Of Museums, Foxes… and Cuneiform

By Ivo Dos Santos Martins

When the last rays of sun were rolling out, as the days grew cold, the trees unfolded and the lectures and borrels began in Leiden, I found myself lost in London. I have flown across the Channel to enjoy a two-month-long self-imposed academic exile in this Babylon-on-Thames in the wake of a “mad” king.

The Fighting Téméraire last port-of-call

I was based on the borough of Southwark for the duration, not very far from the 00o00’ 00” meridian. This part of London has a suburban feeling to it. Being a suburban boy, I quite enjoyed the neighbourhood. It is so peaceful and quiet that foxes cross the streets during the day just as freely as they do at night [Fig. 1].

Fig. 1 – A fox in broad daylight.

I was able to visit a few of the many public parks London has to offer: Greenwich [Fig. 2], St. James, Southwark, Hyde Park etc. These are all excellent green oases in the heart of this Babylon-on-Thames. And yet, I confess that I liked the smaller and unknown Russia Dock Woodland park and its Stave Hill [Fig. 3] better, as it often served as scenery for my sleepless nights.

Fig. 2 – Greenwich Park
Fig. 3 – Stave Hill

Moreover, the neighbourhood is steeped in history. During the last two centuries, this area was a lively commercial port welcoming inbound ships from Canada, Russia etc. It was also here that the HMS Téméraire, a ship-of-the-line which fought at Trafalgar, found its last port-of-call and was dismantled in 1838. Nowadays, the docks are either drained and turned into parks or have simply become leisure wharves; while the Fighting Téméraire’s last voyage lives on eternalised by the lively strokes of Turner [Fig. 4].

Fig. 4 – The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken. Painting by William Turner, now in the National Gallery.

There and back again: the routine

Each day I cross the clayish waters of the Thames to the heart of London. I spend my days around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, but mostly around Russel Square. After roughly one hour of commuting, I reach the square around eight a.m. Both the SOAS Library and the British Museum are still closed, so I bide my time reading at the Square or in a nearby café. At nine in the morning, I enter SOAS Library to continue my work in a more quiet place.

Alas, by 10:15 a.m. I must be on the move making my way to the British Museum [Fig. 5]. I still need to go through security and on no circumstance will I be late for the rare chance to read a twenty five hundred year old piece of history. As is to be expected, security is a big concern at the museum. All visitors and their bags are thoroughly checked every time they enter.

Fig. 5 – The colonnade of the British Museum

Within the museum, the same zealous attention applies. It has been somewhat tricky to access the Middle East Reading Room at the British Museum, as the shop, which serves as an antechamber to this Reading Room, is officially closed. Often, the security personnel deniesstudents access or locks the doors while the students are still inside the room.

Thankfully, the Reading Room staff has been equally zealous in solving the situation. It will surely be solved from November onwards, once the new exhibition opens its doors.

Once I gain access to the Reading Room, I take my place on one of the long old wooden tables. In front of me, there is always a small black mat, a lamp, and a large upholstered wooden tray labelled with my name. On it, there are fifteen clay tablets or fragments. Most objects have their own cardboard box, in which they rest upon a cotton bed. Some bigger objects such as joined literary tablets or cylinders lack such a box. Curiously, students are only required to wear gloves when handling metal objects and pottery sherds. When handling tablets made of clay, such precaution is not observed.

What lays ahead are five and a half hours to study, copy and read millenary royal inscriptions, literary fragments of wisdom and historical writings that show but a glimpse of political and intellectual world of Babylon during the first millennium BCE.

As if that was not enough, the Reading Room merits a visit by itself. Under its high ceiling the study of the Middle East is disposed on two floors. The first floor harbours a library, used by the department staff, and wide windows designed to flood the room with light; the ground floor, divided into twelve bays with eleven tall cabinets each, houses but a small portion of the cuneiform collections owned by the museum.

At 4 p.m. the Reading Room closes for visitors. Packing my things, I cross Montague Place and Russell Square in the opposite direction and return to the library of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The SOAS Library with its four open levels full of books is impressive. And it is also useful, once you crack the peculiar reference system. Here, cramped into a small workspace, I spend the remainder of my time. Normally, I check the readings done during the day, read on my research topic and try to write. When SOAS Library closes, I board the 188 and head back to suburbia. Tomorrow will be another day.

Some other time perhaps…

At its inception, this research trip to London had two main objectives. The first one has a somewhat broad scope, namely to gain some experience in reading and collating Neo- and Late Babylonian cuneiform tablets. The second aim, more zeroed in on my current PhD research, was to access, collate and copy an important literary text from that same period.

