Wednesday 18 January 2023

Object 14: Jade axe: (Made around 6000 years ago). Found near Canterbury


People are crossing the sea

Risking all in flimsy skin-covered boats

They bring their crop seeds, their cattle and sheep with them

Everything they have they bring

Searching for a new life, a new beginning in a new land at the very edge of the world

People are crossing the narrow sea, braving the waves, the storms, the craggy reefs that can tear their hopes to shreds

From all over mainland Europe the pioneer settlers tens of thousands of years ago are setting sail

Landing on the shores of this unexplored fable

And finding the green promise they hoped for

A place of plenty, an island sanctuary thick with forests

A land to put down roots, build sturdy round houses and enclosures for their domesticated stock.


The people from across the sea are farmers now, clearing land for growing food, building their tribal villages, living and sharing their lives together in a unity of purpose

And so they swing their axes; tools shaped from stone, felling the forest trees around them to build their wooden world

And they swing their axes

And they see the forests; how the branches of the great oaks sway in the wind

And they swing their axes

And they see the wading birds take flight as they chop and gather reeds from the waterways to thatch the roofs of their houses

And they swing their axes

And they see the sun rise and mark the twilight as the sky reveals a canopy of wonder, studded with stars, the moon suspended in space, blessing the earth with its silver rays

And they swing their axes

And they feel the mystery of it all as they dig the soil that bears their crops and walk the meadows where their cattle graze

And they swing their axes

And they feel the mystery of it all as they gather in their harvest of pulses, barley and wheat; how the earth sustains them, gives them life

And they swing their axes

And they feel the mystery of it all as the seasons change with certain regularity: the waxing of the moon and the rising of the sun, measuring the span of human fragility

And they swing their axes, their dependable, practical axes, cutting a swathe of forest, creating a space to thrive, a haven of safety in a reckless world where life is fleeting and frail.


The migrant farmers are Britons now

Generations of families have left their settled mark on the landscape

Their great communal monuments and standing stones testify their solid belief in their place here

Chiselled with patient fortitude by axes also made of stone


And across the narrow sea men are climbing mountains

Men are climbing through clouds to quarry the green jade rock halfway between the earth and the celestial realm of ancestors and gods

Men are risking their lives to quarry the rock with care and reverence

Dragging massive boulders downwards to where it can be cut and shaped and polished smooth into an object of significance

An icon of struggle, of human enterprise, the tool of toil and progress

A powerful shape, a magical thing – a jade axe.


People are crossing the sea, making the same perilous journey to trade their goods with faraway tribes who prize the precious green stone from the remote Alpine Mountains of Italy

People are crossing the narrow sea, staking their lives to trade with others: furs and pelts, jewellery, livestock and glistening river pearls; all manner of fine things are worthy of such a long, long journey.


And in Canterbury, 6000 years ago, here is an axe

An axe without a haft

An axe that has been meticulously fashioned in faraway mysterious mountains in another land by foreign people who have travelled many thousands of miles to trade and share their stories

An axe without a haft

Unique and special, not a mere tool for cutting or chopping wood

A green axe without a haft 

A prestigious ceremonial object bestowing respect on its owner.


And in a sacred circle of stone sentinels they gather: a ceremony of thanks to the goddess, to the sun, to the moon, to the rain that makes things grow and gives them life and hope for the coming harvest

They look up to the night sky as their shamanic chieftain lifts the axe to the roof of the world

Sparkling beneath the bewildering, blinking, mind-blast of stars

And he lifts the axe

A prayer, a benediction, an acknowledgement of humility and humanity

A blade shaped shard of human thought

And he lifts the axe

An axe imbibed with totemic symbolism

And he lifts the axe

Stories and myths fused in its sacred stone


The axe is held aloft in awe and wonder before the assembled tribe

The night fire reflecting in its polished green stone, twinkling and sparking like the stars above

The tribe are gathered together, looking skywards, searching for answers to questions they don’t quite understand...

The puzzle of existence, the fear of death, the legacy of ancestors whose ancient memories ache their way through the soil beneath their feet.


