Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
This episode, we talk to another veteran scholar and ask them to share their memories from a long and successful career. I invite them to reflect on their career. How did they enter the field? What have been their key experiences and achievements? Who influenced them? What do they think about how things are now and what the future may hold?
Our guest draws on six decades of experience. He has worked on sites across the Middle East, as well as teaching at university. But he’s best known as a museum curator. He brought order to a large and complex collection, shedding light on long overlooked objects. His work digesting archival resources generated insights into objects we thought we knew well, as well as revealing the activities of some important characters in the early history of the field. He’s an innovator who has opened new areas of study.
Our guest is also an effective communicator. His books for a popular audience are still in print many years after they were written. And are standard works for students too. Long after his retirement, he remains research active, his latest book will appear soon, and is sure to race to the top of many colleagues’ list of things to read.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Julian Edgeworth Reade. And I’m a historian. The area I know best, and which I’ve worked on mostly, is in the middle of the ancient Near East, North Iraq. But my interests really go west to the Mediterranean and East to India. And I cover ancient history. That’s to say, mainly about 3000 BC to 500 AD, but especially the late Assyrian period, the period of the great Neo-Assyrian empire between about 900-600 BC.
How would you characterise your approach to the history of the ancient Middle East?
What I discovered when I began to study the ancient Middle East was two things. One was that there were enormous basic gaps in our knowledge. And so I set myself the task of filling them. I kept seeing elementary problems that hadn’t been properly addressed. Not very significant things in themselves, but ones which by accumulation were, in fact quite important. Things like chronology and geography. Where were particular places? When did things happen? And so quite a lot of my career has actually been spent getting things right.
Apart from that, obviously, I’m really more interested in why things happen, and the larger developments. Things like the Sumerian problem: where did the Sumerians come from, if anywhere? Or how did the Urartian state come into existence? A state that suddenly sprang out of nowhere, apparently. And that kind of problem was something that I used to find myself frequently trying to address and offer a solution to. Obviously, these were rather hypothetical things, but I have no time for elaborate theoretical digressions. They seem to me a lot of waste of time.
You’ve also done important work on modern scholars and how they’ve shaped our knowledge of the ancient world, haven’t you?
Well, of course, another element of this is the way in which people’s approach to the study of the ancient Near East has changed over the years. Basically, there have been three phases, I think, in the study of the ancient Near East. One was before the First World War, when there were a whole lot of huge expeditions discovering things in large quantities. And then there was a sort of process of rather more methodical study in the period between, let’s say, 1920 and 1950. And after that, things became more specialised. So I’ve been looking at how people approach these problems, and trying to take people’s ideas and fit them into a scheme that suits my own pattern of thinking.
I’d like to start by asking you how you became interested in the ancient Middle East?
Well, when I was a child, my family used to like going to historical sites and houses and that sort of thing. And I also had a traditional classical education, with lots of Greek and Latin and ancient history. And on a couple of holidays, when I was a teenager, I went once to Kenya and once to Cyprus. And that introduced me to the edge of the Islamic world. So I was always interested in ancient history. And I thought that there seemed to be a lot that wasn’t known, or I didn’t begin to know about the Middle East, on the edge of the classical world that I did know quite well. And so that’s how I became interested in it in the first place.
We used to visit ancient sites. And so I was also intrigued by the archaeology of the area. So I went on from school to university, still doing Greek and Latin. But I was really doing much the same sort of thing at university as I was doing at school. So halfway through my university career, I began to think about becoming a Middle Eastern archaeologist. There wasn’t any way of becoming that. There were a couple of courses I could have taken. One of the courses was called archaeology and anthropology. But that involved studying a whole lot of flints and pottery, and stuff, which I really wasn’t interested in. And the other course, which did cover the ancient Near East–the history and archaeology of Western Asia–also required me to learn yet another dead language: something like Hebrew or Akkadian. And so I didn’t actually do either of those. Instead, I chose to spend a year studying Arabic and Persian, which I found really a most valuable introduction to the ancient Near East. In later years, I was very glad that I did that.
