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“Unearthing Arabia” at Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery Uncovers the Drama Behind Great Discoveries

Opening Oct. 11, Exhibition Explores One of the First Archaeological Expeditions to Yemen

Media contacts:
Allison Peck    (202) 633-0447; pressasia@si.edu
Miranda Gale  (202) 633-0271; galem@si.edu

@FreerSackler, #UnearthingArabia

Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art; Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, president of the AFSM; Rocky Korr, researcher and retired manager of F|S collections; Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler galleries; Zaydoon Zaid, an archaeologist who excavated at Marib

Media tours:
Tuesday, Oct. 7; email pressasia@si.edu to request


September 8, 2014

“Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips,” opening Oct. 11 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, will explore a massive expedition to Yemen, headed by the young, dashing paleontologist and geologist Wendell Phillips between 1949 and 1952. A selection of excavated artifacts, 1950s film clips, handwritten notebooks and vintage photographs highlights Phillips’s key finds, which are the most important collection of documented South Arabian artifacts in the U.S., and recreates the team’s cinematic adventures—and misadventures—as it unearthed long forgotten ancient Arabian cities.

“Wendell Phillips is the real-life incarnation of popular adventurers like Indiana Jones,” said Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “He galvanized well-supported expeditions to a largely unknown desert land, uncovering major treasures. This exhibition tells in Wendell’s own words what he saw as his triumphs and tragedies.”

Accompanied by some of the leading scholars, scientists and technicians of the day, the 28-year-old Phillips was on a quest to uncover two ancient cities—Timna, the capital of the once-prosperous Qataban kingdom, and Marib, the reputed capital of the legendary Queen of Sheba—that had flourished along the fabled incense road some 2,500 years earlier. The expedition met a disastrous end in 1952 when political unrest forced the team to flee in fear for their lives. 

While in Yemen, Phillips and his team compiled meticulous records, and the expedition and the recorded finds laid the groundwork for subsequent excavations in the region. In appreciation of his work, Phillips was made a Bedouin Sheikh, the only American to be so honored. Phillips never returned to Marib and its fabled temple, but his dream of excavating the site was realized 50 years later by expeditions carried out by the American Foundation for the Study of Man, which he had established in 1949, under the vision of his sister Merilyn Hodgson. (Read more on Hodgson’s 2013 gift to the Sackler.)

Programs related to the exhibition include a lecture Oct. 12 by Zaydoon Zaid, an archaeologist who excavated at Marib, and a celebration of International Archaeology Day Oct. 18 featuring hands-on family programs, expert-led tours and a “meet the archaeologist” program with Zaid. Details and a full listing of related programs are at asia.si.edu/unearthingarabia.

Exhibition Highlights

On view through June 7, 2015, the exhibition recreates Phillips’ expedition through eyewitness videos, photos, field notebooks and more than 70 of the most important Yemeni artifacts outside of the country, dating from the eighth century B.C. to second century A.D. 

The exhibition includes a famed pair of striding Hellenistic bronze lions surmounted by a boyish rider. Known as the “Lions of Timna,” the skillfully cast sculptures—once featured on Yemeni currency—exemplify the vibrant artistic and cultural exchange between the Qatabans and Greeks, thanks to the cultivation and export of incense from Arabia to the Mediterranean world. The lions are inscribed with the names of their owners, offering researchers a glimpse into the life of Timna’s affluent inhabitants.

Also featured is an iconic translucent alabaster head of a young woman, with lapis lazuli eyebrows and an Egyptian hairstyle. Unearthed in the cemetery of Timna, the head was nicknamed “Miriam” by some of the Arab workers who discovered the artifact.

Other excavated objects include an exquisitely crafted gold necklace, carved incense burners, finely articulated funerary sculpture and a wealth of inscriptions that offer unprecedented insight into the life and times of the ancient people of Arabia.


This is the first time these rare Southern Arabian artifacts have been on view since the American Foundation for the Study of Man gifted 374 objects to the Sackler Gallery in 2013. The AFSM, which is currently based in Virginia, is dedicated to furthering archaeological and scientific work in Yemen. The Foundation is headed by Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, Phillips’ sister, who funded nine expeditions to Marib during 1997–2006.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.

the freer and sackler galleries

Exhibition Information

Unearthing Arabia
October 11, 2014–June 7, 2015
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

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As renovation work continues in the Freer Gallery, the Sackler Gallery also will close on July 10, 2017. This museum-wide closure will allow us to completely reinstall our exhibitions and revitalize features to improve your visit. Both spaces will reopen on October 14, 2017, when we will welcome the public back to the Freer|Sackler: two galleries, one destination. For your safety, all visitors will have their bags checked. See the complete list of restricted items and bag sizes.