And the next day as dawn breaks the struggle continues - the daily tasks that require human effort and ingenuity

And so they till the soil to grow their crops

They weave flax and wool to make their clothes

They hunt with spears and arrows for meat

And they swing their axes to cut down trees

And they swing their axes to gather timber for their fires

And they swing their axes


Except the green one without a haft...


And sometime many years later it is somehow lost or buried

Buried perhaps as an offering to the gods

Or in homage to the ancestors who shunned the dread of death and uncertainty

Fearlessly crossing the cold callous sea in flimsy boats made of wood and stitched animal hide

Buried in homage to a legacy of fortitude and resilient labour: regular and necessary and often drudgingly monotonous.


And as time passes the legend of the axe and its stories is forgotten

Until one day many years later it is found again by their island descendants

A message from the past shaped in stone

A relic of human endeavour

A symbol of survival

A jade axe.


Tuesday 8 February 2022

Object 13: Indus seal: (Made 4,000 - 4,500 years ago). Stone stamp found in the Indus Valley, Pakistan


Imagine a future where Earth’s melting icecaps had flooded far and near

Imagine a future where global warming has made the world’s great civilisations simply... disappear

London, beneath the swollen Thames is not even a memory to those who survived the onslaught of Mother Nature’s fractured fate

Climate change has reaped its whirlwind; mankind had left it all too late

Cairo, Sydney, Los Angeles – all gone; no one ever knew they were even there

Centuries of rising seas, drought and desert has wiped them out and left the landscape bare

We can wonder what dreads await our fragile world, plagued by climate change and invent a thousand more

But strange to say we know for sure that something similar had happened long before


Come with me and I’ll take you to a city that had vanished from human memory for over three and a half thousand years

And an entire civilisation, bustling and vibrant with people like you and I, with their hopes and loves and fears

How can something so vast and significant be lost and neglected for such a long, long time?

How can a whole race of people disappear without a single sign?

Climate change it seems may well have had a hand in their demise; even then mankind left its mark upon the Earth

Humans taking with impunity the natural treasures of the very world that gave them birth


This is the Indus Valley people’s story; a remarkable culture that flourished and mysteriously passed away

Until a small carved stone was found; a seal to stamp an impression in wet clay

An image of a bull, carved in soapstone to lay claim to goods when trading with other city states and lands around

This was the key that unlocked the door; a vast enigmatic nation, long forgotten had been found

The journey had begun to discover what mystery was hidden beneath the earth where the tiny seal had been

So the archaeologists began to dig, and the scope of what they discovered was like nothing before ever seen

They found the great city of Harappa laid out in a carefully articulated grid of mapped out precision

Where a population of 40,000 citizens shared a world where class and status marked no obvious division

So too in the city of Mohenjo-Daro with its sophisticated plumbing, communal baths and market places

Like Harappa there seemed to be no evidence of royal palaces, hallowed religious temples, garrisons for armies and other grand martial spaces

Houses built with fire-baked bricks all of a uniform size; there seemed to be little difference between the homes of the rich and poor

All of a similar shape and dimension; no fine walled garden with fountains, no carved lintel above a columned door

Astute and organised with standardised weights and measures, the Indus people had a social framework worthy of any modern order

A reasoned and well planned arrangement of towns and cities with no competing border

And very soon it became apparent that this was no minor nation state hidden by millennia of ancient soil and sand

As more excavations revealed a vast topography of towns and cities spread across the land

A million square kilometres of a forgotten utopian society that once pulsed its artery of influence far and wide

Veins of commerce, learning, and an architecture inspired by equality, harmony and beauty rhythmically collide

Through Pakistan and India, Gujarat, Punjab, across the plains of the Indus River to the shore of the deep Arabian Sea

Here was an aesthetic consciousness, a consciousness of order, a consciousness of economy

A town-planner’s dream, a philosopher’s delight

No central seat of government; citizens free from religious hierarchy, from a greedy tyrant’s might

No evidence of conflict recorded on monument or stone; a unique historical revelation

