The few authentic antiquities that arrived on American shores prior to the late nineteenth century came almost entirely through opportunistic acquisitions of American military men and missionaries, such as Bowdoin’s own Henri Byron Haskell (1830–1864). Following his graduation from Bowdoin in 1855, Haskell took up missionary work in Mosul (in present day Iraq), then part of the Ottoman Empire. There he was well positioned to frequent the recently uncovered archaeological site of Nimrud, where British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard had recently uncovered the ancient Neo-Assyrian palace complex of the King Ashurnassirpal II. Haskell’s letters to Professor Parker Cleaveland, which are housed in Bowdoin’s Special Collections & Archives, document his enthusiasm for encountering these reliefs and pursuing a major gift for his alma mater. He ultimately arranged for five reliefs to be sent to the College.
On arrival at Bowdoin in 1860, the five monumental relief slabs were placed in the entrance to the College’s chapel, where they set a prominent precedent for the appreciation of ancient art. Over the century to come, the College’s collection of antiquities from the Mediterranean and ancient near East would grow from these five foundational gifts to a remarkable collection of nearly two thousand objects, encompassing marble and bronze sculpture and figurines, Greek painted vases, Roman glass, numismatics, and many other categories of ancient art and artifacts.