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COLLECTION Identifier: HUG 1541

Papers of David Gordon Lyon


David Gordon Lyon (1852-1935), was a Hollis Professor of Divinity (1882-1910) and a Hancock Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages (1910-1922) at Harvard University. He was the founder and first curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum from 1892 to 1922. He served as honorary curator of the museum from 1922 to 1931.


  • 1861, 1872-1935


Conditions on Use and Access

Permission of the Harvard University Archives is required for access to the Papers of David Gordon Lyon. Please see the reference staff for further details.


6.5 cubic feet (16 document boxes, 1 portfolio box, 1 card file box, 1 record carton)

The Papers of David Gordon Lyon chiefly document his studies in the history, language, and antiquities of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. These papers include biographical materials, correspondence, lectures, writings, teaching materials, and photographs of Lyon's archeological excavations. Papers relating to administrative issues at Harvard are a minor part of the collection; however, there are such materials in the Subject Files series.


David Gordon Lyon, Hollis Professor of Divinity (1882-1910) and Hancock Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages (1910-1922), was a noted Assyriologist and scholar of Semitic languages and culture.

Lyon was born on May 24, 1852 in Benton, Alabama to Doctor Isaac Lyon and Sarah Caroline (Arnold) Lyon. His undergraduate education began at William Jewell College (1869-1872) and continued at Howard College (1872-1875) where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. An interest in Hebrew and other Semitic languages lead Lyon to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1876-1879) and to the University of Leipzig (1879-1882). At Leipzig, Lyon took special courses in Semitic philology and he developed an interest in Assyrian research. His doctoral thesis, Keilschrifttexte Sargons Königs von Assyrien, included the cuneiform text, translation, and a commentary on the inscriptions of Sargon, King of Assyria.

Lyon had a long and distinguished career at Harvard University. He became the first professor of Assyriology in the United States when he was appointed the Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School. In 1910, Lyon became the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages. He served as chairman of the Division of Semitic Languages and History from 1910 to 1922. In 1901, he was given an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

During his forty years at Harvard, Lyon lectured extensively on the history and culture of Assyria and Babylon. He offered courses in the Old Testament, the History of Israel, Assyrian antiquities, and cuneiform inscriptions. Moreover, he taught a number of linguistic courses that included the study of Hebrew, Assyrian, Syriac, and Aramaic languages. Lyon became noted for his research and writings about Semitic language and culture. He helped to establish the Division of Semitic Languages and History at Harvard and through his singular efforts Harvard became the first university in the United States to engage in excavations in Palestine.

Lyon's interests were not confined to the Bible and Semitic philology. He was also interested in the archaeology of the Near East. As a result, in the late 1880's, Lyon conceived the idea of establishing a Semitic Museum at Harvard University. In 1887, he obtained the funding to purchase two collections of Babylonian tablets, items which later became the nucleus of his new museum. In 1890, Lyon began what became a forty-year quest, the purchase of archaeological artifacts from Europe and the Middle East. During his tenure as curator of the Museum (1891-1922), Lyon oversaw the design and construction of the museum building and the development of its collections. He solicited funds for books, excavations, exhibits, publications, and staff. In 1922, upon retirement from Harvard, he was made honorary curator of the museum and served in this capacity until 1931.

In his addition to his duties at Harvard, Lyon served as Director of the American School for Oriental Research in Jerusalem from 1906 to 1907. As director, he traveled to Palestine and oversaw the excavations at Samaria. Over the years, Lyon continued to assist and promote the archaeological exploration of the Middle East, and in 1927, with the cooperation of the Fogg Art Museum, Lyon helped organize the Harvard-Baghdad School Expedition to Nuzi, near Kirkuk, Iraq.

Although Lyon was recognized as one of the foremost Semitic scholars in the country, he did not write widely on the topic. Some of his more prominent publications were An Assyrian Manual for the Use of Beginners in the Study of the Assyrian Language (1886), Harvard Excavations of Samaria, 1908-1910 (1924), and Studies in the History of Religion (1912). Lyon also published studies of the Hammurabi Code (1904, 1912) and translations of ancient Hebrew tablets that were discovered in Palestine (1930). Finally, Lyon served as an editor for the Harvard Semitic Series from 1912 to 1934.

Lyon was a member of the American Oriental Society and served as its recording secretary from 1886 to 1895. He was correspondence secretary (1894-1899) and president (1910) of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis. Lyon was also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1883, Lyon married Tosca Woehler of Leipzig, Germany. Tosca died in 1904. In 1910, Lyon married Mabel Everett Harris. Mabel died in 1931. David and Mabel had one son: David Gordon Jr.

