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 Statue

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.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

OBJECT 8: Egyptian painted pottery cattle

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.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Object 7: Ain Sakhri lovers figurine

There was a pebble,
There was a pebble the size of a clenched fist,
There was a pebble the size of a clenched fist tumbling downstream,
Tumbling downstream, banging against other stones on its way,
A stone smoothed and rounded against the chattering of other stones,
By the rhythm of the water's soft caress, like the soft caress of a lover.

There was a hand,
There was a human hand,
There was a human hand reaching down into a river,
Reaching down beneath the glistening froth of the bubbling water,
Choosing the pebble, lifting it from its tinkling gravel bed,
A human hand holding a pebble the size a fist,
Fingers feeling the round sensual rhythm of a pebble, caressed by a river's flow.

There was a man,
There was a woman,
There was a man and a woman who loved each other,
They loved each other and loved to feel each other's soft caresses -
A hand,
A hand touching a hand,
Fingers stroking hair, lingering on a thigh,
Fingers dipping and probing in an ecstasy of passion,
A man and a woman making love,
Wrapping their thighs around each other,
A man and a woman gasping in the wonder of the sexual act,
A man and a woman dissolving into each other,
Like a stone dissolving in the patient embrace of a river's subtle song.

There were gazelle,
There were gazelle to be hunted,
Hunted on the lush savannah landscapes,
There were gazelle and there was grain on the stalks,
There were wild grasses, there were lentils and chickpeas and wheat and barley,
There was meat on the fire and bread baking on hot stones,
There was food in the larder and new gods to worship,
To thank for the fecundity of nature,
The blessing of a benevolent earth,
The union of a man and a woman consecrated by the fruitful earth.

There is passion,
There is passion in flesh, in being human, in being alive,
In being alive when the mother goddess has blessed life itself,
When life itself is bursting with vigour and hope,
And a man and woman are making love,
A man and a woman are lost in each other,
Lost in a tender moment, caught in time,
Caught in an eternal embrace,
A tender moment frozen into soft lines of energy,
An emotional time machine carved into a pebble,
Carved into a pebble so that the lover's act will unfold forever in ecstasy,
To remind us all of the power of love,
The power of love carved into a pebble,
A pebble the size of a fist,
A pebble lifted from the bed of a river near Bethlehem, 10,000 years ago,
A stone smoothed and rounded against the chattering of other stones,
By the rhythm of the water's soft caress, like the soft caress of a lover.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Object 6: Bird shaped pestle

A startle of colour stabs through the canopy of the forest below,
A flurry of wingbeats, marvelling the air
As the bright iridescent bird; a sudden shock of feathers and flight
Sets sail above them.
They abandon their digging for a while, kneel and crane their heads upwards
And watch as the bird departs,
Blessing the crop of bitter tubers beneath their feet.

It’s time for farmer families to gather food, to harvest wheat and rice and root,
It’s time to sit around a fire, to kneel before a stone,
It’s time to grind the kernels of the gathered grain, to store them up before the rain,
It’s time to cook, to boil and bake, to share a meal, to give and take,
It’s time to learn how wild things grow, to know their seasons;
When to reap and when to sow.

On upland soil where no trees grow,
Wild grasses wave in the ripple of the wind;
There in bleak summers when rain was scarce and deer and bison refused to show,
When hunger gnawed at vein and bone, and children moaned and cried to feed;
A green verdant blanket of barley, wheat and rye stood ready with their seed.

And in the heat of a jungle, humid with the breath of the earth,
Pestle and mortar are pounding away, the women rock, the women sway
To the rhythm of their daily task:
The bowl of hip, the bowl of stone are scraped and scoured,
The taro pummelled to a paste,
The fire is lit, the bread is baked;
The village family rooted firmly in their village soil
Share the rich baked alchemy of their toil.

And the memory of the bird with wings outstretched,
Blessing the harvest as it ascends with a message
Into the wonder of the bright blue sky,
Is now a memory in a shaft of stone;
A celebration in a practical object,
A magical omen hatched in a human brain.

And with sturdy phallic sureness, its pounding message of plenty,
Its message of rain and fruitful harvests,
Its message of fertile hopefulness
Is transforming Earth’s green gift into food.