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Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain: The Case of Assyria, 1845-1854

Daniel Foliard
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Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain: The Case of Assyria, 1845-1854, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, 220 p. ISBN: 978-1-4094-2689-9.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Frederick Nathaniel Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Cen (...)
  • 2 Mike Shanks, Michael pearson, Theatre/Archaeology: Disciplinary Dialogues, London, Routledge, 2001.

1Shawn Malley’s From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain joins a growing body of scholarship on the reception of archeological artifacts in 19th-century Britain. The author reopens the case of Austen Henry Layard’s discovery of Nineveh in the late 1840s and its subsequent impact on Victorian culture. The archaeologist’s account of his adventures became a best-seller and the recovered artifacts caused a sensation when they were displayed in the British Museum in 1851. The issue has already been explored by art historian Frederik Bohrer in Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Bohrer carefully studied the contending uses of these Mesopotamian antiquities with a postcolonial perspective.1 Shawn Malley chooses a different approach by applying a variety of sophisticated theorizations combining Foucault, Baudrillard, and post-processual archaeology as well as Michael Shanks and Mike Pearson’s reflections on archaeology and performance.2 The book intends to question the hidden assumptions behind Layard’s antiquarian enterprise and the various mid-Victorian uses of his inventions. It also addresses more recent examples of Western appropriation of Mesopotamia’s past.

2Divided into five chapters, From Archaeology to Spectacle begins with a parallel between Henry Layard’s undertakings and the American invasion of Iraq (‘Layard’s Enterprise: An Archaeology of Informal Imperialism’). The Victorian hero is described as an agent of informal imperialism. His excavations are understood as a form of symbolic possession of Mesopotamia by the West. In the second chapter (‘Re-membering Assyria: The Case of the Bull and Lion’), Shawn Malley delves into the framing of Layard’s Assyrian troves by the periodical press and by the adventurer himself. He pays attention to the varied reception of Layard’s discoveries following the relocation and display of the neo-Assyrian human-headed bulls in the British Museum. The third chapter (‘Theatre/Archaeology: Sardanapalus, 1853’) tackles another dimension of the Victorian re-creation of the Assyrian past through analyses of Charles Kean’s staging of Sardanapalus at the Princess Theatre and its burlesque counterpart Sardanapalus, or the ‘Fast’ King of Assyria. Both performances conveyed a variety of ideologies and contradicting constructions of the ancient Near East which are carefully investigated. The book’s fourth chapter (‘In the Shadow of the Bull: Archaeology, War, Entropy’) provides an insight into the correlations between the broader international context and the reception of Layard’s Assyrian artifacts. When the Crimean war shattered British confidence, the vestiges of Assyrian cities became a reminder of the fate of the Empires of old and a warning to Great Britain. Shawn Malley offers the reader analysis of the motif’s variations in works such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Burden of Nineveh. The last chapter concentrates on two Victorian reconstructions of lost Assyria: Frederick Charles Cooper’s Diorama of Nineveh and the Nineveh Court in the Crystal Palace.

3Shawn Malley convincingly develops his perspective on Victorian cultures of imperialism. His cautious deconstruction of the processes of institutionalization and museification of the archaeological object is a valuable contribution to the study of the politics of display in the imperial age. His use of the vast Layard archives is in itself to be commended. Much remains to be done on this Victorian figure since no recent biography has been published. Another asset of Shawn Malley’s work is its abundance of useful illustrations.

