I have always been fascinated by Ancient History. When I moved 18 months ago, one of the most difficult moments was getting rid of many of my books, quite a few of which were on the subject of Ancient Egypt. In recent years, some very fine and interesting books have been published on that long lived civilization whose brilliance remains as a splendid afterglow even today.
The Egyptians were not the only great race, of course. The Sumerians and Babylonians rivalled them and even surpassed them in some things. I was reminded of this when we went to the British Museum recently and saw a pair of magnificent winged bulls of the sort that guarded the temples and and palaces of Sargon.
A clue to what fascinates me was visible on one of these winged bulls cum gateways: the guardians of the gate had scratched a game board on the plinth in order to while away the long hours on guard duty. Such palpable and touching evidence of the lives of ordinary people is rare in ancient monuments and these traces must therefore rank as treasures, albeit treasures of a different kind from the royal monuments and sculptures.
So what is the attraction of these ancient peoples about which we often know so tantalizingly little? After all, we have our own civilization to admire along with hundreds of others. The modern world is a veritable market place of cultures jostling one another, now amicably, now aggressively. Anyone with a penchant for anthropology has more than enough to work with. Perhaps that is precisely the point: today’s amateur historian and anthropologist is the focus of a veritable overload of information. It would take many lifetimes to make sense of it all.
Wherever man has trod, we see evidence of past cultures, sometimes elaborate and sophisticated ones, like the Incas of South America or the mysterious Harappan civilization of the Indus valley whose cities had baths and running water but whose language, visible in a few inscriptions, is unlikely ever to be deciphered. The little dancer is a charming memento of that lost culture. Or the Biblical Hittites, who preferred to call themselves Hatti, and whose law codes have survived.
The partition between history and fiction is flimsy and often breached, sometimes knowingly, sometimes in ignorance. Can ever ever really know these people whose bones and pottery sometimes survive but whose voices are lost forever? Their histories are like fragmentary palimpsests whose holes we struggle to fill. These gaps perforce simplify the picture we have and leave much to the imagination and therein, perhaps, lies their charm.