Having developed an interest in the ancient Middle East, and with an education focused on languages, how did you then acquire the skills and experience in the archaeology of the region?
So I did do a bit of archaeology in practice in England. I went to work at Corbridge with someone called John Gillam, who was a very fine archaeologist, for a short time. And I also worked with Philip Rahtz at Cheddar. But that was the limit of my archaeological experience before I went to Iraq. So my archaeology was really all learned in the field. When I worked under David Oates at Nimrud and Tell Rimah. And I also worked with David French in Turkey.
How did you get on to those digs? Was it a matter of being introduced to David Oates, for example?
No, it was pure chance. When I left university, I was unemployed. And there were loads of jobs that were available at that time. And I didn’t have any university fees to pay back. Because in those days, university education for someone with a scholarship such as myself was free. And the kinds of jobs that were being offered had really no appeal to me. They were jobs that promised a good pension at the end. And at the age of 21, I said to myself, I’m really not interested in a pension. And so I didn’t take any of these offers. And I happened purely by chance, because of one person knowing another person knowing another person, to learn that the Nimrud expedition wanted volunteer helpers. I applied by letter, and they said, “Come along”.
The excavations at Nimrud must have been a pivotal moment in your early career.
Yes, as I said, I went to Nimrud as a volunteer completely by chance. Or almost complete. It was true to say that my Cambridge background was the kind of thing that made them think I might be a suitable person to accept as a volunteer. I learned about the excavation by chance, and I arrived as a stranger to everything about ancient Iraq. I didn’t know what a ziggurrat was. I didn’t know what a cylinder seal was. And this degree of ignorance was, in fact, in my mind a huge advantage, because I didn’t have a whole lot of preconceptions that had been taught to me at university. So I had to work out all these things for myself.
When I was on the dig, I was given various things to do. And at one stage, the excavation uncovered a huge pile of broken glazed bricks. There were about 200 of them. And they were all broken in three or four pieces. And no one knew what they might originally have looked like, except that they must have been fastened onto a wall, because they were all there in a single pile underneath a gateway. And I remember someone saying, “Oh, well, it’s impossible to put them together”. I was rather disconcerted by this negative defeatist attitude. And I said, “Well, I think I can try and do something with it”. And so I began putting a few of them together. And the director of the dig, David Oates, said to me, “Well, why don’t you spend a fortnight doing that and seeing if you actually can reconstruct this panel?” So that’s what I did. And so I sat there. It was raining, and sometimes it was sunny. I had a great vat of glue that helped me put them together. After a fortnight, David came back and said, “Well, how’s it going?” And I was then able to demonstrate to him, that there were enough pieces to show exactly how the panel worked. And that in theory, it could all be put together.
At that stage, he had to decide what to do with them. And he decided it was worth actually collecting them all and sending them to Baghdad. So that they could be put together as a single panel in the Iraq Museum. It was fortuitous that at that time, the Iraq Museum was about to move to new premises. The old museum that had been there since 1926, was about to be closed. And there was a lovely, great big new museum, which had to be filled. So there was space for my panel to go up there, where it indeed still stands. But of course, I’d only shown that the things could be put together in theory, that there seemed to be enough of them. And so what happened after the dig is that I had no personal commitments at all. And so I was kept on. And I spent two or three months in the Iraq Museum with all these broken bricks in a large room. And I laid them all out on the floor, and showed how they all fitted together. And then the Iraqi conservators did the actual work of gluing them together and putting them up in the new display.
I’d also been told, “Well, you’ll need to write this up”. And so I wrote an article describing the bricks and discussing elements of them and finding an interesting parallel at another site and that kind of thing. And so I sent this article off, together with drawings of the reconstructed panel. That seems to have been quite a success. And because I was there in Baghdad for three months on my own, basically I was staying in the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, which had a large old Ottoman house on the Tigris. And there was a man who cooked and looked after the house, and I was the only other resident. But what it also had was a library. And so I spent those two or three months, in the evenings, I read the library. And it was library of the ancient Near East. And so I discovered a whole lot of things, which basically gave me a university education on the ancient Near East.
