Words don’t adequately describe Wendell Phillips. Archaeologist, adventurer, author, and paleontologist, the debonair explorer was America’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia—and quite possibly the inspiration for the swashbuckling Indiana Jones. When I came to the Freer|Sackler a few years ago and was assigned my first project, I had no idea who Wendell Phillips was or why his excavations in Yemen in the 1950s were so important.
In his mid-twenties—at an age when many of us nowadays are looking for our first full-time jobs—Phillips set off for southern Arabia, becoming one of the first archaeologists to excavate in what is now Yemen. One of the sites, the cemetery at Timna, yielded an unexpected and magical find when workers excavated an alabaster object that had been buried for thousands of years. The object revealed itself to be a perfectly intact funerary sculpture of a woman’s head.
This discovery shocked the local workers and seasoned archaeologists alike. Given the nickname “Miriam” because of her overwhelming beauty, the funerary bust was instantly a prized find. At the time of her creation, Miriam most likely had lapis lazuli eyes complemented by earrings and a gold necklace. Finding Miriam revitalized the dig team. A series of other great discoveries around the cemetery site soon followed, including a wonderful, intact gold necklace that was similar to what Miriam would have worn. After successfully unearthing hundreds of objects from sites in Timna and the surrounding areas, Wendell Phillips returned to the United States with these rare treasures and a wealth of research.
During my work with his collection, I had the pleasure of meeting Wendell’s younger sister, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson. An adventurer and archaeologist in her own right, Merilyn continued her brother’s work long after his death. She shared anecdotes about Wendell and how, as a teenager, she explored dig sites by his side. Whenever she regaled us with fascinating stories, I could feel how much Merilyn loved and admired her older brother and how much these objects mean to her today. Through her memories and experiences, I learned about people and distant places, and I gained an appreciation for a collection that I never would have seen outside the Sackler Gallery. Today, I look at the funerary bust of Miriam in a much different, brighter light.
In 2013 Merilyn Phillips Hodgson—and the organization Wendell founded, the American Foundation for the Study of Man—gifted 374 objects, including Miriam, to the Sackler Gallery as the Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection.