November 26th, 2008

Portrait as a Renaissance artist-enginee

Hands on

We'd seen the Rosetta stone, the Elgin marbles, and loitered among the Assyrian lion-killers. We passed the negligible solid-gold Kate Moss sculpture along the way. I learned about my sister's long-term fascination with the code of Hammurabi, a replica of which stood on a landing outside what used to be the British Library. (The original code stele in in the Louvre.) Then I took her to see the Enlightenment gallery, because, for browsing, it has no equal in the museum. It's a eighteenth-century cabinet-of-wonders confection. Even the temporary exhibit of painted Damien Hurst plastic skulls looked somewhat at home in its eclectic scope.

After the skulls and oil lamps and an orrery (some day I will have one of my own), we passed a lone museum volunteer, sitting at a table, with seven or eight objects arrayed in a tray in front of her. The sign beside her said it was a Hands-on activity, so we stopped to enquire. In reverse chronological order, she placed the objects in our hands and asked if we knew what each was. The youngest was a mere 200 years old, an east African carved wooden headrest, useful for resting while wearing an elaborate headdress and to avoid getting bugs in one's ears. The little Ganesh sculpture was another few hundred years older, as was the thirteenth-century Islamic star-shaped tile with fake writing on it.

The small alabaster container obviously once had a stopper; it was used for kohl, 3000 years ago in Egypt, as was the other object pressed into our hands from the same time - a piece of fabric, woven, smooth, pleasant. Only after we'd already handled it, did she tell us it was from a mummy shroud. (Her comment on this was along the lines of, "The deserts of Egypt are full of mummies, since back then, everyone was mummified.) A cuneiform-decorated clay peg from Sumeria was older still. Older by tens of thousands of years was the hand-axe. And a fossilized ammonite was oldest of all.

The feel of the scrap of fabric, its small, smooth weight in my hand, are what stick with me most vividly. Each strand was spun before being woven together into a large piece of fabric. It was wrapped around a mummified corpse and lay under the desert for hundreds of years. It was excavated, ended up in the British Museum as a spare, suitable for handling. Originally, the handling scrap was larger, a foot by two feet or so, but years of touching have worn it, or lost its pieces, until there is only this, perhaps two inches by five, and it is fabric and it has survived and been placed in my hands freely to connect with people who lived 3000 years ago.