Being at Nimrud, and in Baghdad and the Iraq Museum, you must have met some of the major characters. Could you say something about the scholarly community there at that time?
Well, that was another important part of my academic education. Because the Iraqis who were responsible for the archaeology at the time, it was the first generation of Iraqi archaeologists and scholars. And they were hugely welcoming and helpful. The person that knew everything was Fuad Safar, who had excavated at Eridu. Another person that knew everything was Muhammad Ali Mustafa, who was busy reconstructing the ruins of the great Parthian city of Hatra. And there was also an Assyriologist in charge of the department, called Taha Baqir. And he, I think it was, who published the quite famous tablet, which has a drawing on it, showing that the Old Babylonians were familiar with something rather than like the famous Pythagoras theorem.
So all these people were extremely helpful and friendly to me. And then what used to happen is that the British School acted as a sort of hotel, as well as a base for British archaeologists and scholars. So people passing through and staying at the School came from the United States, France, Italy. And many of them were people just visiting Iraq: people who were working in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria; people who wanted to visit Iraq and archaeologists of that kind. So there was a constant turnover of interesting people. And the ones that I met then, some of them have remained friends for life. People who are still active, I think of Mac Gibson in Chicago and Mogens Larsen in Copenhagen. And there are also many others who are no longer with us. And so the conversation at the dinner table was always concerned with antiquity and archaeology and people and so forth. So I learned an enormous amount from those people at the time.
As well as the big names, there were also some younger scholars, the next generation of Iraqis, for example. How about them?
Well, the next generation–people who were a bit older than myself–were also extremely friendly. My closest friend perhaps was Behnam Abu Souf, who made some very important discoveries about the earliest prehistoric sites in Iraq. And there was Tariq Madhloum, who had done a whole lot of work protecting the site of Nineveh from modern development, and who was in fact the first person to re-excavate Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, which had been excavated first by Layard in 1850. And he also excavated one of the gates of Nineveh and reconstructed it. And these people were establishing the antiquity of Iraq as something which was visible. They were demonstrating that these things which had just been mounds … ancient mounds … were really town-walls, and large, important structures, containing things like carved wall panels, and so forth. They were transforming the antiquity of Iraq to make it relevant to the Iraqi heritage.
So at this point, you have archaeological experience, and you’ve started to publish research. But before long, you started your PhD.
What David Oates told me was that if I wanted to stay in Middle Eastern archaeology, I really had to get a PhD. And he suggested that a suitable subject might be Assyrian sculptures. And so I had, by good fortune, discovered some drawings of Assyrian sculptures in a library in London, because most of the drawings were in the British Museum. That was extremely helpful to me, because I could then reach certain conclusions about the evolution of Assyrian sculpture, which hadn’t been possible before these drawings were discovered. Over the next few years, while I was working repeatedly on excavations in Iraq, and getting various sort of small fellowships and stuff that enabled me to continue to do so, I was also working on my PhD, which covered Assyrian public buildings and their decoration. In that way, I became familiar with that particular period of Assyrian history.
Your approach has always taken in cities as part of landscapes. And through that you developed an interest in canal systems, didn’t you?
Yes, well, there were these marvellous canals. And it was very difficult to visit them. They were quite near the city of Nineveh, modern Mosul, which was near Nimrud, and we could go there quite easily. But there was a persistent civil war going on between the government and the Kurdish population at that time. And it was very difficult to visit areas on the fringe between Arab and Kurdish settlements. And the canals came out of the hills into the plains, and they were in this sort of boundary area.
