Fingerprints Episode 4
Curator Paul Collins takes us on a journey with a 3000 year old king uncovered by an Indian soldier digging a trench in World War I, and explore what he has to tell us about the formation of Iraq as a nation state. Find a transcript of this episode here
Speakers in this episode:
About the Fingerprints podcast
Every object in the Ashmolean has passed from hand to hand to reach the Museum. In a new podcast, we uncover the invisible fingerprints left behind by makers, looters, archaeologists, soldiers, rulers, curators, and many more. These stories of touch reveal the ways in which the forces of conflict and colonialism have shaped Britain’s oldest Museum. Join the Ashmolean’s curators alongside artists, experts, and community members, for our new podcast: Fingerprints.
Fingerprints will be released on the Ashmolean’s website, on Spotify, Apple, and wherever you get your podcasts, weekly from 21 January 2022 until 25 February 2022.
Fingerprints is produced and hosted by Lucie Dawkins. Guests include Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the Report on African Cultural Heritage, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron; Professor Dan Hicks, of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and Simukai Chigudu, one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
Please be advised that this episode contains a graphic description of war which may not be suitable for all listeners.
He was rather hidden away on a dark shelf with very little in the way of information about him. And I started to think more about him - where did he come from? It became quite clear, I think, quite quickly to me that he was something rather special.
This is Fingerprints, a podcast from the Ashmolean Museum. Invisible fingerprints cover every object in the museum, belonging to artists, looters, rulers, archaeologists, soldiers, curators, and collectors and many more. These fingerprints reveal the complex, and often uneasy history behind the making of a museum. I'm your host, Lucie Dawkins, and today I'm talking to Dr. Paul Collins, the Jaleh Hearn curator of the ancient Near East. So Paul, we're sitting together in front of a very cheerful looking sculpture. Can you describe what we're looking at?
This is a 20 centimetre high man, he's made of limestone so appears very white, but originally would have been more brightly coloured because he was almost certainly inlaid with different materials. What survives is a standing man with his hands clasped before him. He wears a fleece-like tufted skirt, which may well have been intended as a sheep's fleece, and above his waist he is nude, and his eyes would have been inlaid. Mother of pearl survives in one of the eyes for the white, and no doubt the pupil would have been black or perhaps even blue lapis lazuli, a blue stone from Afghanistan. And his head is flat at the top but drilled with a number of holes. So almost certainly designed to hold a wig, or perhaps an elaborate headdress.
And where is he from?
So this statue comes from southern Mesopotamia, the modern region of Iraq and the home of the Sumerians. And these were people who spoke the Sumerian language from, well, probably the fourth millennium through the third millennium BC, so we're talking about 4000 to 2000 BC. Urban centres, the world's first cities are usually credited to the Sumerians, and perhaps the most impressive development that the Sumerians are credited with is the invention of writing.
And do we know anything about how this four and half thousand year old man is?
He almost certainly represents the figure of a king. The back of his head has a bun, and that's something that's normally worn by a king. The holes in his head were almost certainly designed to take an elaborate headdress, which again, is something you would associate with kings.
Ok, It sounds like we need to use our imaginations a bit to fill in this missing royal headdress. Do we have any clues about what it might have looked like?
It could have been made of stone for sure, but it also may have been metal. And as there is no metal in Iraq, it all has to be imported. This would have expressed its real status and power and prestige. And we have surviving examples of headdresses made of gold. So he’s turning out to be something rather special. And his fleece-like tufted skirt, again, if you turn him around and look at his back, he's got a sheep's tail actually attached where you would expect a sheep's tail at the back.
And why might a Sumerian King have chosen the sheepskin as part of his royal outfit?
In terms of agriculture, it's an immensely fertile abundant world. It could produce not just grain, but also plants like flax to produce linen, and could feed vast herds of sheep. So wool was another important product. So textiles and agricultural products would have been exchanged and traded across the region. And one of the things they would have been exchanged for is metals and stones not available in Mesopotamia. So from the mountains of Iran or the mountains of modern Turkey, metal and stone would have been brought down onto the flat alluvial plains of southern Iraq into the cities and some of it would have been used to decorate the statues of kings and gods in the temples.
