A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter X
The new science of oriental archaeology
Treasures from Niniveh
The most casual wanderer in the British Museum can hardly fail to notice two pairs of massive sculptures, in the one case winged bulls, in the other winged lions, both human-headed, which guard the entrance to the Egyptian hall, close to the Rosetta Stone. Each pair of these weird creatures once guarded an entrance to the palace of a king in the famous city of Nineveh. As one stands before them his mind is carried back over some twenty-seven intervening centuries, to the days when the "Cedar of Lebanon" was "fair in his greatness" and the scourge of Israel.

The very Sculptures before us, for example, were perhaps seen by Jonah when he made that famous voyage to Nineveh some seven or eight hundred years B.C. A little later the Babylonian and the Mede revolted against Assyrian tyranny and descended upon the fair city of Nineveh, and almost literally levelled it to the ground. But these great sculptures, among other things, escaped destruction, and at once hidden and preserved by the accumulating debris of the centuries, they stood there age after age, their very existence quite forgotten. When Xenophon marched past their site with the ill-starred expedition of the ten thousand, in the year 400 B.C., he saw only a mound which seemed to mark the site of some ancient ruin; but the Greek did not suspect that he looked upon the site of that city which only two centuries before had been the mistress of the world.

So ephemeral is fame! And yet the moral scarcely holds in the sequel; for we of to-day, in this new, undreamed-of Western world, behold these mementos of Assyrian greatness fresh from their twenty-five hundred years of entombment, and with them records which restore to us the history of that long-forgotten people in such detail as it was not known to any previous generation since the fall of Nineveh. For two thousand five hundred years no one saw these treasures or knew that they existed. One hundred generations of men came and went without once pronouncing the name of kings Shalmaneser or Asumazirpal or Asurbanipal. And to-day, after these centuries of oblivion, these names are restored to history, and, thanks to the character of their monuments, are assured a permanency of fame that can almost defy time itself. It would be nothing strange, but rather in keeping with their previous mutations of fortune, if the names of Asurnazirpal and Asurbanipal should be familiar as household words to future generations that have forgotten the existence of an Alexander, a Caesar, and a Napoleon. For when Macaulay's prospective New Zealander explores the ruins of the British Museum the records of the ancient Assyrians will presumably still be there unscathed, to tell their story as they have told it to our generation, though every manuscript and printed book may have gone the way of fragile textures.

But the past of the Assyrian sculptures is quite necromantic enough without conjuring for them a necromantic future. The story of their restoration is like a brilliant romance of history. Prior to the middle of this century the inquiring student could learn in an hour or so all that was known in fact and in fable of the renowned city of Nineveh. He had but to read a few chapters of the Bible and a few pages of Diodorus to exhaust the important literature on the subject. If he turned also to the pages of Herodotus and Xenophon, of Justin and Aelian, these served chiefly to confirm the suspicion that the Greeks themselves knew almost nothing more of the history of their famed Oriental forerunners. The current fables told of a first King Ninus and his wonderful queen Semiramis; of Sennacherib the conqueror; of the effeminate Sardanapalus, who neglected the warlike ways of his ancestors but perished gloriously at the last, with Nineveh itself, in a self-imposed holocaust. And that was all. How much of this was history, how much myth, no man could say; and for all any one suspected to the contrary, no man could ever know. And to-day the contemporary records of the city are before us in such profusion as no other nation of antiquity, save Egypt alone, can at all rival. Whole libraries of Assyrian books are at hand that were written in the seventh century before our era. These, be it understood, are the original books themselves, not copies. The author of that remote time appeals to us directly, hand to eye, without intermediary transcriber. And there is not a line of any Hebrew or Greek manuscript of a like age that has been preserved to us; there is little enough that can match these ancient books by a thousand years. When one reads Moses or Isaiah, Homer, Hesiod, or Herodotus, he is but following the transcription - often unquestionably faulty and probably never in all parts perfect - of successive copyists of later generations. The oldest known copy of the Bible, for example, dates probably from the fourth century A.D., a thousand years or more after the last Assyrian records were made and read and buried and forgotten.

There was at least one king of Assyria - namely, Asurbanipal, whose palace boasted a library of some ten thousand volumes - a library, if you please, in which the books were numbered and shelved systematically, and classified and cared for by an official librarian. If you would see some of the documents of this marvellous library you have but to step past the winged lions of Asurnazirpal and enter the Assyrian hall just around the corner from the Rosetta Stone. Indeed, the great slabs of stone from which the lions themselves are carved are in a sense books, inasmuch as there are written records inscribed on their surface. A glance reveals the strange characters in which these records are written, graven neatly in straight lines across the stone, and looking to casual inspection like nothing so much as random flights of arrow-heads. The resemblance is so striking that this is sometimes called the arrow-head character, though it is more generally known as the wedge or cuneiform character. The inscriptions on the flanks of the lions are, however, only makeshift books. But the veritable books are no farther away than the next room beyond the hall of Asurnazirpal. They occupy part of a series of cases placed down the centre of this room. Perhaps it is not too much to speak of this collection as the most extraordinary set of documents of all the rare treasures of the British Museum, for it includes not books alone, but public and private letters, business announcements, marriage contracts - in a word, all the species of written records that enter into the every-day life of an intelligent and cultured community.

But by what miracle have such documents been preserved through all these centuries? A glance makes the secret evident. It is simply a case of time-defying materials. Each one of these Assyrian documents appears to be, and in reality is, nothing more or less than an inscribed fragment of brick, having much the color and texture of a weathered terra-cotta tile of modern manufacture. These slabs are usually oval or oblong in shape, and from two or three to six or eight inches in length and an inch or so in thickness. Each of them was originally a portion of brick-clay, on which the scribe indented the flights of arrowheads with some sharp-cornered instrument, after which the document was made permanent by baking. They are somewhat fragile, of course, as all bricks are, and many of them have been more or less crumbled in the destruction of the palace at Nineveh; but to the ravages of mere time they are as nearly invulnerable as almost anything in nature. Hence it is that these records of a remote civilization have been preserved to us, while the similar records of such later civilizations as the Grecian have utterly perished, much as the flint implements of the cave-dweller come to us unchanged, while the iron implements of a far more recent age have crumbled away.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.