John Ray

John Ray is Herbert Thompson Reader in Egyptology at Cambridge.

Mesopotamia comes across as a sad place. Almanacs of the Middle East will tell you that it has its fair share of sunshine, but it is easier to imagine it under a leaden sky. Mesopotamia – Chaldaea, Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Iraq, or any other of its many names – consists of a patchy flood plain, without much cohesion and with wide-open frontiers on two of its sides. To the south is desert and ocean, while the east is overshadowed by the Iranian plateau, where enemies can gather in numbers. The rivers of this plain are unpredictable, especially the Tigris, and they can do damage without warning. The city-states which grew up there – the first city-states in history – spent much of their time eyeing each other nervously, and preparing for the next war of retribution. If you were lucky, and got hold of power, you held onto it, and distributed it among your friends and relatives. This made sense, because the gods of Mesopotamia did the same. Unlike their counterparts in ancient Egypt, they were not kind. They created human beings only because they wanted someone to do the dirty jobs for them, and they were not greatly interested in human beings’ fate. There was not much justice about the way things were, and the gods were not intending to add to it. But they were not to be ignored, in case they became offended and took away what little you had.’

Archaeologists come in shapes and sizes. Some are more theoretical than others, some are interested in written records and put their faith in them, others distrust texts and despise them. There is a tendency for archaeologists to get priggish about their findings, in many cases in inverse proportion to the glamour of the things they are digging up. Some thump the table about the importance of their coprolites or disintegrating fish bones, and as a result those whose work involves finding solid gold coffins or whole pyramids can be made to feel guilty. Some publish their findings promptly, accepting the risk that they will need to recant some of their opinions, others save everything for retirement, so courting the danger that they will never appear at all.

So far so Bletchley Park

John Ray, 8 June 1995

In Phaedrus, Plato quotes a story in which the god of writing appears to an early Pharaoh holding his new invention, the hieroglyphic script. The king tells the god to take it away, because it would ruin his subjects’ powers of memory and concentration, and fill them with the delusion that they knew things when they did not. The Pharaoh may have had a point, but Plato was not above being perverse, especially when it came to popular culture. It is also clear that he intended the anecdote as an anecdote, not as a programme of reform.

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