So it sounds like this sculpture was covered with materials which came from all over the place. Metal and mother of pearl, and possibly lapis lazuli. So this sculpture really is a symbol of international trade.
Yes little surviving on it, of course, because all the metal and the special stones that were once in laid into it have long since vanished, but originally almost certainly expressed the power of a king who could reach out along the trade routes and acquire the raw resources not available in southern Iraq.
So let’s think back to some of the first fingerprints on this sculpture - those of the ancient Sumerians. How might they have handled him and used him?
So the statue is usually described as a votive figure, he was intended to be carried into a temple, and there would pray on behalf of the person who donated it to the temple, pray before the god, but also probably take part in rituals throughout the years, so it was moved around the temple, taken into the courtyard perhaps where it might receive offerings from pilgrims and worshippers. As an ancient Sumerian you would have looked at the statue and marvelled at the extraordinary materials that covered it, imagining the mysterious lands they came from - the mountains that were homes of gods and supernatural creatures beyond the alluvial plains of southern Iraq. It's likely that they expected the statue to pray forever before the God in the temple. And he was in the temple almost certainly for some four and a half thousand years before he was dug up, and then transported away from his homeland to live out his days in Oxford.
And who was this person who dug him up? I mean there he was, buried in an ancient temple, busy praying away on behalf of a long dead king for eternity, and it sounds like this is the next set of hands that have changed the course of this sculpture’s history.
The statue comes from a site close to the modern city of Samarra to the north of Baghdad. So if you follow the river Tigris north, you come to the really important Islamic side of Samarra. And there, the statue was uncovered by soldiers. These were Indian soldiers of the British Army, who are part of the occupying force that had invaded and occupied Iraq during the First World War. So in 1914, Mesopotamia was part of the Ottoman Empire and the British were fighting the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and had invaded Mesopotamia so that they could control both the oil reserves, but also the important route through the region to India. And Indian soldiers from the subcontinent were the main army that the British used to invade the country. And so Indian soldiers digging trenches in advance of a major battle between the British and the Ottomans in 1917 discovered this statue, and in fact, there's a large gouge from the front of the statue, which is almost certainly the result of the pick that the Indian soldier had been using to dig his trench, that pulled the statue from the ground
Do we know the name of the soldier who left his mark on the sculpture?
So yes, sadly, we don't know the name of the person who discovered the statue. But somehow it reached the hands of the commanding officer of the 14th Sikh regiment, a certain Lieutenant Colonel Earl, and it was he and the officers of the 14th Sikhs who donated it to the Ashmolean in 1919.
Among the various European colonies, undivided India contributed the highest number of men.
This is Professor Santanu Das of All Souls College Oxford, who specialises in the lived experiences of Indian soldiers in World War One.
Some one and a half million Indians, including 900,000 soldiers and 600,000 non combatants recruited, of whom over a million served abroad. They played a vital role in the Western Front, holding one third of the entire British line from September to December 1914. But the main seat of the action was Mesopotamia. Out of the country's vast population, only a sliver from Northern India was even allowed to fight for the Empire. In accordance with the theory of the martial races most soldiers came from the peasant warrior classes of Punjab for most of them, the army was the main source of livelihood across several generations. But fused and confused with it were other factors, family and community traditions, pressures of masculinity, social aspiration, financial incentives, and a sense of 'izzat' or honour.
So let's imagine the experience of this unnamed Indian soldier, also known as a sepoy, most likely a Sikh from the Punjab, who found this sculpture as he dug a trench on the banks of the Tigris River, 3000 miles away from home. Could you describe what the war was like for a sepoy like him in Mesopotamia?
Some 600,000 Indians served in Mesopotamia. It is associated with the infamous siege of Kut Al Amara, which continued from December 1915, to April 1916, with several 1000 Indians starving to death. But there's also a parallel army of Indian labourers, sappers, miners, engineers and signalers, who made the roads, bridges and dams so that the British forces under General Maude could advance on both sides of the Tigris and take Baghdad on 11th March 1917. But for this poor Indians, it was unremitting backbreaking labour, digging trenches, and roadways and railways, and their accounts of how their blistered fingers wood in the heat actually stick to the stone chips and metal plates. If for the English soldiers an Arabian Nights quality hung over Mesopotamia for the Indians, like the Bengali worker, Ashutosh Roy towns like Basra, I quote, 'remind me of our towns. The shops are well decorated, the bazaar is covered. At every lane, you will find a cover corner or coffee shop like our tea shops.'