This tablet, which has been published twice before, is commonly known as the Verse Account [Fig. 6]. Usually, this artefact is displayed at the British Museum as a highlight concerning the last Babylonian monarch, Nabonidus. Due to its popularity and the fact that it is on display, it is difficult to gain access to this source. However, for the time being, it is even harder to gain access to the source than usual. As it turns out, the artefact is part of an exhibition on political dissent through the ages, guest curated by Ian Hislop. Unfortunately, this central objective has to be postponed. Yet, more than enough tablets are accessible to me, so I will be able to fulfil my secondary aim.

Fig. 6 – A brief glimpse at the Verse Account

A museum of the world, for the world

By now, the British Museum is an old and cherished institution both in and outside the United Kingdom. It is both a cultural centre hosting various events and also modern art; and a house of tradition where the wall clocks are still winded by hand every now and then…

Nowhere else is this respect for tradition more manifest than in the so-called Enlightenment Gallery. This gallery aims to reproduce the original configuration of the museum. Two hundred and sixty tall cabinets exhibit books and artefacts, several display cases are disposed through the hall. Classical statues intermingled with modern ones, representing the first curators and Sir Hans Sloan, the “spiritual founder” of the museum, lay around the room. And, testifying that the early inclinations of the institute were just as vast and international as the modern ones, a replica of the Rosetta Stone is also on display here, upon a display stand similar to the one which held the real artefact in 1801.

Despite its name, The British Museum has indeed become “grande maison des étrangers” as an anonymous prophet announced in 1845 [1]. But, contrary to his calamitous view, this is a good thing. From staff to visitors, the world comes here to tend to and to see the treasures of the world. Moreover, the museum is an important asset for research fields with an international standing such as Assyriology. This worldwide scope has been the main argument presented by the British Museum when ownership of possessions such as the Elgin Marbles are contested. These worldwide famous archaeological remains, named after the British official who secured their acquisition and transport to the museum, were once part of the Parthenon in Athens. There is a lively debate on whether these marbles should remain at the British Museum or if they should be returned to Athens’ Acropolis Museum.

Babylon-on-Thames AKA London

On Sundays, I take a leave from work. Its time bury my thoughts on something else and explore the city. All and all, I expected a much darker and more oppressive metropolis. Gratefully, the heavy smog is now only a thing of memory enclosed on the pages of Dickens, and hopeful billboards announce zero emissions in the city centre in a near future.

And, as the cherry on top, the last and resilient Summer days mostly keep rain and fog away. It is nice to stroll along the banks of the Thames [Fig. 7], to walk in the public parks and to chase squirrels and foxes around. It is equally good to enjoy the many free of charge museums like the Tate Modern (which besides contemporary art offers a great view of the city [Fig. 8]) or the Museum of Natural History in Kensington with its majestic hanging blue whale skeleton [Fig. 9].

Fig. 7 – The Thames Barrier
Fig. 8 – The view from the Tate
Fig. 9 – The blue whale

More interesting still is the city itself and its people. This is truly a Babylon-on-Thames: diverse and multicultural. Several communities live here together, everyone goes about their daily strife shoulder to shoulder. And yet, this Babylon is not just a majestic, beautiful and lively city, there’s a darker side as well. Just take a short bus ride and pay attention. You will see several young and able-bodied men sleeping on the streets and under the bridges. For them, this city is all but beautiful or kind.

In any case, because I am only a tourist here, I can still find some charm to the city and its views. It is amazing to see how the old and the new play with each other [Fig. 10]. I especially like the way the history encroaches itself on the modern city [Fig. 11 and 12], or rather the solutions the modern city has found to preserve and embrace the old cities of London [Fig. 13]. The whole city feels like an open-air museum.

Fig. 10 – Street Art Shakespeare
Fig. 11 – Roman wall, modern hotel
Fig. 12 – The millenary London Stone on a modern building


Fig. 13 – From the narrow road to the High Finance

With all said, seen and done, it is about time to wander on to other shores and say: Dear, damn’d distracting town, farewell! [2][Fig. 14].

Fig. 14 – Farewell London!

[1] “Situations in the Museum, as they became vacant by death – no one ever retires – are given to German and Italian boys; so that in time our great national institution will be one grande maison des étrangers” ‘Correspondent of the Edinburgh Review’ 1845, Madden collection, fol. 85 in Millard, Edward (1974) That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum: 172.

[2] Alexander Pope, “A Farewell to London”.

* This study trip was sponsored by Leiden University Fund/Dr. C.L. van Steeden Fonds and the ERC Project Persia and Babylonia.

Iran in Assen… An “intentional” exhibition?

