Why was I so determined to dig somewhere in South Arabia? For one thing, it was almost virgin territory. It had beckoned scholars and scientists for generations, but sand, drought, and native bullets had kept most of them away.… [Yemen] was rich with the spoils of time, and I wanted to unearth some of those riches, digging down through sand and centuries of a glorious past.
When Wendell Phillips first went on a reconnaissance trip to Yemen in 1949, few other archaeologists had ventured into the territory, where “time fell asleep.… and the husks of ancient civilizations were buried in the deep sand, preserved like flowers between the leaves of a book.” The Ottoman Turks had governed northern Yemen for centuries. Since 1832 British authorities had controlled the southern regions by establishing the so-called Aden Protectorate as a strategic point between England and its colonies in India. The Ottomans lost control of the north after World War I, and by 1950 the region was ruled by Imam Ahmed. Phillips was assured that working within the Aden Protectorate in the south safeguarded him from the political and tribal unrest in the north—an assessment that proved accurate. When Phillips and his team moved north to Marib to excavate the Awam Temple in 1951, the expedition was cut short by tribal unrest and unease at the presence of a foreign archaeological expedition. Fearing for their lives, the team hastily fled south across the protectorate’s border.