However, it was clear how interesting they were, and one could occasionally visit some of them. A lot of these canals were also provided with sculptures, which had been carved to celebrate the achievement of completing them. At one stage, I managed to discover a new set of sculptures along a new canal. That was a bit of a triumph and helped me establish how the canal system had been operating. Fortunately, in recent years, it’s become much easier for people to work there. And the information from things like satellite photography, quite apart from work on the ground, has vastly increased our knowledge of this area. And some of my original ideas have become somewhat outmoded. But it’s still possible to make interesting new discoveries.
With all your experience and education in hand, in the 1970s, you were successful in getting a long-term position in the field.
Yes, there was a problem, that I hadn’t been working on the history of Iraq very long before I realised that I wanted a job at the British Museum. But unfortunately, the person then in charge of the British Museum had a rather low opinion of me. And I had a very low opinion of him. And the result was that I couldn’t attempt to go and work there before he retired. But I did in fact manage to get an appointment after his retirement in 1975. Up to that time, I’d lived on various fellowships and so forth. At one stage, there were some small grants attached to the University of Cambridge, or at the end, I was the so-called “Wainwright Fellow in Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology” at the University of Oxford. But none of these were reliable long-term jobs. So I didn’t actually have a proper job until I was about 35 or 36.
In your position at the museum, you must have met many more colleagues. Could you say something about that, please? And maybe some of the individuals who had an impact on you?
Well, the British Museum, because of its wonderful collection of cuneiform tablets–and indeed, its wonderful other collections of archaeological objects–functioned a bit like the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, in that all the experts tended to visit. And there was the students room in the museum, where people read tablets. And we often used to go out to lunch together and discuss current problems, events and developments. And so that was a continuing education for me. There was one particular person, Wilfred Lambert, one of the finest Assyriological professors, who used to come down from Birmingham every Thursday. And people used to arrange especially to come in on Thursday, so that they could consult Lambert about particular points of interest. Of course, they were working in the students room, but they used to go out for lunch.
Other people? Well, another opportunity, which working at the museum gave me was to represent the museum at conferences abroad. That also enabled me to meet lots of other people and expand my interests. And people that I recall, in particular, that I met at conferences, were Peter Calmeyer, the great expert on early Persian iconography, who became a good friend. And Hayim Tadmor, the Israeli expert, especially on the history of Tiglath-Pileser. And I recall, our friendship was basically founded on a very long walk that we had together for about two hours in Berlin during one conference, when he and I discussed the particular location of places named in some of the Assyrian annals; place names, which traditionally had been moving all over the place because no one could work out where they were. And he and I were trying to sort it out.
Another person who I was amused to meet in retrospect, he was a very imposing character, much feared and disliked by some people–Wolfram von Soden, the author of the great Akkadian dictionary. And I was introduced to him about 1970 at one of my first conferences; actually, before I joined the BM. And he asked what I was studying. And uh, no, he didn’t ask what I was studying. I was introduced to him as a student. And he didn’t say, “What are you studying?” He said, “Who is teaching you?” Well, this was a bit odd to me, because the person teaching me in theory was a very good woman called Margaret Munn Rankin, who actually I hardly ever saw, because she was in Cambridge, and I was in Baghdad. And she had to report to the Cambridge authorities on the progress of my dissertation, which she loyally did for many years. Every six months or so I used to get a letter from her saying, “Dear Julian, are you making progress? I’ve got to make a report on your progress”. And she managed to go on making these reports very kindly for years, until my thesis was finally finished. But she didn’t actually really teach me much.
But von Soden asked me who was teaching me, whereas I thought the appropriate question of a student was, “What are you studying?” However, this was, I think, an example of the old medieval system whereby the student has a teacher, which I think is much more strongly embedded in the universities of continental Europe than it is in the United Kingdom. So I said, my teacher was Margaret Munn Rankin, and he looked slightly surprised and didn’t say anything more. But I had a rather nice experience with von Soden, which was that I wrote an article for his journal, the Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie, which he printed. And for some reason, it didn’t appear in the list of contents. And so, subsequently, I received a profoundly apologetic postcard from him. And I think I must be one of the very few people to whom von Soden ever apologised.
