Why should a conversation turn into a competition?
“Free Archaeological display” said the sign on the trailer, so I wandered in. Before I had got to the top of the stairs a pretty woman in her twenties came over and asked how I was doing. The display is about Umchester, only a couple of miles away. There is a video and some display boards. What do I think? A man of about the same age followed her.
I tell her of the mosaic at the Lakes. Not a picture of a God, or anything, just an abstract pattern- but still quite impressive, we agree. I am interested, I say. I watch the odd documentary on the TV.
-Don’t believe everything you see. If it’s [name] switch off immediately. Later, it emerges that his documentaries are about alien beings building the pyramids. A little hurt, I protest that I can trust BBC4. Channel 5 is a little dodgy.
She works with the public engagement team in London. She does not know much about Roman Britain, she is an Egyptologist by specialisation. I feel the need to show I know a little, to move the conversation to a higher level.
-So if I dropped a name like- I don’t know how to pronounce it- Khasekhemwy…
-That’s early dynastic period, isn’t it? asked her colleague doubtfully.
She starts telling me of Unas. He had unique poetry in his Pyramid Texts, saying he would use the bones of the Gods to scour his pots if they did not obey him. I said I would Google, and I have:
397: Unas is the Bull of Heaven, who (once) suffered want,
and who has decided to live on the essence of every god,
who eats their entrails when they come from the Isle of Fire with their bellies full of magical charms (HkA.w).
398: Unas is a well provided one, who has absorbed his spirits (Ax.w).
Unas has appeared as this Great One, lord of those who are at hand.
He sits with his back turned to Geb.
413: Lo, their soul (bA) is in the belly of Unas, their spirits (Ax.w) are with Unas as the broth of the gods, cooked for Unas from their bones.
Lo, their soul (bA) is with Unas, their Shadows (taken away) from those to whom they belong.
Fuckyeah. Badass or what? I can’t think of any other literature about Gods treating them with such disrespect. “Later kings are back to grovelling,” she said. The ceiling of his tomb is covered in lapis [lazuli] with tiny golden stars for the night sky, she says, with the awestruck tones of one who has seen it.
-Does that survive in the Books of the Dead?
-No, they are very respectful. She quotes a bit. I should read Miriam Lichtheim, she tells me. She loved those works, with transliterations, literal translations word by word then prose translations. “Is it Licht [as in “loch”] or Lisht?” she asks her colleague, but he does not know. Her teacher said Lisht. I google again, and find these are substantial academic works.
I like Gilgamesh, I said. “There is nothing new under the Sun”.
-You can quote it? said the man, impressed. Well, it is a fascinating quote, “Nothing new” in the oldest story we know.
In London many of the objects unearthed are Victorian. She finds them quite interesting. Her colleague is not interested in anything newer than Georgian, he says. He drifts off.
I look down at the displayed objects. There is a coin, a black disc I would not have thought was metal without the context, and the broken pin of a brooch. “You should volunteer!” she says brightly.
-Mmm, in a ditch with a brush.
-Not really, a trowel more often. Though there might be human remains, we would use a brush then. Sometimes people use mattocks. It is very good exercise, she says, winningly. I imagine volunteers with mattocks and archaeologists like her with brushes doing the interesting stuff, sometimes showing it to sweaty, muddy volunteers.
I don’t know how this one started, but we were on Romans in Britain including black people, from Africa, and I remarked that there were Emperors from all over the Empire, but not from Britain. She said there were rulers in Britain. I made myself clearer: there were Emperors from North Africa, or Syria, Emperors of Rome, but none from Britain. She said Britain was a Roman concept, not a concept from before Roman rule.
-I don’t know how I am failing to communicate. There were Emperors from all over the empire, Emperors of Rome, from Syria or North Africa, but not from Britain.
She tells me that was about being closer to trade routes. And when I say that the tribes before the conquest had no writing she said just because none survives does not mean that Boudicca could not write her own language. On African soldiers on Hadrian’s wall, she says the concept of black slaves is a modern concept, we think of slaves coming from Africa; but I meant that the population could move around the empire, and would not all be white.
I want to share poetry with her so ask if she has heard of Hafiz. She has not. I quote some. It is translated by Daniel- but I cannot remember “Ladinsky”, his surname, until later. She goes to talk to a man who nearly fell on the stairs. “You could go down the ramp,” she says helpfully. He had not seen it.
Jewish translator, I say, but she is engaged elsewhere.