Ancient spoils of a modern war

30th May 2003 at 01:00
The disastrous lootingof museums was a preventable aftermath of the war in Iraq. Dinah Starkey hopes that future generations in the West will have a better appreciation of ancient civilisations

Dr Irving Finkel is a man with a mission. He wants all his colleagues at the British Museum to stop at a school every morning on their way to work with a pocketful of treasures to fire the startled children - and their teachers - with his own passion for the distant past. "Teachers are crammed onto a Procrustean bed," he says. "They do the same thing every year." He thinks they might like a man with a long beard to parachute into schools and infect the children with that sense of excitement and wonder that lies at the heart of history.

His own department, the Ancient Near East, is in the news at the moment, for its work helping to save treasures in that region. The fertile crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates was the cradle of civilisation. Today, it is suffering in the aftermath of yet another war and the looting of Iraqi museums has led to the loss of priceless objects thousands of years old. Their loss is a tragedy, and it was a preventable one. The forces of the West simply did not appreciate the rich heritage of the area. Despite conscientious briefings on the need to respect ancient sites, few really understood what was at stake.

It's not surprising. The world of Nineveh and Babylon, of mighty kings and heroes, remains a closed book to most people, and the next generation is unlikely to know any better. Schools have the option to study the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia at key stage 2 but in practice few take it up.

Most go for Ancient Egypt instead, and school parties visiting the British Museum gallop past the fabulous winged statues in the Assyrian gallery without a second glance in their haste to get to the mummies.

This is a pity, because the subject has so much to offer. Dr Finkel calls it a meaty topic, full of blood and battle, heroes and kings. The cities were ruled by warlords straight out of Arabian Nights, and augurers who read the future in the entrails of a sheep. "There's good gore," he says, then enthuses over his favourite slide of a sheep's liver marked like a map with the message of the gods.

The first written story in the world comes from Mesopotamia. It's the epic of Gilgamesh, Lord of the Beasts, and it was recorded on clay tablets thousands of years ago. It tells of the adventures of the hero king and includes an episode in which the world is flooded and the survivors seek refuge in an ark. We can read it today because about 3000BC the people of the fertile crescent first developed a system of writing. The earliest symbols were pictograms and there were thousands of them, but gradually a non-representational form evolved, called cuneiform. Some words from their language still survive today (one of them is "alcohol"). Writing was a secret skill, jealously guarded by a privileged caste. We know that there were schools for the children of scribes, and tablets have survived that show exercises worked by older pupils which younger ones had to read and copy. We know too that teachers made good use of the whip to drive their pupils on. It's all there in the clay tablets.

At a time when the press and television are full of stories about modern Iraq, there's a case to be made for teaching children about its past, if only in the hope of producing a better-informed generation, who will know how to value its treasures. The subject could be taught in parallel with a study of Ancient Egypt or the Indus valley. Comparing the features of two different cultures helps children to understand why each evolved in a particular way. Just as Egypt was the gift of the Nile, so the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia depended on the annual inundation of the Tigris and the Euphrates. In both regions, the flood waters had to be controlled and channelled into a complex system of irrigation ditches. Co-operation and some kind of centralised control were essential if the system was to work.

With good management, the rich alluvial soil could produce surplus food and thus support a class of specialist craftsmen, scribes and priests who were not directly involved in food production.

In Mesopotamia, as in ancient Egypt, these factors resulted in strong central government, supported by a literate bureaucracy and a complex caste system.

Writing is a good starting point for a comparative study. In each of these civilisations, scripts were developed for purely practical purposes.

Methods had to be found to record crop yields and to identify who owed what to whom. But the systems evolved in different ways and were used for different purposes. Children can find out about the two systems and try their hand at making marks on papyrus and clay in order to discover how available materials influenced the choice of symbols.

The people who lived in Iraq 5,000 years ago cast a long shadow. We still reckon a week to last seven days, divide a circle into 360 degrees and measure time in hours and minutes, because that's the system they worked out in the far distant past. History, if it is to have any value, should teach children where they come from and how the events of the past influence our lives today. If there is one key development that children should understand it is how and why people emerged from pre-history and learned to work together to build the first cities. And it happened first in Iraq.

The story of Gilgamesh the Hero appears in The Oxford Book of Myths and Legends, edited by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP). The British Museum has an excellent website for KS2 pupils: THE BIRTH OF CIVILISATION

9000BC: evidence of settlement at Jericho

5000-4000BC: the people later called Sumerians build the first walled


4000BC: birth of civilisation in the Indus valley

3300BC: first evidence of picture-writing found in Iraq

2700BC:Gilgamesh lives and rules in Mesopotamia

2500BC:work begins on the Great Pyramid in Egypt

2000-1400 BC: Stonehenge is constructed

1340BC: Tutankhamen is buried in the Valley of the Kings

1200BC: first recorded version of the story of Gilgamesh

1200BC: the Trojan Wars

1200-600BC: Assyrian empire at its height

800BC: Homer writes the Iliad

562BC: Death of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon

600BC:the Spartans establish a military state in Greece


Mesopotamia means the land between the rivers. It was the name given by the Ancient Greeks to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates, which is now divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

* The Sumerians lived in southern Mesopotamia and built the first walled cities, some time between 5000 and 4000BC. One was Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.

* The Minoans settled the island of Crete, and flourished between 2000 and 1450BC. They were traders and craftsmen, and developed a form of writing known as Linear B.

* The Assyrians were a warlike people whose empire covered most of the Near East from 1200 to 600BC. Their principal power base was in northern Mesopotamia on the banks of the Tigris. One of their warrior kings, Sennacherib (704-681BC), conquered Judah and attacked Jerusalem.

* Babylon was the centre of another powerful empire, which struggled with the Assyrians for supremacy. In 597, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II captured Jerusalem and drove its people into exile.

* Another important civilisation, which overlapped with the Sumerians, was bassed in the Indus valley in India. The first towns and villages appeared there around 400BC and the culture was at its height from c2,400 to 1750BC.

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