I’d like to come back to Nimrud, if we could. We’re familiar with the famous finds, the big names, and with some of the mythology around the excavations. What was it really like to work on those excavations in the 1960s?
I was talking about the British School, and indeed the British Museum, as places where I learned a lot from people passing through. Nimrud was a bit like that, in that respect, in that there was a whole range of people who used to come to the excavation, and the conversation around the dinner table was always about ancient history, and so forth. And that was hugely educational for me.
But Nimrud itself is, or was, one of the most beautiful sites I know. We used to go there in the spring. This was about the time of the first rains after a dry winter. And the site is rather impressively placed. It’s got a view to the west, to the sunset across the Tigris River. And to the north, you can see the snow on the mountains of Kurdistan. And it’s surrounded after the first rains by a huge expanse of greenery. Not only crops from the fields, but also wild flowers. And the wild flowers used to change all the time. And there would be birds and bees and all that stuff. And so it was a beautiful place to work in that respect. Sometimes it rained ferociously. There was that smell of damp, that permeated the tents from time to time. And then the sun would come out, the brilliant Iraqi sun. And in the evenings, sometimes we would sit on a terrace in front of the house looking towards the setting sun. And I recall on one occasion, one of my friends, Nicholas Kindersley, someone who was wonderful at looking after the cars. He said, “Oh, look, I think that’s a comet”. And it was only comet I’d ever seen. It was a very fine comet. And I later looked it up, and it did indeed pass by just about that time.
We used to live in tents, with two beds to a tent. So sometimes I shared, sometimes I was single. And we used to live in a mud brick house, which had been built by a previous director of the excavations. That’s Max Mallowan. Max with his wife, Agatha Christie, of course. And Max had always been insistent that his excavations should be comfortable. And so there was a cook, and there were servants. And it was very old fashioned in that respect.
The food was local. And my first impression of the food at Nimrud, I suppose, was my first breakfast there, the one that I remember, when there was this wonderful yogurt that arrived from the nearby village, the small modern village of Nimrud. It was brought by donkey. We ate it for breakfast with bread–circular flat pieces of Iraqi bread, cooked by the wife of the guard. And so it was very nice in that respect. We were comfortably looked after. And when the floods came, all the people in the local villages would go up from the floodplain of the Tigris and gather together on and around the mound. And so one thought one was really in a time warp, in the sense that this was the kind of thing that had been happening there for many, many centuries. Which of course no longer happens with all the dams that have been built across the river.
In addition to the director, the visiting archaeologists like yourself, and the servants, there were also the local dig teams. Can you tell us something about them, please?
The Iraqi workmen were in two groups. One was the Shergatis. The Shergatis were men who came from the village of Shergat, not very far away, which was beside the site of the ancient Assyrian capital city of Ashur. And that had been excavated by a man called Andrae in the early 1900s. And he had trained his workmen in the art of recognising mud brick, and working carefully identifying floors and that kind of thing. Andrae was a brilliant archaeologist, and the Shergatis carried on the tradition which he had initiated, and they became skilled workmen at excavations all over the country. So we had maybe 15 Shergatis working for us, and each of them on the site would be in charge of one small group of local men. And the Shergati would do the skilled digging. And the local men would carry the earth away to dumps.
Of course, when I arrived, I knew absolutely nothing. I was put in a trench with someone called Saleh Hussein Dakhil, a Shergati who had originally worked for the Chicago excavations in the 1930s. And he basically showed me how to recognise mud brick. Because these buildings are made of mud bricks, which when they decay turn back to mud. And the rooms get full of the fallen mud bricks. So you’ve got to distinguish between the fallen mud brick and the brick of the wall, which is of course properly laid. And that was the kind of skill which Saleh Hussein and other skilled Shergatis had, and which they enjoyed teaching to beginners like me.
