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Rediscover archeologist Wendell Phillips at D.C.’s Sackler Gallery

Wendell Phillips stands with Yemeni men, including Sheik Al-Barhi (center), a leader of the Bal Harith tribe. (Courtesy American Foundation for the Study of Man)
Wendell Phillips stands with Yemeni men, including Sheik Al-Barhi (center), a leader of the Bal Harith tribe. (Courtesy American Foundation for the Study of Man)

Wendell Phillips was a real-life Indiana Jones crossed with Lawrence of Arabia digging in the desert sands of history just after World War II.

The discoveries of some of those post-war adventures are now on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.

"Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips," running Oct. 11 through June 7, 2015, examines the excavations that Wendell Phillips carried out in 1950 and 1951 in Saudi Arabia, which is today Yemen, said Massumeh Farhad, the gallery’s Chief Curator and Curator of Islamic Art.

During Phillips’ expeditions, he and his archeologists discovered two cities lost under the rock and sands of time — Timna, the capital of Qataban kingdom, and Marib, the reputed home of the Queen of Sheba. They unearthed a pair of bronze statues of snarling lions ridden by smiling cherubs, alabaster funeral stele, layers of pottery that proved centuries of occupation, and more.

"Unearthing Arabia" tells a tale of commerce, riches and influence that stretched up and down the coast of the Red Sea between Yemen and the Mediterranean powerhouse empires of Egypt and Rome.

Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, was home to two rare and precious trade items — the tree resins of frankincense and myrrh, both expensive and highly coveted.

"The (incense) road went up the Red Sea coast and then it sort of crossed the Sinai desert to Alexandria," Farhad said. "From there, the incense would be put on ships and then transported across the Mediterranean. By the time it arrived, let’s say in Rome, it was 1000 times more expensive."

The Romans used the scent in diverse ways from sacred ceremonies to sprinkling it over sewage.

Trade was the lifeblood of the empires bringing non-native ideas and items to the southern Arabian peninsula.

For example, the precious stone lapis lazuli that remains in the eyes of a smiling alabaster funeral statue, dubbed "Miriam," came from what is now Afghanistan. A true rarity, "Miriam" was found in the cemetery at Timna still having its plaster hair, as well as the lapis eyes.

Two Greco-Roman style bronze castings of the young boys riding snarling lions were done in Yemen, said Farhad. "It is clear from the fact that the bronze is slightly different from Roman…so we know it was done locally, opposed to (being) imported." She added that they were probably associated with the cult of Dionysus, the Roman god of wine making and wine.

The economic boom ended "when Christianity came to Rome. It was decided that the import of incense had to be controlled. The reason was it was such a drain on the Roman economy," said Farhad. With such a massive importer cutting back, the trade slowed down, and the cities that had grown rich levying taxes on the incense caravans died away.

The Sackler used Phillips’ extensive notes, photographs and film footage for "Unearthing Arabia." The film shows the difficulties facing the archeologists that included building roads to even get to the digs. The archeologists had to leave Yemen abruptly in 1952 after local threats.

Phillips passed away at 54 in 1975. His foundation, the American Foundation for the Study of Man, donated many of the exhibit’s items to the gallery in 2013.

Currently, Yemen is under a U.S. Department of State travel warning "due to terrorist activities and civil unrest."

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"Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips"

Oct. 11, 2014-June 7, 2015

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

1050 Independence Avenue, S.W.

Washington D.C.

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