Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was born in Paris and grew up in Florence, and at age 12 was sent to England to live with his aunt and uncle in Surrey. In 1834 he entered his uncle's solicitor's office in London; however he skimped and disliked the work of an articled clerk. His relationship with his uncle deteriorated; he was more interested in literary men and had met Benjamin Disraeli at his aunt's salon who was also her protege. Layard was desperate for fame and exotic experiences. He was introduced to Edward Mitford of a like ilk, and the pair left England in 1839 to travel overland to Ceylon. The Royal Geographical Society commissioned Layard to research the terrain.
Layard and Mitford travelled through the Ottoman lands, visiting Constantinople (where Layard nearly died of malaria, which recurred in following years) and Jerusalem. He also made a reckless journey alone to see Petra and other ancient sites east of the Dead Sea; he was robbed and nearly killed by tribesmen. They stayed in Mosul and Baghdad; then in August 1840, in Persia, the two parted company, as Layard, who had become enamoured of the simplicity and independence of local life, preferred to stay in the region. He travelled, read widely in local history, learned Arabic and Persian, and spent time in the Bakhtiari Mountains with a tribe which was resisting the oppression of the shah. He returned to Baghdad and Mosul, where he had become fascinated by mounds opposite Mosul which the French consul, Emil Botta, was tentatively exploring. His funds depleted, Layard regained Constantinople in the summer of 1842, expecting to have to return to England. However, he made himself known to Stratford Canning, British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, who admired his spirit and his knowledge of the Turkish–Persian border, which was then in dispute. Layard agreed to stay in Turkey and work for Canning, believing that this was a place of promise for an enterprising and ambitious man. Canning paid him himself, since the Foreign Office under Lord Aberdeen refused to make him a paid attache. He went on two information-gathering missions in European Turkey. In 1845, fearing that the French would otherwise get the honour, he persuaded Canning to support excavation work on the mounds near Mosul.
Layard left Constantinople in October and began to dig the mound of Nimrud. His earlier experience of living among local tribes paid off handsomely: he managed what became a workforce of 130 men with generosity and firmness, entertained visiting Arab sheikhs hospitably and patiently, dealt diplomatically with the local rulers, and so progressed with speed and economy. Guided by intuition founded on his discursive reading, his archaeological achievement was remarkable. He uncovered three palaces, most importantly that of Ashurnasirpal II, and many notable objects including the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III and several pairs of human-headed winged lions and bulls. In May 1846 Canning received authorization for the export of some of these to England, and then applied successfully to the trustees of the British Museum for further funding, which lasted until June 1847. In the last few weeks of this period Layard began excavations at Kuyunjik, nearer Mosul, and quickly discovered the largest Assyrian palace, that of Sennacherib. Forced to end excavations and return to Constantinople, Layard, encouraged by Henry Rawlinson (the scholar and British consul at Baghdad), claimed that Nimrud was Nineveh. Only after the publication of his first book did he realize that it was not, and that Kuyunjik was. In July 1847 Canning finally secured (from Palmerston) Layard's appointment to the embassy staff to work on the Turkish–Persian boundary question, though in fact illness prevented him from carrying out his duties.
Suffering from exhaustion and the recurrence of malaria, Layard returned to London in December 1847 for the first time in eight and a half years. In 1848 he worked hard to publicize his discoveries. He was made DCL at Oxford in July 1848, and in May 1849 received the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society. When his book Nineveh and its Remains was published early in 1849 it had an enthusiastic reception. So did the arrival of the Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum. Layard was admired as a type of the fearless, independently minded English explorer. Moreover, men who were anxious to rebut recent criticisms of the authenticity of holy scripture were excited by Assyrian references to biblical names and events and proclaimed that he had 'made the Bible true'. When he was presented with the freedom of the City of London in 1853, it was for demonstrating 'the accuracy of Sacred History'. His cynical Constantinople friend Charles Alison had told him: 'if you can by any means humbug people into the belief that you have established any points in the Bible, you are a made man' (Waterfield, 171). So it proved.
Layard was appointed a paid attache at Constantinople in April 1849, but between October 1849 and April 1851 conducted major excavations at Kuyunjik, funded by the British Museum and described in a second book, Nineveh and Babylon (1853). These yielded further important trophies and discoveries, including the cuneiform library of Sennacherib's grandson Ashurbanipal, on which most modern knowledge of Assyrian culture is founded. At the new Crystal Palace, opened in 1854, there was an Assyrian court, on which Layard advised - Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Abbey, Travel 364].