David Gordon Lyon died on December 4, 1935 after a brief illness.

David Gordon Lyon was noted for his exacting standards and his attention to detail. He was considered a kindly and dignified southern gentlemen. He commanded the respect of acquaintances and friends and was popular among his students. His religious upbringing made a lasting impression upon Lyon and he became a devout member of the Baptist Church. He wrote poetry and prose in his private moments and was devoted to his family. In 1934, Lyon was honored by the Semitic Museum when his portrait was hung among those of the founders of the institution, a gift from his many friends, colleagues, and former students.

References used for this biography were:

  1. Pfeiffer, Robert H., George H. Chase, William Thomson.Memorial Minute: David Gordon Lyon.Harvard University Gazette (February 15, 1936) : 93-94.
  1. Pfeiffer, Robert H. (1944). David Gordon Lyon. In Dictionary of American Biography Supplements 1-2: To 1940. American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958. Retrieved February 23, 2004, from Biography Resource Center database.
  1. Professor Lyon to Retire.Harvard Alumni Bulletin, 1 December 1921, 222.

Series and Sub-series in the Collection

  1. Biographical Materials
  2. Correspondence
  3. Lectures
  4. Subject Files
  5. Photographs of Harvard Excavations at Samaria
  6. Teaching Materials
  7. Writings

Obsolete Call Numbers

The following list provides a map to old call numbers that were eradicated by the archivist during the 2004 consolidation. All the papers of David Gordon Lyon now fall under the single call number HUG 1541.

  1. HUG 1541 Letters: moved to Correspondence series.
  2. HUG 1541.5 Correspondence and papers, ca. 1873-1878: moved to Biographical and Subject Files series.
  3. HUG 1541.5.3 Correspondence, general, ca. 1894-1930, alphabetical file: moved to Correspondence series.
  4. HUG 1541.5.5 Correspondence and papers, special folders, ca. 1882-1935: moved to Correspondence, Subject Files, and Biographical series.
  5. HUG 1541.7 Correspondence and other papers related to the admission of Jews to Harvard, ca. 1922: moved to Subject Files.
  6. HUG 1541.10 Journals: moved to Biographical series.
  7. HUG 1541.15 Student papers of D.G. Lyon: moved to Biographical series.
  8. HUG 1541.20 Notes for lectures, addresses, and sermons, ca. 1885-1931: moved to Lectures and Writings series.
  9. HUG 1541.22 Notes for Adad-Nirari tablet of Semitic Museum: moved to Writings.
  10. HUG 1541.25 Papers regarding Harvard and Radcliffe Courses: moved to Teaching Materials.
  11. HUG 1541.30 Relations of Jacob H. Schiff to Harvard University: moved to Writings series.
  12. HUG 1541.31 Notebook containing prose and poetry: moved to Biographical series.
  13. HUG 1541.35 The Choice of a Profession: moved to Writings series.
  14. HUG 1541.40 Box of photographs taken in the field: moved to Harvard Excavations at Samaria and Biographical series.
  15. HUG 1541.45 Miscellaneous MSS., ca. 1917-1926: moved to Writings series.
  16. HUG 1541.50 Notes on classical studies in the handwriting of Mabel Harris Lyon: moved to Teaching Materials series.
  17. HUG 1541.75 Reprints: moved to Writings series.

Acquisition Information

The Papers of David Gordon Lyon were donated to the Harvard University Archives by Doctor Theodore Sprague. A small group of writings and material related to the admission of Jews to Harvard found in the Papers of Harry A. Wolfson were relocated to this collection. Letters (1884-1913) were purchased by the Archives in 1939.

Online access

Some of photographs and diaries in this collection have been digitized and are available online. Links to digital images accompany photograph and diary descriptions.

Related Material

Search HOLLIS (Harvard's online library system) for works by and about David Gordon Lyon.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2019 July 15.

Processing Note

Re-processed May 2004 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.

Re-processing included the consolidation of materials cataloged under seventeen separate call numbers, re-housing materials in the appropriate containers, establishment of series and subseries hierarchy, and the creation of this finding aid. The archivist placed the documents into acid-free folders, re-housed the materials into archival document boxes, and examined the folder contents to establish the date of the material. Call numbers beyond the base call number were eliminated. A list of these obsolete call numbers appears at the end of the finding aid.

Details about the re-processing and arrangement of each series are noted below.

Lyon, David Gordon, 1852-1935. Papers of David Gordon Lyon : an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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