas-reliefs and sculptures uncovered.
  • “Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Character, from Assyrian Monuments, Discovered by A. H. Layard” (1851): This work delved into the cuneiform inscriptions found during his excavations.
  • “Nineveh and Babylon: A Narrative of a Second Expedition to Assyria during the Years 1849, 1850, & 1851” (1853): In this continuation of his earlier work, Layard detailed the results and experiences of his second expedition to Assyria, offering further insights into the sites and his discoveries.
  • “A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh” (1854): As the title suggests, this was a more accessible account of Layard’s discoveries, intended for the general public rather than academic audiences.


The British archeologist’s discoveries brought Assyrian civilization to the attention of the Western world. His excavations and writings played a crucial role in the understanding of ancient Mesopotamian cultures and the broader field of Assyriology.

Questions & Answers

Before his expeditions, Layard had trained as a lawyer in London. However, he found the profession unsatisfying and was restless, looking for a more fulfilling and adventurous pursuit. Image: H. Layard at Kuyunjik. Drawing by Solomon Caesar Malan, 1850.

What is Austen Henry Layard best known for?

Austen Henry Layard is best known for his archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia, especially at the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh. Among his most significant discoveries was a part of the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.

This collection of clay tablets from the 7th century BC provided invaluable insights into the ancient Assyrian empire and included literary treasures like the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Layard’s work brought the Assyrian civilization to prominent attention in the Western world and played a foundational role in the field of Assyriology.

Some of the clay tablets unearthed by archeologists Henry Austen Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam in the mid-19th century

In which ancient Assyrian cities did Layard primarily conduct his excavations?

Austen Henry Layard primarily conducted his archaeological excavations in the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh.

These sites, located in modern-day northern Iraq, yielded significant findings that shed light on the Assyrian civilization and its contributions to art, literature, and governance.

What major discoveries did Layard make at Nimrud and Nineveh?

Austen Henry Layard’s excavations at Nimrud and Nineveh led to several significant discoveries, which greatly contributed to the understanding of ancient Assyrian culture and history.

Some of the major discoveries include:

  1. Nimrud:
    • Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: Layard uncovered the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, which was richly decorated with wall reliefs depicting military campaigns, hunting scenes, and ritual ceremonies.
    • Lamassu: These colossal winged bull and lion statues with human heads were guardians at the palace’s entrance.
    • Ivories: Layard found a significant collection of Phoenician-style ivories, which were likely spoils of war or gifts, in the palace.
    • Obelisk of Shalmaneser III: This black limestone obelisk had inscriptions and carvings depicting tribute payments from various vassal states, including one that might represent King Jehu of Israel.
  2. Nineveh:
    • Library of Ashurbanipal: Perhaps the most significant discovery at Nineveh was a part of the library of the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The library held thousands of cuneiform clay tablets, covering a wide range of topics, including the famous “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
    • Palace Wall Reliefs: Layard uncovered wall reliefs from various palaces, detailing scenes from daily life, wars, and religious ceremonies.
    • Gates and Walls: His excavations revealed parts of the city’s walls and gates, including the monumental city gates guarded by colossal Lamassu statues.

How did Layard’s findings contribute to the Western understanding of ancient Mesopotamia?

The large-scale bas-reliefs, monumental sculptures (like the Lamassu), and other artifacts showcased the sophistication and style of Assyrian art. The architectural remnants of palaces and city structures offered insights into the grandeur of Assyrian imperial power.

The discovery of a portion of the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, containing thousands of cuneiform tablets, was instrumental in deepening the understanding of Assyrian literature, notably introducing the “Epic of Gilgamesh” to the West. The tablets also provided historical records, administrative documents, religious texts, and scholarly treatises, painting a multifaceted picture of Assyrian society.

The British archeologist’s findings underscored the extent of the Assyrian Empire’s reach, evidenced by art (like the Phoenician-style ivories in Nimrud) and inscriptions detailing vassal tribute and diplomatic interactions.

Some of the inscriptions and artifacts aligned with accounts from the Hebrew Bible, lending archaeological support to biblical narratives. For instance, the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud has inscriptions that some believe refer to King Jehu of Israel.

How did Layard’s background and early life influence his decision to embark on archaeological excavations in the Middle East?

From a young age, Layard was known for his curiosity and thirst for adventure. He was not content to settle into a conventional lifestyle or profession in England.

Layard had initially traveled to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) to work in a family-owned coffee plantation. However, he wasn’t satisfied with this venture and was drawn towards exploring the East. His overland journey back to England from Ceylon took him through many parts of the Middle East.

During his travels in the Middle East, he became increasingly interested in the ancient ruins and civilizations of the region. He was particularly intrigued by the mounds or tells that dotted the Mesopotamian landscape, many of which locals believed held secrets of ancient cities.

His interactions with locals, who shared legends and tales about buried cities and treasures, only fueled his interest in exploring these ancient sites.

Sir Stratford Canning, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, played a significant role in Layard’s life. Recognizing Layard’s passion and potential, Canning provided him with the resources and permissions to undertake excavations, particularly at Nimrud.

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