And what do you think the legacy of this sculpture is as an object which came to light through war and conflict?
This statue for me is a palimpsest. It's an archive of multi directional histories, as well as of touch and intimacy. If the missing metallic crown, or the mother of pearl eye hints at ancient trade routes, the gash on its body, it's like the physical trace of the violence of war and empire. But it is also a story of lateral encounters of a Punjabi sepoy possibly in Mesopotamia, striking it, and then finding it, handling it before handing it back to the British officer. And I think what we have here is not just a rare archaeological find, but also the role of the sensuous the material and the contingent, the warm breath of life, as it were, interrupting the business of both war and Empire.
Are there any first hand accounts which might give us an insight into the experience of our accidental archaeologist and what he might have gone through in Mesopotamia?
An extremely rare account is the Bengali memoir Abhi Le Baghdad, by the medical orderly Sisir Sarbadhikari, and it has an extraordinary history. Sarbadhikari was caught up in the seige of Kut, and he started keeping a daily diary. And when he was taken a prisoner of war, and he was made to march 500 miles across the desert sands, he tore up his diary into little bits of paper, which he stuck into his boots. And later on, he would base his memoir on these notes.
Here's an extract from Sisir Sarbadhikari's account of the Battle Ktesiphon in November 1915.
It is beyond my power to describe what I witnessed as the 23rd dawned. The corpses of men and animals were strewn everywhere. Sometimes the bodies lay tangled up, sometimes wounded merely, groaning behind the carcasses of animals. In places they remain stuck in the barbed wire or and hanging, some fortunately dead, and some still living. There might be a severed head stuck in the wire, perhaps a leg there. A man was hanging spreadeagled from the wire. His innards were spilling from his body. There were spots within the trenches where four or five men were lying dead. Punjabs, Hindustanis, British, Gurkhas, all alike and indistinguishable in death.
Here's another extract from his time in a prisoner of war camp, where he formed a friendship with his Turkish guards.
We spoke of our lands, our joys and sorrows. One thing they always used to say is 'This war that we are fighting. What is our stake in this? Why are we slashing each other's throats? You stay in Hindustan, we in Turkey, we don't know each other, share no enmity. And yet so we became enemies overnight because one or two persons deemed it so’. Is this on the mind of every soldier of every nation?
Let's find out more about the next people who left their fingerprints on this statue, the curators here at the Ashmolean Museum. So Paul, how was he received here at the museum in 1919?
Well, it was received with great excitement. Very little was known in 1919 about the Sumerians in terms of what they might look like. Lots of their texts were being translated, so there was beginning to be a good understanding of the Sumerian language. But the big question at that time was, who were the Sumerians? And where did they come from? And what did they look like? And it was thought, certainly in the early 20th century, that you could answer that by looking at art. It was imagined, it was thought at the time that you could actually see real people represented in sculptures such as this one. Because the world was imagined as divided into different races, they were imagined as having emerged in certain parts of the world, and along with facial physical characteristics, they embodied certain attributes. So for example, you might have people who were despotic, and some people who were naturally intelligent. And in this racial thinking of the time, Caucasian white Europeans were thought to be the most sophisticated and civilised people, whereas other people further down a sliding scale became more and more primitive. And so by finding a statute such as this, it was imagined that people could actually start to see what the Sumerians physically looked like.
So this is an obviously racist approach to interpreting historical artefacts, but also particularly ludicrous when we look at this little sculpture, because it's clearly not a naturalistic representation of a human being. His head is about a third of the length of his body, and he’s got tiny little spindly legs, almost like a stick man. This is obviously not what a Sumerian would have actually looked like.
We would certainly consider it as nonsense today. And of course, the whole notion of race has been rejected today, but certainly in the late 19th and early 20th century, the entire explanation of history was understood in terms of race and racial profiling.
And who was this curator who made this particular interpretation of the sculpture?
