Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Death of Jacques de Morgan (June 14, 1924)

Jean-Jacques de Morgan was born in Huisseau-sir-Cosson, in the French department of Loir-et-Cher, on June 3, 1857. The family environment was prone to learning and scientific rigor. His father was a mine engineer who was interested in prehistory, and who initiated his two sons in fieldwork. The younger, Jacques, wanted to follow his father’s profession. He started to publish the results of his research in 1879, and meanwhile, he graduated from the Ecole des Mines in 1882.

He was then appointed to head a survey expedition to Scandinavia and subsequently conducted surveys in Germany, Austria, Turkey, India, and Malaysia from 1883-1886. He went next to Eastern Armenia, where he managed a copper mine at Akhtala, in the region of Lori. He believed that the Caucasus was of special interest in the study of the origins of metals. In 1887-89 he unearthed 576 graves around Alaverdi and Akhtala, near the Tiflis-Alexandropol railway line, together with copper ornaments, weapons, and objects of daily life. In the dedication of his The History of the Armenian People, he wrote: “To you, Armenians, I dedicate this book, in memory of those happy days of my youth spent in your picturesque mountain villages, in your enchanting forests, among your flower-spangled meadows all glistening in the beautiful Eastern sunshine.”

The scientific reports that Jacques de Morgan wrote upon his return from the Caucasus were published in 1889-1890. Upon his return to France, the Ministry of Public Education entrusted him with his first official mission to Persia, where he did geological and archaeological investigations in the regions of Kurdistan and Luristan. He also made some minor discoveries in the high mound known as the “citadel” in Susa (Šūš), in the historical region of Susiana (the old Elam). This would lead him to reopen the excavations at the site, which would happen years later.

In late 1891 he was invited to take over as acting director of the Egyptian antiquities service; he remained in this interim appointment until 1897. He founded, with Giuseppe Botti, the museum of Greco-Roman antiquities at Alexandria; saved the temple of Kom Ombo from destruction; undertook publication of a general catalogue of the monuments and inscriptions of ancient Egypt; and, just before his departure, laid the cornerstone for the Cairo museum of ancient Egyptian antiquities. His explorations have allowed him to be considered the father of prehistoric archaeology in Egypt.

In 1897 de Morgan left Egypt with the intention of creating a French archeological service in Persia. He focused most of his own efforts at the site of Susa: “Susa, because of its very early date, provided the possibility of solving the greatest and most important problem, that of our origins. This city, in my view, belonged to that primordial world that had witnessed the discovery of writing, the use of metals, the beginnings of art.”

He devoted himself to excavations there for the next ten years, although his decision to simply removing an enormous amount of dirt condemned the architectural remains of Susa to total destruction. In the meantime, he published his Mission scientifique en Perse (1894-1905) in ten volumes, with geological, archeological, geographical, and linguistic studies. In 1912 he also published the final excavation report on Susa.

As someone who had been deeply interested in the Orient, its political situation was no little concern for de Morgan during World War I. He wrote extensively from 1915-1917 in L’Eclair of Montpellier and Revue de Paris, denouncing the Armenian Genocide and the war crimes committed by the Ottoman Empire. His articles were gathered in a volume eloquently titled Contre les barbares de l’Orient (Against the Barbarians of the Orient) and published in 1918. He wrote there: “When one reads attentively the documents related to the massacre of Armenians, the prevision and the ability with which the government of the Young Turks organized these horrors are striking. Everything has been anticipated: the disarming of the victims; the kidnapping of the young element, which could have resisted; the exodus and the suffering on the routes; the massacre of the men on the road; the selection of women and girls to be Islamized (...). There is nothing to debate about the horrors so coldly wanted and so quietly executed, but the day will come when the criminals, whether they are Berliners or Asiatic, will be accountable for the actions and will pay for their heinous crimes.”

De Morgan also worked throughout the war, thanks to the efforts of Armenian writer and journalist Arshag Tchobanian, on a history of the Armenian people from its origins to his days. Published at the end of the war (1919) as Histoire du peuple arménien, it was, for a long time, one of the best available sources for the general reader. An English translation appeared in 1965 by the efforts of Hairenik Press, in Boston (History of the Armenian People: From the Remotest Times to the Present Day, translated by Ernest F. Barry). 

Fighting against health and economic problems for the last fifteen years of his life, Jacques de Morgan passed away on June 14, 1924 in Marseilles. His major works remain L’humanité préhistorique (The Prehistoric Humanity, 1921), and especially the three-volume La préhistoire orientale (The Oriental Prehistory, 1925-27), which appeared posthumously.