By Ivo Dos Santos Martins

Warning: Enter the room with a big flock of people! Otherwise, you won’t get it!

Sure, you may like your exhibitions a little bit quieter. But, in this case, silence will just ruin the experience. This exhibition will be all the more engaging if the room is alive, crowded, populated by multiple noises and buzzing with a ton of tongues. What you need to understand, once you suspend your disbelief for a while, is that this is not an exhibition at all!

This is a bazaar! Granted, it is not exactly the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. Yet, the Drents Museum team managed to convey the basic impression of a Middle Eastern marketplace. The exhibition cases are upholstered with textiles mimicking Persian tapestries, the arches are decorated with colourful stained glass, and lacelike lamps hang above the small galleries. A few Persian style puffs and a large photograph of a modern-day bazaar tie up the illusion.

Figure 1: Impression of the exhibition room (Source: Drents Museum)

In the galleries of this fantastic place you can see Iran: cradle of civilization (Iran: Bakermat van de beschaving), an archaeological exhibition which is organized by the Drents Museum at Assen and hosts a collection of artefacts stemming from several Iranian archaeological sites. These objects, owned by the National Museum of Tehran, are exhibited outside of Iran for the first time.

Until November 18th, you are invited to walk-in and peruse at your pleasure six different shops, each illustrating a specific Historical period: The Beginning; Cities; Changes; Elam and Media; Golden Age; Iran and Islam. At these stands, you will be able to discover archaeological artefacts documenting almost each and every period of the history of human settlement in the Iranian region. From a Stone Age hand axe found at the Darband cave bordering the Caspian Sea (300.000 B.P.) to porcelain carafes and dishes offered by Sheik Safi to Sha Abbas I (17th century A.D.), and in between objects of various types from different archaeological sites, such as Chohga Zambil, Tall-i-Malyan, Deylaman, Hanadan, Pasargadae, Ardabil, and Susa.

In spite of this extensive and diverse coverage, a special place is reserved for the so-called Golden Age. Identified as the Golden Age par excellence, the Old Persian or Achaemenid Empire receives great emphasis throughout the exhibition. A few elements create this emphasis. First, as soon as you enter on the right, a large map displays the maximum reach of the Achaemenid conquests; second, a huge photograph of the Persepolis’ Apadana stairway reliefs practically envelops two walls of the room; third, Darius I Bisotun inscription is presented on a large-scale 3D reproduction (it is only a pity that unlike the relief showing Darius I subduing rebels from many nations, the trilingual inscription is no more than a blurry photograph); fourth, a copy of the Egyptian statue of Darius I is exhibited with special attention been given to its hieroglyphic inscription listing the names of 24 lands under the Great King’s rule.

Such emphasis is in a way understandable. The Achaemenid Empire was not only the most extensive but also the only uncontested superpower of its time (c. 550-330 BCE). However, to highlight a political entity that lasted little more than two centuries out of a long history requires some other explanation. That reason, I believe, is interwoven with the message the exhibition wishes to convey.

Diversity and tolerance are the keywords of the exhibition. A note of multiculturality runs through every feature of the exposition. Multiculturality is to be found in the bazaar theme and on the range of objects that document the diverse cultural make-up of modern Iran. The same message explains the emphasis on the first Persian Empire. The artefacts on display that stem from this period fit perfectly with the message of multiculturality.

And rather unsurprisingly so, as the imperial power that produced these objects was also keen on presenting the Empire as a collaboration between different cultures dully represented on procession on the steps of the Apadana, kneeling reverently at the feet of Darius I, and humbled under fetters at Bisotun. The organizers brought the message of diversity and tolerance to our own time. On two small screens, you can watch interviews with modern Iranians, who are currently based in the Netherlands, and hear their insights on their history and cultural heritage.

Figure 2: Bisotun Relief (Source: Drents Museum)

Definitely, this exposition has a point to make. The exhibition was carefully planned so as to communicate the intended message of tolerance to its visitors, and perhaps also to its partners. While factual history was not disregarded, some periods and events were brought to the foreground. Is this a deliberate attempt to shape the memory of Iran’s history in the eyes of a Dtch audience? Or, since the objects on display required diplomatic immunity to be issued by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the exhibition making a point on international relations?

In any case, a story about history is being told here, and, to some degree, Iran: cradle of civilisation (Iran: Bakermat van de beschaving) engages in an exercise of “intentional history”.

Until November 18th you can still catch a glimpse of this buzzing bazaar and hear the story for yourself. In case you wish to find out more, Ex Oriente Lux organizes an event at the Drents Museum on September 22nd with three lectures concerning the Achaemenid and the Sassanid Persian Empires and on the exhibition itself.