This insanely gorgeous home has an amazing story behind it.
Fonthill was the home of the American archeologist and tile maker Henry Chapman Mercer, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Built between 1908 and 1912, it is an early example of poured-in-place concrete and features 44 rooms, over 200 windows, 18 fireplaces and 10 bathrooms. The interior was originally painted in pastel colors, but age and sunlight have all but eradicated any hint of the former hues. It contains much built-in furniture and is embellished with decorative tiles that Mercer made at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement. It is filled with an extensive collection of ceramics embedded in the concrete of the house, as well as other artifacts from his world travels, including cuneiform tablets discovered in Mesopotamia dating back to over 2300 BCE. The home also contains around 1,000 prints from Mercer’s extensive collection, as well as over six thousand books, almost all of which were annotated by Mercer himself.
More images (by Karl Graf)
Wait—let me see if I’ve got this right. Mercer used cuneiform tablets as decoration in his concrete walls?
Oh my god, this is like a horror story. It’s a perfect illustration of the entitlement the West had—and still has—when it comes to artifacts, culture, and history. And this is the sort of entitlement rampant in the 19th and 20th centuries that created a world where, if you want to see ancient artifacts from the Middle East or Africa, you’re better off visiting Europe or the US, rather than the Middle East or Africa.
I’m just especially heartbroken over the tablets. Most cuneiform tablets have writing on both the obverse and reverse, and often on sides as well. By setting the tablets in concrete, Mercer effectively obliterated more than half of history of each tablet. That is truly, truly heartbreaking. I mean, it’s like finding copies of ancient Greek and decided, “Hey, let’s make book art!” and cutting and shredding the manuscripts without checking to see if the manuscripts happen to be, I dunno, the complete works of Pliny the Elder.
Much of the finding, scavaging, and peddling of ancient artifacts was, and remains, hella sketchy. One of the most painful and frustrating things of being in my field is that for every fragmentary text, we know that there’s a chance that there’s a complete copy somewhere out there in the world—either being ferried throughout the world in the black market, or languishing in some private collector’s home, being used as wall art or as a tile. A fucking tile. Embedded in concrete.
In a perfect world, artifacts would all go where they belong—which would be back to their places of origins. In a less perfect world, artifacts are cared for by experts in museums and at universities, where scholars can see the entire artifact, in its original state.
In a hellish world, artifacts are sold to the highest bidder, to be dismantled and destroyed, because that’s how non-Western cultures are treated—as pretty pieces of art to be purchased and changed at will, by those with the money and power to do so.
And yeah, it’s awesome when there are exhibits to teach the public about history—but there needs to be a conversation about how Western museums and universities got these artifacts, and from where these artifacts came.