European archaeologists were digging in the ancient Near East before the age of Napoleon. Americans, by contrast, were latecomers. The United States did not launch its first formal archaeological expedition in the Near East until the late 1880s, when an odd collection of scholars, soldiers of fortune, educational bureaucrats and financiers organized an excavation at the Mesopotamian site of ancient Nippur. Sponsored by a group of wealthy Philadelphia-based investors known as the Babylonian Exploration Fund (BEF), the team spent the last dozen years of the 19th century excavating Nippur, a Babylonian religious center in the third and early second millennium B.C. Their efforts yielded both a spectacular ancient library and one of the bitterest academic disputes of the early 20th century.
Although a large and colorful cast of characters was involved in planning and executing the Nippur dig, one man eventually became synonymous with the project: the brilliant, self-destructive German-born Assyriologist Hermann Hilprecht.