Love Letters To Libraries

Love Letters To Libraries is a week-long series for Scottish Book Week. The Guardian is hosting examples by well-known writers, including Alexander McCall Smith and A L Kennedy.

I like this idea. Here’s mine (sort of).


DEAR LIBRARY,

One of the first things every student does when they arrive at university is collect their library card. Unlike most of the others, however, I didn’t just pick up my card on the first day and head off to the Guild for a beer.

I wanted to see what was on the shelves.

I took the lift up to the floor with the archaeology books. I stared in amazement at the neat ranks of PhD theses in hardback bindings, rows upon rows of bound research papers, and past copies of magazines such as Current Archaeology, Antiquity, and the near-mythical journal of The Palynology Society.

It felt like I’d discovered Buried Treasure.

Not yet, I told myself. You have years to discover all this.

Instead, I made my way to the floor where they kept archive copies of British broadsheet newspapers, hunting for a specific item.

A small notice in the Times, November 1922.

The earliest reports of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb – a tiny paragraph of cool politeness and understatement.

Remember, at this point Howard Carter had been looking for sixteen years. Lord Carnarvon was on the point of giving up.

There was nothing to suggest that Tutankhamen was anything special, either.

In 1922, Tutankhamen was just an obscure name in the King Lists, a short reign sandwiched between the outrageous schism of Akhenaten‘s new religion and the dynasty which gave us the many pharaohs named Ramesses.

The reports from 1922 speak of promising signs that the tomb had not been disturbed. There were few hints of the treasure we know now.

I stood in the university library living the moment of Carter’s discovery, sand beneath my shoes and a hot desert sun in my eyes.

My thoughts?

“Oh, world, you do not know what’s about to hit you.”

I closed the newspaper and replaced its file back on the shelf. All those years I spent in the library, not once did I go back to re-live the thrill of that moment.

But whenever I think of my time in university, that enchanted hour alone amongst the archives stands out for me as clear as a candle thrust through a hole in a sealed tomb:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly… For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and… unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”
Howard Carter, Tomb of Tutankhamen

University of Birmingham Library at redbrick.me

University of Birmingham Library. No, I don’t know who those people are either.


P.S. as an added bonus, have a look at Library Etiquette over on Redbrick.

Published in: on November 26, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Love Letters To Libraries  
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My Favourite Anubis

While I was writing the month-long series of posts about my novel, SHADOWBOX, I came across the marvellous online archive at the Griffith Institute, part of Oxford University.

Significant among the archives is Howard Carter’s complete excavation records for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact…’ – Howard Carter’s telegram to Lord Carnarvon on 5 November 1922

The treasures Carter uncovered during that excavation need no introduction. They’ve toured the world in exhibitions everywhere, including the current Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Countless reproductions and imitations made out of everything from tatty plastic to solid gold are available online and in the street markets of Luxor. The treasures of Tutankhamun inspired whole movements in art and architecture, film and fiction and fashion.

That influence haunts us yet.

Besides the golden sarcophagi and jewelled collars, the life-size statues, the mummified husks of his stillborn children, the ceremonial ostrich-feather fans, the evidence of his early life as Tutankhaten, one item stood out for me as I browsed the online archive of Harry Burton’s photographs:

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884; © Copyright Griffith Institute, 2000-2014

More so than the little statues of Nephthys and Selqet and Isis and Neith which stood guarding the corners of the sarcophagus, this little statue of the god Anubis has a charm that reaches out across the centuries.

Wrapped in linen, tucked carefully into a niche in the tomb wall, the statue was placed by a member of Tutankhamen’s funerary gathering in 1323 BCE the way you’d tuck a child’s favourite teddy under his quilt as he fell asleep.

Harry Burton’s photograph shows us that moment frozen in time.

Twice.

Just as I wrote about the earliest photographs in First Light On Paris, the photograph is an artefact in itself.

Look closer. See the crack?

Curving from top to bottom, just to the right of the statuette’s hind quarters, a black line showing where the original glass negative has been broken. And parallel to this black line, as straight as tram-lines in Cairo, twin edges showing where sticky-tape held the glass together.

Layers of time, overlapping, each of which tells a story of its own.

Don’t you wonder who dropped Harry Burton’s glass negative – and stuck it back together with tape?

And don’t you wonder what the person thought who placed that statuette there, 3337 years ago?

Don’t you wonder who they were, he or she, who wrapped the statue of Anubis so carefully in linen as though it were a charmed memento, to accompany the tragically-young pharaoh into the afterlife?

I certainly do.It’s why many people are drawn to archaeology as a profession – to tell the stories of other people, long ago, from the remnants they leave behind.

But only fiction can give us the answer.

Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits

The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863) by Elihu Vedder

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…
Shelley, Ozymandias

For centuries, the lure of Egypt on the European imagination has been strong.

Giovanni Belzoni had excavated the tomb of Seti I and broke his way into the Great Pyramid of Khufu to leave his name in foot-high letters on the wall of the Great Chamber.

Lord Elgin had moved on from looting Greece to bring back the treasures of the Acropolis of Athens, and persuaded the government (of which he was part) to build the British Museum in which to display his ill-gotten gains.

Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon frieze, east pediment (British Museum). Image at wikipedia commonsPart of this was the direct result of the Napoleonic Wars, still resonating across the French Empire almost twenty years later in 1832.

Bonaparte may have ended his rule in ignominy after the Retreat From Moscow, but he took the French Armies across north Africa before he over-reached himself. The prize in his cross-hairs was Egypt.

The greatest prize in all history.

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Egypt remained semi-autonomous [within the Ottoman Empire] under the Mamluks until it was invaded by the French forces of Napoleon I in 1798. After the French were defeated by the British, a power vacuum [led to] a three-way power struggle that ended in 1805 when Muhammad Ali Pasha siezed control. – Wikipedia

But Europeans had already gone crazy for the place (much like we did in 1922, when Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun).

The extent of the extinct Egyptian civilisation was one attraction.

The mystery of its fall was another.

How could an nation, so great that it split the Roman Empire into civil war, just… disappear?

The key to unlocking this mystery lay in the untranslatable hieroglyphics which festooned every surface of the ancient Egyptian landscape.

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831). Champollion is buried in Paris, in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831)

Untranslatable, that is, until the arrival of Jean-Francois Champollion, polymath, genius and Frenchman.

Using classic code-breaking technique, Champollion took the Ptolemaic Greek texts on the Rosetta Stone and applied those translations to the hieroglyphics.

Genius.

Other Egyptologists followed. Soon, the entire fascinating history of Ancient Egypt began to emerge from the pictures. History was rewritten.

Mythology, too.

The kings of Ancient Egypt strode out from the statues and tomb carvings and into popular culture with the same pervasive assurance as quack medicines and elixirs with exotic-sounding names and ground-up mummies listed in the ingredients.

And the gods of Ancient Egypt found new life breathed into their stories, like the new life breathed into Osiris in his voyage through the underworld.

Rebirth.

So sacred to the Ancient Egyptians it became the keystone of the Osiris Myth, their earliest and most primitive gospel.

From the watercolours and drawings by George Alexander Hoskins (1832) in the Archive of the Griffith Institute, University of OxfordSo sacred that each pharaoh became the living embodiment of Osiris, guaranteeing the return of the Nile floods to feed the population in a re-enactment of the deity’s sacrifice and regeneration, risking the wrath of the goddess if he should fail.

The sacred king.

Le Roi Sacré.

Just like Louis Beauregard, Consort to the Last Rhinemaiden.

“The boat of the dying sun god Ra, tacking down the western sky to the dark river that runs through the underworld from west to east… will tomorrow reappear, bearing a once again youthful, newly reignited sun. Or, …a vast motionless globe of burning gas, around which this planet rolls like a pellet of dung propelled by a kephera beetle. Take your pick… but be willing to die for your choice.” – Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates


Next: the penultimate post in the SHADOWBOX series: All Roads Lead To The River.

And journey’s end draws nigh.

Published in: on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits  
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Buried Treasure

“When we study history we obtain a more profound insight into human nature by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society”
Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1832)

As a student, I chose to study archaeology because I’d been fascinated by Ancient Egypt since childhood. Only when I got to university and had to decide in which area to specialise did I realise I’d been led down a false path.

I couldn’t see the practical application of being able to read and write hieroglyphics.

I couldn’t afford to visit Egypt, and back then I didn’t know enough about the world to realise that if I had to travel on business I’d get expenses.

And I didn’t see too many jobs in the museums of Britain where an in-depth knowledge of Egyptology was going to be a boon.

So I chose to study Prehistoric Europe.

Prehistory by its very nature is mysterious: before history, before documentation, before the record-keeping and writing that forms so much of what we know about ancient peoples. So I didn’t need to learn Ancient Greek, or Latin, or hieroglyphics.

I got to play with a theodolite. I got to Italy, and excavated a site where Otzi the Iceman got his axe. I got chapped fingers scrubbing pot-sherds in cold water.

I discovered buried treasure was the result of a lot of digging, a lot of sifting, and a lot of luck.

On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: 'Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramsses VI investigated same & found seals intact.'

On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: ‘Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramesses VI investigated same & found seals intact.’

I got to realise that the world of professional archaeology is a small one. Contracts are short, and pay is low. Competition is high for the paid jobs that come up and I’d started too late to make a career of it without paying my dues for years to come. Years of moving from place to place and job to job, never settled, not knowing where your next contract might lead.

I’d already spent years living like that. The lure of buried treasure wasn’t so strong that I’d put up with the equivalent of going to the Klondike and living in a tent for a decade.

But as a writer, I can create buried treasure of my own.

I go digging. From the comfort of my desk, with a map and an open mind.

I take my lantern and my shovel and go out into the darkness between the lines of my favourite stories, like Howard Carter searching between the empty tombs of the Valley Of The Kings.

Searching for wonderful things.