The new acropolis museum opened in Athens while I was reading Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels. (Rob’s fuller review of this novel can be found here.)
Set in 1914 on the eve of the great war, the novel tells the story of John Somerville, an archaeologist excavating what he believes will be an important Assyrian site east of the Euphrates. The German construction of the Baghdad railway, which will intersect the mound he’s digging, threatens to demolish his work just as it has started to yield exciting finds. Also ominous is the search for oil in the area, undertaken by the American geologist Elliott, who is posing as an archaeologist and evidently working for a number of different governments. The Ottoman Empire seems in its death throes, and the vultures are circling in anticipation of dividing the spoils.
Unsworth’s novel is very much about the inevitable demise of Empire: Assyrian, Ottoman, British, American. As in his 2004 Songs of Kings (one of my favorite classics-related novels) the U.S. invasion of Iraq hovers always in the background. Somerville sees his own work as nobler, more pressing, than that of the geologist, and is irritated one night at dinner to have his own story of a find displaced by Elliott’s more colorful tales of drilling for oil: “shall we give out our little bit of news? Not much perhaps, but at least it is about people who once lived in the world and not about commodities.”
Elliott objects to this distinction between people and commodities, and gives an impassioned speech in defense of his work:
What you are digging up is commodities, as I understand it, bits of pots and so on. Is that people? It is all a long time ago in any case. Oil is a commodity, right, but it is the future of humanity, it will change the lives of millions. Millions of people, sir… Now I ask you, what is this Esarhaddon guy compared to that?
As Unsworth shifts the terms from people-commodities to past-future, surely he has in mind the continuing struggles in the region stemming, at least in part, from its vast oil reserves. But of course the “commodities” of the past are also, perhaps especially now, the site of struggle and competition. The Empires that appropriated them (French, German, British…) form the inevitable window through which we view the Empires that constructed them (Hittite, Assyrian, Greek…).
The British Museum has an astonishing collection of Assyrian artifacts which you walk through after the Egyptian rooms on your way to the Greek stuff, particularly the Elgin marbles. Giant slabs are covered with scenes of gruesome warfare, hunting, banqueting. Many of these were excavated in the mid 19th century by the Right Honourable Sir Austen Henry Layard, Somerville’s hero and role model in the novel. The BM catalog (perhaps a bit self-consciously?) tells us “At that time Great Britain was a valued ally of the Ottoman Empire, and the excavators were allowed to remove the lion’s share of what they found… the collection of sculptures brought back by them to England is still much the finest in the world. The British Museum is the only place where one can see so many sequences of magnificiently preserved slabs, re-erected in their original order.”
The world will keep fighting of the oil below the Mesopotamian sands, even as what’s left of it continues to heat our atmosphere. The cost of disputes over antiquities is undoubtedly lower, but shows no signs of being resolved any sooner.