No sculptured reliefs of armies, slaughter, warfare or man-made devastation


And the seal that revealed this undiscovered country to a future world, unaware of its prodigious scale, is the size of a postage stamp, with a mythically imposing creature, somewhat like a unicorn

A delicately carved image of a bull in profile displaying a single massive horn

And more and more seals were discovered with wonderfully incised impressions of beasts, all very plain to see

Elephants and rhinos, lions and bulls, and sometimes yogic human figures meditating, or a single sacred tree

And above the image on every seal, inscrutable symbols are indecipherable to any will

A language etched in stone five thousand years ago retains its secret, still

A secret kingdom, a secret race of people who traded and travelled far wider than the Indus Valley plain

As far away as the great cities of Umma and Ur in Mesopotamia and the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, their imprint in clay tags would seal the mouths of jars and sacks of grain


But such a vast commonwealth of communities require vast resources to prosper, thrive and grow

And sooner or later too many people can overwhelm the very land where they live and reap and sew

Granaries once full to bursting are no longer a refuge for those bleak years of poor harvests, drought and need

And when nature suddenly intervenes, well there are just too many mouths to feed

Tectonic shifting can divert a mighty river; turn a fertile landscape into a barren wasteland bereft of productive soil to nourish tender shoots

And when the monsoon rains refuse to fall on time, millet, wheat and barley wither at their roots

And river lifelines interrupted by climate change are not the only problem for a population who have cut down whole forests for timber and fuel and exhausted the valley plains that fed them well

A once great civilisation is abandoned as families’ desert their houses built of bricks baked on fires from the trees they had to fell

Empty homes, empty buildings and empty streets vanish like smoke with the ghosts of the Indus Nation’s race

Silent beneath the heavy sands of time – gone without a trace


Imagine a future where Earth’s melting icecaps had flooded far and near

Imagine a future where global warming has made the world’s great civilisations simply... disappear

And ice shelves in the Arctic are cracking and splitting apart; great frozen anchors are slipping their ancient moorings from the seabed far below

And as the ice dissolves, the oceans rise, storm clouds gather and the heavy rain begins to fall as rivers swell and flow

Massive flooding rips through the landscape everywhere as we face nature’s response to humanity’s insatiable assault  

We ignore history’s lessons at our peril - there is no Planet B, no reset button, no Planet Earth default


The Indus Nation lay undetected until a tiny stone triggered the story of their rise and fall; a message that should make us all take heed

But deforestation, fossil fuels, wild fires and extreme weather is the deadly testament of mankind’s reckless greed

And if we selfishly exploit our planet, like the Indus people before, will there be anyone here to find evidence of our existence: microchips, cellphones, the rusting hulks of cars? 

Or will they lie forever unrevealed; ripples of a life once lived, buried in a world devoid of life beneath a galaxy of indifferent stars?


Wednesday 8 September 2021

Object 12: Standard of Ur: (Made around 4,500 years ago). Wooden box inlaid with mosaic, found in southern Iraq


In the midst of life, a monument to death;

A cenotaph in a modern City,

A mysterious standard; a richly inlaid box in an ancient tomb -

A homage to war and wealth and power.


Kingdoms, it seems have always paid tribute to their dead;

Dark and triumphal reminders of the sacrifices and the victories,

And the glorious rulers who demand their reparations and their terrible subjugations.

And here is a graphic depiction of how it all began –


Five thousand years ago when land was farmed in the fertile plains between two mighty rivers a great city grew, fuelled by a surplus of bountiful harvests...


Ur, nestled between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates,

Ur, the cradle of civilisation,

Ur, where mankind’s words were first spelt out in cuneiform writing,

Ur, where monumental buildings grew in homage to their kings,

Ur, home to farmers and scribes and doctors and artists and high-ranking priests,

Ur, where the powerful rulers mustered armies to protect their great wealth,

Ur, a tectonic shifting in the universal balance of thought and deed,

Ur, where royal privilege deemed it right to conquer and rule other lands,

Ur, where foreigners became slaves,

Ur, where servants of the mighty shared their master’s deadly graves.