Well, the man who was very interested in discovering the Sumerians, and was Stephen Langdon, he was Oxford professor of Assyriology. Assyriology - so the study of the ancient languages of Mesopotamia in the Middle East - so it was very exciting for Langdon to be able to visualise what this Sumerians actually looked like. And here he thought he had one of the first examples that would enable him to do that.
Here is an abridged extract from Langdon's writing, in which you can hear him making assumptions about Sumerian people's brains based on this sculpture.
Stephen Langdon 18:39
The Sumerians and Elamites have a high thin nose whose bridge joins the cranium without much curvature of the bridge, a square jaw and round chin, thinned pursed lips and long head with large brain capacity. Most characteristic of all Sumerian features is the access of the eye socket. A line drawn from the inner corner of the sockets to the outer corner slants outward and downward. This feature is clearly indicated on the statuette of Istabulat.
So after 1919, this ancient king sat in the Ashmolean Museum, but back home in Mesopotamia, huge political changes were happening. Paul, can you tell us more about what was going on?
So when the statue emerged out of the ground in 1917, of course, the British were fighting the Turkish Ottoman Empire that had controlled Mesopotamia for centuries, and they were victorious. And by 1920, with the end of the First World War, the British had been granted authority by the League of Nations to control Mesopotamia, given a mandate, as it was known to administer the country until it was in a fit state (as the League of Nations considered) to run its own affairs. And so effectively, Mesopotamia became part of the British Empire. Immediately, there was a rebellion by the inhabitants of the region against British occupation. And a way to try and solve the problem of governing this land, the British decided to create the kingdom of Iraq.
Am I right in saying that many of the British officials involved in the creation of this new nation state started out studying ancient history, right here at Oxford University?
It's amazing quite how many people that were educated on Oxford, and were educated in ancient history and archaeology then played a significant role in the creation of not just Iraq, but the wider Middle East. And this was because they were among the few people who had actual experience of the region. So archaeologists like T. Lawrence, and Leonard Woolley, David Hogarth and Gertrude Bell had spent years in the Middle East before the outbreak of the First World War. So it was to them that the British authorities and British intelligence turned when they wanted information about the people and the landscapes of this region. And of course, many of them, like Bell, then stayed on as part of the new administrative structure of the Middle East to begin forging the new nation states, but in their image, in what they considered to be the most important way of organising the world. And for people like Gertrude Bell, who had a rather romantic idea of the past, who saw an opportunity for the Arabs to reclaim a sort of golden age that she had spent many years researching. And here was an opportunity by appointing a king, who would lead them into a new world.
During this time, under British administration, this sculpture had a small part to play in this formation of a new national identity for Iraq, forged by British officials. Could you tell us more about that?
The Director of Education in Baghdad was very keen to include something of the ancient history of the new nation. So the Sumerians began to play an important part in shaping national identity. So he wrote to David Hogarth, the keeper of the Ashmolean, asking for a copy of the little Sumerian statue. David Hogarth was a leading archaeologist of his day and had joined British naval intelligence at the start of the First World War, and been appointed briefly in 1916, as head of intelligence in the Cairo office. Hogarth replied, on British intelligence headed notepaper, saying that he could certainly send a copy of 'the ugly little man' as he described it to Iraq, for the education system, but the statue itself would remain in Oxford.
Let's just take a second to go back to Gertrude Bell, the archaeologist turned administrator who helped choose the first king of Iraq. What was her influence, in particular?
Gertrude Bell was instrumental in selecting a new king for Iraq. And she thought that the best person to fill that role was someone called Prince Faisal, who was the son of the Sharif of Mecca, and he was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. And so in her view, he represented all that was best in terms of the Arabs, and although his family had no connection with Mesopotamia (or Iraq as it would become) nonetheless, she and British officials felt that he was the man for the job. And the new king of Iraq appointed her also as the Head of Antiquities, the honorary director of Antiquities, and it was she who would write the laws governing the removal of objects out of the country, and established the first museum for antiquities in Baghdad. And it was very, very favourable to the British and European and American excavators who now came to the country in their droves. And major excavations began at the site of Ur by the British Museum, and by the University of Oxford, and the Field Museum in Chicago, at Kish - so two sites in southern Iraq. And hundreds of locals, Iraqis, were employed to dig up thousands of objects, many of which were then exported because of the laws that allowed it out of the country, to museums in America and the United Kingdom.
