Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Archeologist Wendell Phillips: The "American Lawrence of Arabia"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Archeologist Wendell Phillips: The "American Lawrence of Arabia"

Article excerpt

Wendell Phillips, the American archeologist celebrated in a fascinating exhibit in Washington, DC, has been variously referred to as the "American version of Lawrence of Arabia" and the "inspiration" for Indiana Jones, film director Steven Spielberg's intrepid celluloid explorer.

The truth, as revealed in "Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips" at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on the National Mall, is an amalgamation of the two legendary figures.

The Sackler describes the exhibit, on view through June 7, 2015, as its "first multi-sensory" exhibition. The selection of excavated artifacts, 1950s-era film clips, videos, field notebooks and vintage photographs highlights Phillips' key finds, which are the most important collection of documented South Arabian artifacts in the U.S., dating from the eighth century B.C. to second century A.D.

Being of military age at the onset of World War II, Phillips served his country as a merchant marine aboard transport ships-an experience that took him to ports of call in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

After later obtaining a degree in paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, Phillips conceived the idea of an extensive continent-wide African expedition. After many months of fund-raising, Phillips launched his first expedition: a massive archaeological dig in a remote area of southern Arabia in what is now present-day Yemen. The product of this undertaking is featured in the Sackler exhibit.

During his career, Phillips microfilmed more than 2 million pages of manuscripts at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai; led the first major scientific expeditions ever to explore South Arabia; and for 10 years, beginning in the early 1950s, led expeditions in Oman, concentrating primarily in the Dhofar province.

Phillips' intial foray to the southern Arabian desert was approved and encouraged by the king of Yemen, Imam Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin. The king's authorization enabled Phillips to uncover the ancient city of Timna, the capital of the once-prosperous Qataban kingdom; and, during a later excavation in 1951 and '52, Marib, the reputed capital of the legendary Queen of Sheba, who appears in religious texts sacred to all the Abrahamic faiths.

These cities had flourished 2,500 years ago along the fabled Incense Road-a trade route that stretched from India to port cities along the Mediterranean. …

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