And in Ur, a Royal tomb,

And in the tomb an inlaid triangular box;

A colourful mosaic of lively characters depicted in bright colours that are testament of long, long journeys:

Celestial deep blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan,

Blood red marble stone from India,

And iridescent pearly shell from the sea shores of the Persian Gulf.


The people stand patiently in line,

Like ghosts trapped in time they wait before their King, bearing offerings; tributes of their labour: fish, sheep, goats and oxen;

The stuff of life, a tax on life; the way of life from here on.

And above - another line:

The King, his court and priests, the elite of Royal society feast on the proceeds of their subjects, while a musician plays music on a lyre:

The structure of power laid out in a relief of semi-precious stones.


And on the other side of the box, the other side of truth:

The historical thread that leads us to now;

Great power and wealth have to be fought for...

Now the civil King has become the uncivil violent despot,

Spear in hand he watches his army lead prisoners to slavery or death,

Stripped naked, humiliated and conquered,

They know the price of defeat; they know the terrible truth of war.


Below this come the chariots of war pulled by asses;

A lively graphic technique that sees them gradually gathering speed;

A clever artist’s eye has the insight to carefully portray how a walk becomes a trot, a trot becomes a gallop,

As they charge their way through history;

The earliest depiction of a carriage of war.


That is the box,

That is the standard of Ur,

A wonderfully illustrative memory of war and peace.

That is the box,

The box that was laid beside a queen and her female attendants who died with her, garrotted and poisoned,

Perpetual servants, lives cut short,

Because life is short for those with no voice.

And so they lie beside their queen,

Who is adorned in gold ornaments with a sumptuous headdress.

And rich treasures, are placed around her, spoils of a Royal life,

And a board game and a beautiful lyre inlaid with lapis lazuli.

 Perhaps one of her dead servants had played it in her lifetime?

And perhaps she is expected to again in the afterlife..?

And the standard of Ur, as beautiful and compelling as it is

Spells out clearly how the future will be for those with no voice.


Ur is now a fragment of a fragmented Iraq;

The seeds of its long lost civilisation have germinated in the rich loam of history and throughout time grown ever more fruitful:

Art and writing, sculpture and the steady evolution of the city state,

A direct inheritance from that ancient land -

The DNA of Mesopotamia is present now as always:

A flower in a desert,

A tower in a city,

A bullet in a skull.

Monday 20 November 2017

Object 11: King Den’s Sandal Label (Made around 3000 BC. Hippopotamus ivory, found in Abydos, Egypt)

Here is a City
A City on the banks of the Nile
Big and noisy and prosperous
Here is a City
Feel its vigour, its energy, its lure...

Who would dare rule this City?
A City febrile with ambition
A City of people rooted in the loam of a fertile soil
A City that feeds a greater state
A City that needs to defend itself from jealous neighbours
Envious tribes of foreign armies
With their swords and spears and arrows
And their longing for conquest of a land of plentiful harvests
And of a City whose very streets are paved with golden slabs of power

So how do you rule such a City?
The answer was found 5000 years later
Embedded in the mud of the great river Nile -
A label
A tiny square sliver of Hippopotamus ivory
So small
So seemingly insignificant
Carrying a message from the past
A message that we all understand so well today
A message so simple and deadly and obvious...
How do you rule a City?
‘With force’

And who would rule such a City?
Well there is his image scratched into the ivory label –
An expressive, elegant picture of violence:
A man with a club and a whip
Smiting his fallen enemy
King Den himself, Pharaoh of all Egypt
Royally bashing brains in a visceral act of subjugation

His victim, a man from Sinai
Misshapen and smaller in stature
Knows now who rules this land
As he and his brothers are obliterated from history
Because there are words too scratched into the ivory
Chilling to the marrow
Stark and malicious
A message to heed for all around
“They shall not exist”

For King Den, like a god has power over life and death
And rules by fear and might
The City people see
How he smites the Tjesem and the Luntju nomads
See how with ruthless efficiency he destroys the Setjet of the East
Taking their women for his harem
Terrified sex slaves at his beck and call
The City people see
How his enemies cower before his mighty fist
How he humiliates them and crushes them beneath his feet
Death in the desert, blood in the sand
The City people see this and bow low before their King
For this is how you rule a City

