I saw the beautiful Standard of Ur, seen above, when we visited the British Museum last summer. It is about 4,500 years old and was probably constructed in the form of a hollow wooden box with scenes of war and peace represented on each side through elaborately inlaid mosaics of Lapis Lazuli and shell. The standard of Ur shows the first unambiguous depictions of chariots in war. There has been some debate on whether a Sumerian chariot was actually used in combat. Many scholars believe that it was merely a “battle taxi”, used to convey a commander to a strategic part of the battlefield where he could lead his troops, in the same way that a modern general uses a jeep or helicopter to reach the front lines. Some scholars also believe the chariots were used to carry noblemen to the battle, where they would dismount and then fight on foot. The Standard of Ur along with the Vulture stele are the first depictions of war in history. The Standard of Ur dispels any question that chariots were used directly in combat. They were likely heavy and slow to start but undoubtedly were truly intimidating in combat, with an ability to scatter the enemy lines.
I recently visited the British Museum and found some beautiful pieces and the history accompanying them that I found very interesting. I am also providing a bit of background regarding the location of the tomb in which these artifacts were discovered. Pu-abi (Akkadian: “Word of my father”), also called Shubad due to a misinterpretation by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, was an important person in the Sumerian city of Ur, during the First Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2600 BCE). Commonly labeled as a “queen”, her status is somewhat in dispute. Several cylinder seals in her tomb identify her by the title “nin” or “eresh”, a Sumerian word which can denote a queen or a priestess. The fact that Pu-abi, herself a Semitic Akkadian, was an important figure among Sumerians, indicates a high degree of cultural exchange and influence between the ancient Sumerians and their Semitic neighbors.
The British Museum is a treasure trove of innumerable objects. I had some pictures of ancient games and I thought I would share. For thousands of years, board games have been a source of entertainment for people across the world. Evidence of board games pre-dates the development of writing, and in many cultures they have even come to have a religious significance. The Royal Game of Ur, seen above, is the oldest-known board game for which the original rules survive. The oldest sets, discovered in Iraq in the 1920s, date to around 2600 B.C. The game had been thought long-dead, superseded by backgammon 2000 years ago, until game enthusiast Irving Finkel (who had poetically discovered the game’s rules carved into an ancient stone tablet) stumbled upon a surprising photograph of a game board from modern India. A small amount of detective work later, Finkel met a retired schoolteacher who had played what was basically the same game as a youngster—making this the game that has been played for longer than any other in the history of the world.
I recently saw an exhibit at the British Museum regarding the importance of timekeeping and physical direction for Muslims. Salat times refers to times when Muslims perform prayers (salat). The term is primarily used for the five daily prayers plus the Friday prayer. According to Muslim beliefs, the salat times were taught by Allah to Muhammad. Prayer times are standard for Muslims in the world, especially the fard prayer times. They depend on the condition of the Sun and geography. There are varying opinions regarding the exact salat times, the schools of Islamic thought differing in minor details. All schools agree that any given prayer cannot be performed before its stipulated time. The five prayers are Fajr (pre-dawn), Dhuhr (midday), Asr (afternoon), Maghrib (sunset) and Isha’a (night). Thus a keen interest was instilled in devout Muslims about the time and direction needed for prayers. The beautiful Arabic astrolabe shown above is made of brass inlaid with silver and copper by Abd al-Karim al-Misri from 1235-1236 CE. Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari (died 796 or 806) is credited with the first astrolabe in the Islamic world in the 8th century. While some sources refer to him as an Arab, other sources state that he was a Persian. Al-Fazārī translated many scientific books into Arabic and Persian.
Dolní Věstonice is an open-air site located along a stream, in the south Czech Republic on the northern slopes of the Pavlovske Hills, close to the village of Pavlov. Its people hunted mammoths and other herd animals, saving mammoth and other bones that could be used to construct a fence-like boundary, separating the living space into a distinct inside and outside. In this way, the perimeter of the site would be easily distinguishable. At the center of the enclosure was a large bonfire and huts were grouped together within the barrier of the of the mammoth bones. The radiocarbon dates for the occupations at DVII are 27,070-25,570 years uncal BP, which calibrates to 31,500 years ago according to the INTCAL calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2009). The mammoth deposit (202 bones) is generally thought to be contemporary with one or more of these occupations and has been dated to 26100 uncal BP (Svoboda, 1991).
From earliest history until today, fragrant, alluring smells have been regarded as essential elements of civilized relationships. Exotic plant odors and the scents that could be utilized for body application have inspired explorers, aristocrats, writers, poets, merchants and priests, and they have been of fundamental relevance to religious practices and to courtship. Many societies have felt that the burning of fragrant woods provides an ideal, ethereal token of appreciation to their gods. The liberation of incense smoke was a source of perfume: this word comes from the Latin per fumum, “by smoke”. Incense is a word that means “that which is lit”. The main incense fragrances were frankincense and myrrh.
Sekhmet, the Lion-Headed Goddess of War
He was the sort of man
who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Many flies are now alive
while he is not.
He was not my patron.
He preferred full granaries, I battle.
My roar meant slaughter.
Yet here we are together
in the same museum.
That’s not what I see, though, the fitful
crowds of staring children
learning the lesson of multi-
cultural obliteration, sic transit
and so on.
I see the temple where I was born
or built, where I held power.
I see the desert beyond,
where the hot conical tombs, that look
from a distance, frankly, like dunces’ hats,
hide my jokes: the dried-out flesh
and bones, the wooden boats
in which the dead sail endlessly
in no direction.
What did you expect from gods
with animal heads?
Though come to think of it
the ones made later, who were fully human
were not such good news either.
Favour me and give me riches,
destroy my enemies.
That seems to be the gist.
Oh yes: And save me from death.
In return we’re given blood
and bread, flowers and prayer,
and lip service.
Maybe there’s something in all of this
I missed. But if it’s selfless
love you’re looking for,
you’ve got the wrong goddess.
I just sit where I’m put, composed
of stone and wishful thinking:
that the deity who kills for pleasure
will also heal,
that in the midst of your nightmare,
the final one, a kind lion
will come with bandages in her mouth
and the soft body of a woman,
and lick you clean of fever,
and pick your soul up gently by the nape of the neck
and caress you into darkness and paradise.
The Rosetta Stone is a very famous historical artifact, almost everyone has heard of it and most people know it has something to do with language. It is a black basalt slab that provided scholars with their first key to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Prior to this point Egyptian hieroglyphics were considered to be a pictorial form of writing without a real grammar and the Egyptians were considered by the English to be a backward people. Using the Rosetta Stone as a dictionary, scholars were able to translate other inscriptions and manuscripts written in hieroglyphics opening up three thousand years of remarkable Egyptian history. The stone was discovered in 1799 near el-Rashid, known as Rosetta in Egypt, by a French engineer of Napoleon's army, Captain François-Xavier Bouchard, built into the wall of an ancient Arab fort (Fort St Julien) which he'd been assigned to tear down.
We visited the British Museum during the Olympics and it was relatively quiet, probably most people were at the games. We were amazed that there was no entrance charge. The museum first opened to the public in 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. The original museum was the result of four collections, the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, the Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, the Harleian library of the Earls of Oxford and the Royal Library, assembled by various British monarchs. Together these four “foundation collections” included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving copy of Beowulf. The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum – national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything.