A quest worthy of a Hollywood epic

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‘Miriam’, a head of a woman carved in alabaster from the 1st century before Christ, appears in a gallery of artefacts discovered by Phillips in southern Arabia, now Yemen, in an exhibition of his discoveries at Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington. Photos by AFP

GROWING up in California in the 1950s, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson lived in awe of her big brother, a strapping young American adventurer on the trail of the biblical Queen of Sheba.

Wendell Phillips was in his mid-20s when he spearheaded his expedition into the southern Arabian desert of what is today Yemen, searching its shifting sands for relics of a civilisation that thrived 2,500 years before.

Several of his discoveries have just gone on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington, honouring his groundbreaking archaeological work in southern Arabia.

Pride of place goes to a fine alabaster bust of a young woman with a Mona Lisa smile and dazzling eyes that Phillips’ team named Miriam, and a pair of Greco-Roman lion statues that recall the region’s ties with ancient Rome.

“When I was little, Wendell used to come home with all these things,” Hodgson told AFP, seated amid those very same artefacts at the Freer-Sackler.

“We had the bronze lions and Miriam and different things in our living room,” she recalled, “and I thought, ‘Oh, this is terrible — we have no room!’”

Phillips, who decided at the age of 10 that he wanted to be an explorer, was just 54 when he died in 1975, but not before living a life worthy of a Hollywood epic.

Expedition in Africa

A student of palaeontology at the University of California, he went to sea with the US merchant marine in World War II before putting together his first expedition, a trek through Africa.

It was during that adventure that he met the Aga Khan, who suggested he set his sights on the lost cities of southern Arabia, places that had flourished amid the camel trade in frankincense in the first millennium before Christ.

Leading a convoy of Dodge trucks — the Detroit automaker was a major sponsor — and a blue-ribbon team of archaeologists and technicians, Phillips first set off for Timna, a key stop on the Incense Road between India and Mediterranean Europe.

“He wasn’t trained as an archaeologist, but clearly he was a man who was very passionate, very energetic,” curator Massumeh Farhad told AFP.

In photographs, Phillips looked as much a matinee idol as a mid-20th century explorer, standing tall alongside his Bedouin hosts in an Arab turban, khaki shirt and sarong, plus a revolver in a holster on his hip.

In 1951 Phillips and his team proceeded to the Queen of Sheba’s capital Marib to excavate its Awam Temple, a major centre of pilgrimage, in hopes of unearthing concrete evidence of her mythical life and times.

“Actually, all we really know about the Queen of Sheba is found in the Bible,” he wrote in Sheba’s Buried City, a paperback memoir of his adventures, published in 1955 but long out of print.

“Someday, archaeological research will confirm her existence and tell us more about her.”

‘My expedition’

Tribal conflicts forced Phillips to abandon his efforts, and he never returned to Yemen, although he kept up his ties to the Middle East as an oil concessionaire and trusted adviser to the Sultan of Oman.

He did, however, keep detailed notes from his expeditions, as well as a trove of black-and-white photographs and 16mm movies which feature prominently in the Freer-Sackler exhibition, which runs through June next year.

It fell on his sister to carry on his work to this day.

Reactivating his American Foundation for the Study of Man in 1982, Hodgson returned to Marib in 1998 at the invitation of the Yemeni authorities for the first of nine seasons of field work.

Instability in a corner of the Arabian Peninsula where al-Qaeda is active has since brought the foundation’s work to a halt, apart from periodic low-key visits to local Yemenis who guard the excavation site.

But Hodgson, who declined to give her age, is as eager as ever to return. “It’s my expedition,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “Nothing can happen unless I’m there.” — AFP

Left: A bronze sculpture of a pair of lions with riders dated from 75 BC to 50 BC is one of the artefacts discovered by Phillips..

Right: A notebook excavated by American adventurer Phillips in his expedition.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 15, 2014.