Another thing that Shergatis were doing was excavating the ivories. Because at that stage, there were large numbers of ivories that were being excavated from a couple of store rooms at Nimrud. And these were very delicate items, sometimes beautifully carved. And there were a couple of Shergatis who were particularly good at doing the excavation of these things: Doula Taleb and Saleh Mohamed al-Musla. And they would dig them up, and wet, they would be quite delicate. Then those ivories would be taken back to the house. And we had conservators, women from the Institute of Archaeology–including Nanina Shaw, to whom I was later married–who were there in order to clean the ivories in the house. Another was Ann Searight, who is now a distinguished illustrator.
After Nimrud, you went on to direct excavations of your own at the site of Tell Taya.
Yes, well, what’s happened is that David Oates, who was director at Nimrud, in fact then went on to excavate a site called Tell Rimah, somewhere else in northern Iraq. And I went along and helped on that one. It was in an area called the Sinjar plain, with lots of ancient sites. And whereas Nimrud had really been a site of the early first millennium BC, Tell Rimah was most important in the second millennium. David’s work there produced a whole lot of very important information about that period. Well, there was then the third millennium. And it was clear from the number of sites that there had also been an important urban civilisation in the area in the third millennium. And I had the opportunity of excavating one of the third millennium city sites, Tell Taya.
It was a town which had expanded very rapidly. And so the town plan was still visible on the surface, because there the walls had been made of stone with mud brick on top of them. And after the mud brick had eroded, the stone was still visible. And one could see the entire plan of the outer town apart from the middle, radiating out from the centre. What I was able to do was to establish, for the later third millennium, the kind of information on the urban environment, the local culture, that Oates had done with Tell Rimah for the second millennium.
One of the disappointments is that Oates at Rimah had succeeded in finding a whole lot of cuneiform tablets, which were from the same period as those from Mari in Syria, and which threw a whole lot of light on one particular period. I was rather hoping that I would find tablets at Tell Taya. I didn’t do so. It so happens that our good friend Paolo Matthiae, who excavated in Syria, in a site of about the same period, did find tablets. It was what I was looking for at Taya.
Do you have any ideas about why no tablets were found there at a site like that?
I have since developed a theory about this. Because it’s well known that in the second and first millennia, there weren’t only clay tablets incised with cuneiform. But also that there were large numbers of board books … tablets … which were made out of wood with wax covering. In fact, the number of those must have been enormous. It seems to me not unlikely that in the second and third millennia, there were also similarly large numbers of records of this kind, which have not survived in the same way that clay did.
There’s a similar problem with civilisations like the Indus civilisation, which was clearly literate, and which has a system of writing, which is well attested on seals. But there is next to nothing in the way of written records surviving. We know that there are things like paper or bark, which one can use as a writing material, and presumably something like that was used in the Indus civilisation. And I rather think that there were alternative media on which writing was employed in northern Iraq, before clay became dominant. As with so many things, it has to be a hypothesis.
As a curator, you had a gift for finding things that people had forgotten about, and using resources that people had ignored, to discover all sorts of interesting new information.
Well, I had a great advantage when I came to the British Museum. Because I was actually, I think, the first person employed there, who had had a long experience of working in the field in Iraq. John Curtis had been in Iraq for a short time. But I’d been there for several years, and I had been there for 13 years off and on before I came to the museum. And so I knew much more about the kind of things which might be interesting. And there were lots of bits and pieces in the museum that hadn’t really been looked at by someone with experience of field conditions.
For instance, one of the first things I was asked to do was to look after Dan Barag, an expert on glass, who was preparing a catalogue of ancient glass. And he said to me, “Well, can you find any more? This is what I’ve got”. And I looked around the department, and I found several more groups of glass, which was in a rather decayed state. And which had not been recognised as glass, when people had originally been collecting the material for Barag to study. That was the kind of expertise that I had actually acquired in the field, which gave me an advantage in looking at the collections.
