Loftus, William Kennett
- Richard Smail
Loftus, William Kennett (c. 1821–1858), archaeologist and traveller, was born at Rye, Sussex, the son of William Kennett Loftus (d. c.1860), a lieutenant in the Durham light infantry, and his first wife. He was the grandson of a well-known coach proprietor of the same name in Newcastle upon Tyne. He was educated successively at Newcastle grammar school, at a school at Twickenham, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where, however, he took no degree. He acted for some time as secretary to the Newcastle Natural History Society, and his interest in geology attracted the attention of Professor Sedgwick and afterwards of Sir Henry De la Beche. Sedgwick proposed him as a fellow of the Geological Society, and De la Beche recommended him to Lord Palmerston for the post of geologist on the staff of Sir William Fenwick Williams on the Turco-Persian frontier commission. On this work Loftus was engaged from 1849 to 1852.
While the other members of the commission travelled to Muhammarah (the scene of the original border dispute) by boat, Loftus and his friend Henry Adrian Churchill (1828–1886), together with a detachment of troops, rode across the desert and marshes of Chaldaea from the Euphrates to the lower Tigris. On this journey Loftus observed the ruins of many sites which were later identified as biblical cities, including al-Muquayyar (Ur), Warka (Uruch or Erech), and Sankara (Ellasar). Williams was impressed by their reports and allowed Loftus to return to Warka to excavate for three weeks. He subsequently sent back finds, including some glazed ‘slipper’ coffins from the Parthian cemetery, and a report to the British Museum.
In 1853 Loftus returned to Warka to dig for three months under the auspices of the newly created Assyria Excavation Fund and gained an understanding of the size and complexity of the site. He discovered more coffins and important cuneiform tablets, and partly excavated some proto-Sumerian walls and the great Parthian temple. From Warka he moved to Sankara which Sir Henry Rawlinson, the learned political agent at Baghdad to whom Loftus sent any inscribed material which he discovered, identified as Larsa, the Ellasar of the Bible. Other important finds were made at Tell Sifr. In 1855 Loftus returned to England with material including over eighty tablets and a variety of vases and metal objects which were sent to the British Museum. He was then appointed to the geological survey of India, but his health broke down from sunstroke, following on repeated attacks of fever while in Assyria, and he was ordered to Rangoon to recuperate. Owing partly to the interruption of the survey by the mutiny, he embarked for England on the Tyburnia in November 1858, and died on board on 27 November within a week of starting, from the effects of an abscess of the liver, leaving a widow, Charlotte.
Loftus has been described by H. V. F. Winstone as 'the most underestimated of nineteenth century explorers and excavators. His work was thorough and his interpretation of finds scholarly'. In 1852 he issued a volume of lithographs of cuneiform inscriptions, without a title, and in 1857 he published Travels and Researches in Chaldaea and Susiana. This book caused a new burst of enthusiasm in America, France, and Britain for properly financed and organized excavations in the lower regions of Mesopotamia; it was reprinted in 1971. He also contributed papers to the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1851, 1854, and 1855, and to the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 and 1857. Plants collected by him were sent to the herbaria at Kew and at the British Museum, and some antiquities were presented by him to the Newcastle Museum.
- GM, 3rd ser., 6 (1859), 435
- R. Welford, Men of mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed, 3 (1895), 66–72
- H. V. F. Winstone, Uncovering the ancient world (1985)
- S. Lloyd, Foundations in the dust, new edn (1980), 131–40
- Proceedings [Royal Geographical Society], 3 (1858–9), 259
- A. H. Layard, Nineveh and Babylon (1853), 545
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1859)
- photograph, Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society
Wealth at Death
under £5000: administration with will, 1 April 1859, CGPLA Eng. & Wales