The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress.
The orbits of the skull seemed to stare up at me from the low pedestal behind the glass display case. How the sockets of the dead judge the eyes of the living.
I shifted from foot to foot. When it was my time to die, I hoped my bones would be buried deep in the rich earth, not paraded naked in a public display.
Have you learned nothing? the skull asked. If you would prophesy over my bones, quit your probing, measuring, naming. You look at matter through microscopes, but do not see its significance. You use scales and weights, but do not understand the meanings of your measures. You name what you do not know.
I hadn’t come to see a human skull. I was at the Penn Museum in search of another head: the upper half of a diorite statue of Gudea of Lagaš, a Neo-Sumerian ruler of the third millennium BCE. The statue’s decapitated body was in a museum in Baghdad, Iraq, a stone’s throw away from the city of Girsu, the region Gudea had governed (modern-day Telloh).
The severed head was here in Philadelphia. I’d seen a whole Gudea statue a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Twenty-seven Gudea statues had been unearthed, most from excavations at Telloh, some whole, some in pieces.
What would Gudea think of his images being scattered across the world, so far from the temples of Girsu where he’d installed them?
Britain and France were the primary instigators of archaeological excavations in the Middle East, so maybe it isn’t surprising that most of Gudea’s stone bodies have ended up in France, England, and the U.S. At least eleven are in Paris at the Louvre, the British Museum in London has two, and a few lie in major U.S. cities: Harvard, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia.
This is Gudea’s body broken and spread across the globe. I say ‘body’ because I think Gudea considered these images as an extension of his flesh and blood. They were crafted to be his presence before the gods of the temples of Girsu, to speak his messages to the gods.
Over four thousand years ago, Gudea had stone brought from the mountains of Magan. Artisans fashioned these images of Gudea and inscribed the story of their creation into the body of each statue, the words indivisible from the flesh.
Gudea, the inscriptions say, devoted himself to rebuilding the temples of Lagaš. He built a house for the god Ningirsu, and another for the goddess Nanše, the Sirara House, her mountain rising out of the waters. He built the House of Girsu for Ningišzida, and many other houses for the great gods of Lagaš.
Gudea placed his image in every temple and dedicated each to the temple’s patron deity. He commanded each statue to be his voice to the god: “Image, to my lord, the god Ningirsu, speak!”
The ruler of Lagaš was not alone in how he understood images as organic extensions of presence. Temples in Mesopotamia housed votive statues, carved images of men and women in prayer, placed in the houses of the gods so that the image could pray on the worshiper’s behalf.
The gods themselves had bodies that lived in the temples, bodies of wood overlaid with precious metals and stones: red gold, bright lapis lazuli.
On a favorable day, these images underwent the rituals of the mouth-washing (mīs pî) and mouth-opening (pit pî). Until these rites were performed on the image, it could not take up its throne as a god in the temple. The god’s mouth had to be purified through washing with holy water and then opened by the application of ghee or honey to its lips so that the god could eat, smell, taste, drink.
The animated image of the god was placed in the temple to be the god’s presence.
I’d been reading about these rituals and images for years, enthralled by the portrait of reality they seemed to portray.
Evangelical religion portrayed the earth as a place of shadows, a frail copy of the glory to come. Everything was a pale image of the beyond, never a real thing itself. There were Images and then there were Real Things, separate and unequal. The world was full of images, but bereft of reality.
But Gudea lived in a world where image was reality. The signs did not point beyond, but within, across, upward, downward, all around. Gudea’s world was immanent. If there was a beyond, it was also within; there was no exterior that wasn’t interior at the same time. The signs did not point to a deity outside this tangible world, but to another aspect of the cosmos.
I was grateful to Gudea for opening my eyes to new ways of thinking, but was becoming more and more aware of the cost of this knowledge. It felt backwards that the colonizing powers steeped in a Western religious heritage that propagated mind-body dualism should now ‘discover’ the beautiful complexity and sophistication of these ancient rituals of the senses.
And I knew Gudea hadn’t had a say in any of this. Archaeology as a discipline had developed as a nationalistic endeavor of European powers. Grave-robbing, looting, and theft of ancient Near Eastern antiquities had been part of it from the beginning.
An interest in antiquity is not unique to Europe or the eighteenth century, but as Europe rose to dominance, there were a few important discoveries of artifacts from antiquity that greased the wheels of British and French nationalism and charted a course for ancient Near Eastern archaeology as a European imperial enterprise.
Before the unearthing of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian hieroglyphs were a mystery. No one knew how to read them. They were viewed by Europeans as divine secrets lost to time. The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking this mystery.
The stone is inscribed with three versions of a decree from Memphis, Egypt, an edict from the Ptolemaic dynasty written in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic script, and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
When the stone was found in 1799, scholars were able to start decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics. All scholars of the day knew Greek, and since the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone corresponded to the hieroglyphics, they were able to start deciphering the language.
It wasn’t, however, an Egyptian that found the Rosetta Stone, but a Frenchman during the Napoleonic military campaign in Egypt. When the British defeated the French at the capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stone was transported to London as British property.
Since then, the stone has been a source of nationalistic rivalry among the British and French. Which nation had unlocked the mysteries of ancient Egypt? Whose scholars had contributed most to deciphering this divine language?
Above all, it was question of imperial dominance in relation to the great kingdoms of the world. In popular nationalist mythology, the Roman Empire was the successor of the Greeks that had succeeded ancient Egypt. Egypt was the oldest and most revered civilization. If Napoleon could claim the treasures of this civilization for the French, then France was the apex of civilization, the last heir and climax of a long line of Great Civilizations.
This, the British knew, which is why it was more than a feather in their cap when the stone was captured and taken to London.
Land, culture, heritage: there for the taking. But the plunderers must have their stories straight. They must prove their legitimacy as heirs of the land. If there is no claim by blood, then the claim must be spiritual--a claim of divine right, election or adoption.