4Yet, the very elaborate theorization of the book might be vulnerable to criticism. The author justly questions Victorian categorizations and Orientalist stereotypes. He makes use of a variety of deconstructive techniques such as Baudrillard’s simulation or Foucault’s discipline as he dissects the artifacts’ cultural significance. This is a perfectly legitimate endeavour so long as one applies the same energy towards the use of categories in one’s own work. This is unfortunately not always the case in Malley’s otherwise prescient contribution. The text often refers to the notion of ‘informal Empire’ without quoting its architects, John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. This would not be an issue were it not for the very broad definition he seems to give to this specific idea. The ‘imperialist’ categorization of Layard’s eastern adventures is another example of some ambiguity in the concepts that are applied to the Assyrian case. Although this is not history of Empire, Imperialism is never defined, its variability never fully assessed. It is not a concept that can be used indiscriminately. The Palmerstonian Empire was of a different nature from the ‘New Empire’ of the late-nineteenth century, not to mention more recent forms of American geostrategic influence. The various shades of British influence in the East are erased. The fact that British policy in Mesopotamia was mostly an Indian affair is overlooked. Neither does the considerable influence of the preceding Ottoman Empire really play a part in Shawn Malley’s picture of nineteenth-century Mesopotamia.

  • 3 Austen Henry Layard, Sir A. Henry Layard G. C. B., D. C. L: Autobiography and Letters from His Chil (...)

5Layard himself was hardly a good example of an imperial enthusiast. To present him as ‘one of the founding fathers of a virtually continuous Western occupation of Iraq’ (43) may seem a bit far-fetched. He aggressively attacked patronage and nepotism as a source of mismanagement in the Crimean War, as explored in chapter four. His turkophilia and his political radicalism made him a maverick whose loyalty was questioned by Victoria herself. His attacks against the repression after the Indian Mutiny ring a very different tone from the one resonating in the book. This extract from a letter to his aunt does not fit the profile of a staunch defender of British rule in India: ‘the people we govern are treated like a distinct race, inferior to us more, indeed, as if they were of a lower order of creatures; not always actually unkindly, though in too many instances with brutality, but with that sort of kindness which would be shown to a pet animal’.3 The book also fails to underline Layard’s selective prejudices and his own passion for Iraqi Christians, particularly the Chaldeans.

6This lack of differentiation expands to periodization and chronology. The book travels back and forth through time. Its scant regard for diachronicity eventually transforms it into a deterministic tale. The Crystal Palace becomes ‘an early version of the Disney World’ (154); the card deck designed by the American command for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is nothing more ‘than the fruition of Layard’s fantasy’ (62). The careful analysis of a very forgettable horror movie (Manticore, 2007), on which the conclusion is based, tries to draw the same parallels between now and then. We learn that ‘the Manticore reifies with archaeological remains the Orientalist trope of the East as the haven of primeval forces hostile to the civilized, Christian West’ (171). The periodization asserted in the title (1845-1854) is thus regularly discarded in favour of a comparatist approach. Layard, the Crystal Palace, theme parks and the American war on terror eventually unite in a conclusion which dooms most western attempts at reading ruins and vestiges to utter failure or worse—a destructive and imperial enterprise. Confronting a colonial past should not be done at the expense of historical accuracy. As the last sentences of Shawn Malley’s book verge close to the political pamphlet, suggesting that he himself may have engaged in some stereotyping. Making Layard the archetype of the nineteenth-century imperialist and the prototype of early twenty-first century neocons could be a good example of the re-creations of the past flourishing on unfounded categorizations. The book is nevertheless a very stimulating addition to the cultural history of empire in the Middle East and its broad comparatist approach of the re-inventions of Assyria’s past opens promising perspectives.

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1 Frederick Nathaniel Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Cambridge [u.a.], Cambridge University Press, 2003.

2 Mike Shanks, Michael pearson, Theatre/Archaeology: Disciplinary Dialogues, London, Routledge, 2001.

3 Austen Henry Layard, Sir A. Henry Layard G. C. B., D. C. L: Autobiography and Letters from His Childhood until His Appointment as H. M. Ambassador at Madrid, London, Murray, 1903, 217.

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Daniel Foliard, « Shawn Malley, From Archaeology to Spectacle in Victorian Britain: The Case of Assyria, 1845-1854 »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 16 mai 2014, consulté le 14 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Daniel Foliard

Université Paris Ouest

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