The other thing is that there is a huge amount of documentation in the BM about the old excavations. It’s not in good order, because it used to be kept basically in chronological order. People would write reports, and they were stored in chronological order. And the whole business of collecting them together was time-consuming. And no one had had the time to do it. I was asked to provide some background for a catalogue of some cuneiform tablets that had been excavated about 1878 to 1880. So I went off to the central archive of the museum, and I discovered their lists and details, which hadn’t been really available to people studying them in the department itself. And so I was able to put together an account of those excavations and answer a number of questions about them. Simply by looking at the old archives.
Within the collection, there were things that hadn’t been understood, or that had been ignored. There was one thing I remember which was a cuneiform tablet. Well, it wasn’t exactly a cuneiform tablet. It was one of the earliest examples of writing, not on clay, but on gypsum in fact. It hadn’t been recognised as a written tablet at all. I had a great advantage because when I joined the museum, one of the practices was that the latest arrival should be given responsibility for what was called “keeping the register”. That was to say, recording all the things which were coming into the museum and making a formal entry of their arrival. I took that to mean that I should check that all the register was in order. And I found that there were a whole number of areas in which extra work was needed to ensure that the collection was properly and formally recorded. That really involved me in looking through the entire archaeological collection. And indeed quite a lot of the tablets.
There was a spectacular example of that, wasn’t there?
In the course of acting as registrar with responsibility to make sure that everything was properly recorded, I discovered that there had been a peculiar practice in the mid 19th century, of placing objects on display before they had been properly recorded. So if something really nice came in, it went straight into a case for everyone to look at. And it missed out on the process of official recording. So as a result, there were some rather fine things whose date of arrival, even provenance. was unknown. At the same time, there were some things whose date of arrival was known, but which hadn’t been properly recorded. One of my most satisfying moments was to make the formal register entry in the Museum of the arrival of its two largest human headed winged Assyrian lions, which had actually arrived in 1852, but which were only recorded formally in about 1990.
Other examples were less dramatic, but nonetheless very important.
Another thing that happened to me when I first joined the museum was that I was instructed to take charge of the departmental contribution to a museum wide exhibition of jewellery. And in the course of doing that, I discovered that there was one group of beads imported from India to the Royal Tombs of Ur. They were very distinctive. They were made by a special technique, bleached carnelian beads. And they had also been rather poorly recorded. And so I put together a short catalogue of these beads, both those from the museum and those from elsewhere and published it. That was the beginning of my involvement in the connection between Mesopotamia, between ancient Iraq and the Persian Gulf and India, which ultimately resulted in my working in the Sultanate of Oman, and even discovering at Ras al-Hadd an ancient site with material from the Indus Valley civilisation, at a harbour in the Sultanate of Oman.
You also shed light on the collection through researching the personalities around the museum in the 19th and 20th century, didn’t you?
The person that had found a large number of the tablets was a man called Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi. He had fallen out in a big way with a man called Wallis Budge, who later became head of the department in the museum. The reasons why they fell out and their personalities were of considerable interest to me. So I took the opportunity of researching and writing about both of them. And of course, the way in which these quarrels work is that they affect the recording and publication of antiquities. For instance, Budge was very much against some individuals, and therefore he suppressed the work that they had done. And he pretended that one of Rassam’s most important discoveries had been found in a completely different place. So there are a whole lot of these … these personal issues, which seem terribly trivial now, but which were very important at the time, to the individuals concerned, and which actually affected how the collections were presented and published.
One of the areas for which you’re best known is that of the Assyrian palace reliefs. In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion around how best to display them. Do you have thoughts on that subject?