So because of Gertrude Bell's influence half of the ancient Mesopotamian objects found in Iraq were leaving the country.
Well, we have certainly photographs of Gertrude Bell, and many of the photographs show Gertrude Bell actively dividing finds between the European excavators and the new Iraqi institutions she was creating to house it? So the idea of the early selection of objects in Iraq was very much her product.
And did this system change at all, in which European and American museums were taking large numbers of Iraqi artefacts out of the country?
Yes, by 1932, Iraq was given its independence by the British - although, of course, the British continued to have significant influence in the country. And one way in which the Iraqis could express their growing independence was by rewriting their antiquities laws. It wasn't until 1934 that the first Iraqi was appointed as director of antiquities in the country. His name was Sāṭi`al-Ḥuṣrī, he had been education minister, and he set about reforming the antiquities laws, and the sites that were excavated, focusing not just on the ancient sites, which the Europeans and Americans had been interested in, but in Islamic sites. And so major excavations began at a significant sites, which told the history of Islam, and as a result, they began to claim greater control over their antiquities, and many more objects were now being deposited in the major antiquities museum in Baghdad. The museum in Baghdad really became a focus for the idea of a national story, the idea that this part of the world had seen the emergence of the world's first cities, civilizations through from the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and then the coming of Islam and the great Abassid empire, with its great capital, established at Baghdad, became a narrative through which the nation of Iraq could find a sense of identity.
So Iraq is obviously rich and cultural heritage and Somar, Sumeria, is a very important part and that cultural legacy is also found in such things as languages, songs, and there is a connection, there is a cultural continuity between Sumeria and people in southern Iraq.
This is Dr. Mehiyar Kathem of the Nahrein Network, an international project aiming to support Iraqi communities in reclaiming their ancient heritage. He told us more about the way that Iraq's ancient heritage has a vital role to play in Iraqi identity today.
So Sumerian identities, and the way in which they are interwoven in such things even as the southern Iraqi colloquial Arabic that we find in places like Amara, Meysan, Basra, Nasiriyah, those are always constantly being negotiated. And people actually from that region are very proud of this heritage.
In terms of modern Iraq, how important do you think heritage is and where are the challenges in terms of modern Iraqi identity and its heritage?
One way in which we can look at culture heritage competition is Iraq's very own political system itself, which is called Muhasasa. So Muhasasa is a system that was developed from 2003, and that is to provide resources and state power to Iraq's main cultural groups based around Shia, Sunni and Kurdish group identities. And actually what's happened under this Muhasasa or political quota system, power and resources have been distributed to elite political groups, but they've been able to use and instrumentalise heritage for their own political purposes and to legitimise themselves. And those elite political groups are very much disconnected from wider society. And in my own research, I look at cultural appropriation and how one site, for instance, can be taken over by one group for the uses of religion, or politics or legitimacy. For instance, one mosque that can be converted from one group to another and that's a facet that's problematic, that is not just problematic, but it's destructive, and it's destructive, because those kind of activities disenfranchise people from accessing cultural heritage.
Would I be right in saying that among the images one sees the young protesters in Baghdad and elsewhere using are indeed those those ancients images, those ancient symbols, the statues of Sumerians or Assyrian monuments? That sense of taking that ancient past as a form of identity.
Iraq is currently in a situation of enormous debt. It's actually bankrupt and also you have COVID-19 and its impact. And that's why there is a national protest movement in Iraq. There are people protesting because there are power outages, high unemployment, there are major, major problems when it comes to structural economic, political problems in Iraq. The Iraq protest movement has used graffiti, has used paintings, murals, other forms of cultural expression, a lot of that has been based on pre-Islamic cultural heritage. And why has that been the case? It is because it has not been contested. Pre-Islamic cultural heritage is not part of what we call Muhasasa in Iraq. It's not part of Iraq's political contestation between the fierce rivalries that we see. And so the youth who make up the majority of Iraq's national protesters are using symbols to unify different parts of society. And pre-Islamic cultural heritage is one way in which they are doing that. And it's been, it's been very successful, by using images from Babylon or from Assyria, or from Somar, from Sumeria, that, you know, people are saying that this actually is one way in which we can unite, one way in which we can speak to each other without the troubled sectarianism of post-2003. And there's an enormous opportunity here to actually provide a framework if you like for peace, based on pre-Islamic cultural heritage, pre-Islamic identities. And I think that can be one way in which modern Iraqi identities can be negotiated.