A tyrant once trod the streets of an ancient City
In sandals made of the finest leather
Footwear labelled perhaps for the afterlife
Laid carefully by his side in his elaborate tomb
Crafted from granite mined hundreds of miles away

And should his soul awake in Heaven
Will his retainers and servants be there too
Ready to obey his Royal commands?
For one hundred and thirty six of them were strangled after his death
And buried nearby
Eternal slaves waiting for their master’s command
Men and women of a Pharaoh’s City
Waiting for the voice of a despot to resurrect them from their ignoble graves

And there have been many Cities since
Many great Cities and many great states
And there have been wars and tyrants and Kings and rulers
And Cities have been burned and bombed
Women enslaved and raped
There has been genocide and ethnic cleansing,
And refugees and atrocities that persist in their capacity to appal...

Civilizations it seems are built by people for whom history is not a lesson
But rather – an example.

Friday 24 March 2017

Object 10: Jomon Pot (Made around 5,000 BC. Clay, found in Japan)

Coils of fibre
Twisted strips of bark and reed
Woven into bags and baskets
To gather nuts and seed
The Jomon people
Hunt animals and fish
But meals can be a struggle
Without a bowl or dish

Soggy baskets
Animal skins that leak and spill
Charred meat burning
From the Jomon’s latest kill
Bitter acorns and shellfish that should be boiled
Someone is sick and has a fever
Another meal is spoiled

Food is stored in baskets
Buried underground
Where mice and rats and vermin
Are likely to be found
Food is in the hedgerows
In the forest and in the sea
But how to cook it, keep it fresh
No one yet can see

Cup your hands
And scoop up water from the lake
Thirsty instinct
Tells our hands the shape we have to make
Cup your hands and scoop up clay
From the earth beneath your feet
Curious fingers press and probe
And make the thing complete
It hardens by the fire
Its shape is clear to see
A hollow like your hands would make
To lift up water from a lake:
A cup, a bowl, a pot that anyone can make...

Coils of clay
Rolled and folded
Layer upon layer
Melded and moulded
The thing is growing
Ring by ring
A pot for the Jomon
A practical thing
Its sides are straight
Its base is flat
But the pot is pressed with cord and plait -
A basket in clay
An added touch, a decorative flair
An artistic idea plucked from the air?
Motifs of animal bones
Shells and trees
Natural things that seem to please
Are printed in relief 
In browns and greys
So that everyday items
May brighten their days

But the pots were not only stylishly good looking
They were made for storing food and cooking
Leak-proof and heat-proof
Here was something new
Now meat could be boiled and pot-roasted -
The world’s very first stew!
The hunter-gatherer people
In a Japanese village by the sea
Now found life far more stable
As a varied diet and safer food
Was shared at the family table

And human history is written in clay:
Ming bowls from China
Pot-bellied African jars
Greek vases with heroes fighting
Islamic urns spangled with stars
Wedgewood tureens in cream and pale blue
Delicate Japanese porcelain in every colour and hue...

Its sides are straight
Its base is flat
The pot is pressed with cord and plait -
But now it has an added touch
Something new, something bold
The grey, brown pot is lined with gold -
Transformed for a ritual worthy of its age
Respect is paid to this ceramic sage
A ritual object, an essential key
A mizusashi water jar for the ceremony of tea

And Jesus at that long, long table
Passed a bowl around to his disciples there,
And way back down the long, long ages
Cups and bowls and jars declare
How something so very ordinary
Is a precious thing we share
As we eat and drink together
Like the Jomon people
Seven thousand years ago
Who left their pots behind to let us know
How by such simple things
Civilizations grow.

Thursday 30 June 2016

OBJECT 9: Maya Maize God Statue. (Limestone statue of a Mayan maize god found in Copán, Honduras, made in 715 CE)

Look upon me and see your creation:
A God carved in stone, communing with the Heavens;
You have closed my eyes in supplication;
Parted my lips in frozen meditation;
Your prayers are still in my mouth,
Waiting to be spoken.