Yes, it’s really difficult. The British Museum has these large collections of wall reliefs. And about 1970, the rooms containing them were redecorated. The man then in charge, Barnett, thought that he would use a red colour on the walls around the reliefs, which was a good Assyrian colour. Then, about 30 years later, John Curtis, who was then in charge, decided that actually, it would be better to change that red to grey. And the extraordinary thing is that Curtis was absolutely right in this, because the red colour had distracted the eye from the carved panels. And by making the walls grey, the panels became more prominent, and the eye was not distracted in the same way. It was an interesting example of how the surroundings of an antiquity actually affect how one looks at it.
Well, the problem with the Assyrian sculptures is that they were originally painted. They’ve lost their paint, and unless they’re very skilfully lit, they tend to look rather flat, because they’re in quite low relief. And they can even look just little more than wallpaper. I’ve never had a clear idea of how best to display them. But the museum in a recent exhibition was experimenting with different forms of lighting, to suggest different colours on some of the panels. And that I thought was extremely successful. There are many things that can be done on those lines, particularly with modern digital possibilities. And goodness knows how the question of display will evolve. I mean, I know some people who are busy making virtual walkthroughs, whereby one can put a whole series of panels on walls onto a screen, and you can then walk through the room without visiting a museum at all. In theory, you could have a close-up view of all the pieces. This, of course, makes the museum itself almost superfluous. And maybe that’s how things will eventually develop.
Do you have a preference for how they’re displayed in general? I mean here, should they be shown in their architectural contexts as long ranges of complex narratives unfolding? Or do you think there’s room for presenting them as art objects with single panels, bits, coloured and interpreted?
This is a complicated issue, because of course, the object changes its nature. I had the opportunity to accompany a big exhibition of Assyrian wall panels, which were being exhibited around the world in different places. And it was very interesting to see how the different museums that were borrowing this exhibition, displayed them in different ways. Some of them presented them as long walls, and some of them presented them, so far as they could, as individual objects. Both methods were very interesting, and they each had their advantages. I really don’t know which is right. If you’ve got a small fragment, it’s very easy to turn it into an art object. It acquires its own personality in isolation. It can be good to look at, but it’s no longer performing its original function as part of a large and complicated sequence of compositions.
Is there a piece of work that you’re particularly proud of?
I can’t help thinking that my book on Assyrian sculpture, which was about 1985 or so, which is still in print, and which tried to present the Assyrian sculptures in a way that was comprehensible to the general public, as well as being correct, as a scholarly presentation, I think that perhaps is the best thing I’ve done.
You have a new book coming out soon, don’t you, on the palace of Ashurbanipal?
The palace of Ashurbanipal? Yes, indeed, that’s in press now. So I hope it will be a success. It’s an example of what I’ve so frequently found myself doing, of taking a whole lot of information that hasn’t been properly understood, or is rather muddled, or is defective, and trying to put it together into a new and more satisfactory pattern. Which can then be used as a building block for further understanding of how the Assyrian Empire worked and how people moved; how the Assyrian king saw himself. Because until you’ve actually got the environment in which he lived, like Louis XIV at Versailles, you can’t really begin to appreciate what he was looking at himself, and therefore how he saw himself.
Finally, although nobody can predict the future, do you have a sense of where the field may be going? Is there something that gives you cause for hope or optimism?
Well, of course, it goes in both directions, you get vandalism on the one hand, and on the other hand, you get wonderful work being done by some very enterprising scholars. Both the traditional European and American ones, but also, of course, the younger Iraqi scholars. And you also have people from other cultures, Japan, China, also beginning to look into the history of the ancient Near East. How that may evolve is something I would not care to predict.
Thank you very much.
I’d also like to thank our patrons: Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Michael Katsevman, Mend Mariwany, Kathryn Topper, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Sophus Helle, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Jonathan Stökl, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Heather Baker, Sukanya Ramanujan, Laura Battini, Jonathan Blanchard Smith, Vanessa Richards, Kliment Ohr, TT, Christina Tsouparopoulou, Andrew Senior, Melanie Gross, Adam, Claire Weir, Marc Veldman, Bruno Biermann, Faimon Roberts, Kim Benzel, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.
I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.
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