And Mehiyar, during Daesh’s occupation of Iraq, they specifically destroyed pre-Islamic heritage sites and museums. What was the point of targeting ancient culture like this?
Daesh was very specific. And that was part of it plan to erase cultural heritage and construct points of reference that it could control. You know, a scorched earth policy - by wiping out the sort of cultural environment that they could actually control the future. And, of course, it wasn't just cultural heritage, we have today the six year remembrance of the genocide of Yazidis. So this wasn't just cultural property, they were targeted, they were targeting people, and then trying to raise entire cultural groups from Iraq. And of course, that didn't happen, and there was a liberation, but that there was an attempt to do that.
And in terms of foreign intervention into this complex picture, we've been talking a lot about British colonialism, the history of occupying Mesopotamia and claiming Mesopotamia by taking its objects to university and state museums in Europe and America. But in the modern Iraq, foreign intervention is very often about pouring money into heritage projects. Could that be a problem in its own right?
There can be a problem with funding cultural heritage without a vision, without a strategy. And from my own research, I've observed that international heritage institutions do not have a vision regarding cultural heritage in Iraq. What we've had in Iraq since 2003, but also since the 1990s and under sanctions, is hundreds of thousands of cultural objects and manuscripts have been taken, and spirited out of the country. Of course, we have the famous case of the Iraq museum, but also from archaeological sites. What does that mean? That means that Iraq's political security situation is very fragile. And its borders are porous when it comes to cultural heritage. You know, we call them objects, but they are really an embodiment of human activity. Artefacts are actually a product of people. And I think it's really important that we have more studies about what happens to a state when you've had this kind of cultural degradation, this kind of cultural destruction that we've seen in Iraq. Pouring money into a place like Iraq, but also other countries in the region, has to be done with a view to making sure that the country benefits from this money. But often, US and European projects are done with the view to learning more about the cultural sites and the archaeological sites that Europeans were digging in, rather than addressing the core strategic, what I would call heritage essentials and programmes that the Ministry of Culture in Iraq needs desperately needs such as digitisation, better storage spaces for its artefacts, or even simple things like perimeter walls for some of the the main archaeological sites in Iraq. This point is important because like I said, Iraq's political economy, the resources of state have been redirected since 2003, not to national heritage, but sort of political elites. And there's been sort of a weaponisation, if you like, of cultural heritage, and therefore you have massive neglect across the board. Uou have neglect of Islamic heritage, you have neglect of pre-Islamic heritage, and of course of modern heritage in the 20th century. And this is problematic, because you have a state which is being undermined by competing political groups. And I would argue that Iraq continues to be in an emergency situation. Even though a lot of these projects, a lot of these international projects continue to provide capacity building and training. And that's insufficient in a country that continues to be characterised by instability.
So, in the last four and a half thousand years, this king has passed through many hands to reach its place in the ancient Near East gallery today. Through his one mother of pearl eye, he has seen empires rise and fall, passed through a bloody war, borne witness to racist colonial attitudes in scholarship, and played his own small part in the formation of a new nation state. Last year, he feature in a special exhibition called ‘Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq’, a collaborative exhibition with people from the Middle East now living in Oxford, examining the role of the university and its scholars in the transformation of the region in the years 1914-1930. These community voices were heard throughout this exhibition, reflecting on their community, their personal and family lives, and the result of creating a modern country out of the remnants of an empire.
And the statuette is still on display today in gallery 19, where you can go and see him in person, his hands still clasped in prayer for the king who dedicated him thousands of years ago. If you can’t make it into the museum, you can find an image of him n the podcast notes. Thanks to all our speakers in this episode, Paul Collins, Santanu Das, and Mehiyar Kathem, and thank you for listening. Join me for the next episode of Fingerprints, and a story about the politics of archaeology, and hunting mythical monsters in the Mediterranean.