Gaze upon me;
See how my arms reach out to your world,
Look how the palms of my hands signal a benediction:
Serene stone, God of the corn, crowned with a headdress of corn;
Strands of silky hair spilling out of the leaves you have placed around my face;
A statue, small and divine; imbibed with the power you have given me.

I am the benevolent Mayan maize God;
Born of the earth like you and your kind,
I too am bound by the laws of the earth:
The sowing of the seed, the reaping of the crop and the ploughing of the soil,
So that I may live again and by doing so, give you life:
The womb, the grave and hope of rebirth,
A cycle of belief as frail as flesh and as enduring as the corn, yellow as the sun.

See how I sit so very calm,
Contemplating the mystery of life in this land of ours;
Remembering how the first mother-father was modelled by the early Gods from maize itself, causing the sun, moon and stars to appear to bless their mortal creation.
Watch how I guard your crops from high;
Set on the steps of a monumental pyramid with other stone guardians;
Made by you who are made by us;
Sentinels of stone communing with nature on your behalf,
So that each new season will give up its bounty once again
And no one will have to bear the pangs of hunger and starvation.

You have given me this task,
But the world is a different place now;
Corn is a commodity, a fuel for industry;
People have even probed its ancient secrets to alter its genetic inheritance,
And the forests where your Gods once thrived are diminished by the growth of commerce and market forces.
The corn still grows as yellow of the sun, but somehow marred and different.
It seems that not even a Maize God can halt progress...

Yet still my eyes are closed in supplication;
My lips are parted in frozen meditation;
And your prayers are still in my mouth,

Waiting to be spoken.

Illustration by the artist Ryan Leigh

Thursday 13 November 2014

OBJECT 8: Model of four cattle (made around 5,500 years ago). Painted clay, found at El Amra, southern Egypt

When the green savannah grass of the Sahara began to dry and wither,
And the giraffe, gazelle and elephant had disappeared forever,
When water was scarce and soil became sand,
And dry arid desert consumed the land,
When the crops in the fields failed without rain,
And hungry hunters wandered the plain,
Searching for food, for something to kill,
They saw herds of cattle were living there still...

Milk and blood, milk and blood
Domesticated cows chewing the cud,
There is meat at hand when times are tough,
When famine strikes and there's not enough.
Horn and skin, horn and skin,
Hides to wear and food within,
Beneath the glare of a remorseless sun,
A vein is cut; the living liquid begins to run,
The cow stands silent, bleeding its sacrifice into the waiting bowl,
As its human master drinks his daily toll.

Milk and blood, horn and skin,
The taming of the world and all within,
The overlord of nature stakes his claim,
The world and its creatures are all fair game.

A grave in the desert - A23,
Body, male, and what else can we see -
Contents: baton of clay in red stripes with imitation mace-head, small red pottery box,
Leg bones of a small animal, pots...
And a stand of four clay cows.
An archaeological find in the Egyptian desert sand,
Four horned clay cows grazing fertile land,
Tiny statuettes moulded from the mud of the Nile,
Four tiny cows standing in file,
Waiting patiently for resurrection when they will bleed and slave,
A symbol of life in the pit of a grave,
Beasts of burden to ease a poor farmer's strife
In the eternal realm of the afterlife.

And where would we be without the cow?
The world would not be what it is now:
Cows in the meadow,
Milk cows in the parlour,
Wild West cowboys creating a drama,
Steak and burgers, burgers and steak,
Beef on the table, potatoes to bake,
Cheese for the board, butter for bread,
And four clay cows wait to be led,
To the celestial pastures by the Nile in the sky;
A Milky Way river that flows on by,
Where the cow will be crowned, Hathor, the eye of Ra,
Worshipped as fertile goddess, wide and far.

Milk and blood, hide and meat,
The model cows still stand so neat,
Painted pottery cattle on a field of clay,
Undisturbed until this day,
Waiting for their master’s voice, with jubilation
To summon them to a destiny of subjugation.