23 JUNE 1961, Page 23


Horizons of Bone and Stone

BY HUGH GORDON PORTEUS IROSHIMA was not more thoroughly obliter- ated than many a great city of the ancient orld. Of such perishable stuff are civilisations ado. Only from infinitesimally meagre frag- ants can we rough out our picture of the remote st: fragments, for the most part, of bone or Gaped corroded metal and baked clay, sometimes unPed or inscribed in more or less meaningful 8Ys. And the picture, which has been changing n recent years, gives us little reason for pride. °re obsessed than the ancient delta cultures 1th a passion for measurement, we are now able ° measure a great many more things with far °re accuracy. As a by-product of this industry e have more mechanical toys, some of which re lethal. But the arts, including the fine arts, e arts of living, of government and so on, ern ain as empirical as ever. We are no longer tine so derisive about the fossilisation of those .,°,elent cultures which sought above all the stab- IlrY of society. Our own Open Society now seems (3° open altogether, like a zoo without bars. And

, -Ile more and more channels of communication

ve 111"re open, specialisation inhibits their use. All escea these are commonplaces. Can we learn anything (MI the museum without walls? If we deem our- Ives less provincial in outlook than the older 1Yilisations, for whose people barbarians were 'ays the others, then we can afford to look act( and around without prejudice. There is an °creasing detriand for anthologies of ancient and .xotic art, and for popular historical compila- I"s. Here are three characteristic volumes Fnvering rather sketchily three aspects of our Inherited past. Most immediately attractive, best value for its rice, is Mr. Seton Lloyd's handsome picture ok.* The 250 plates include seventy in colour, nd they range, with an admirable commentary, ver that land mass at the juncture of the three Continents of Europe, Africa and Asia which for ver 5.000 years provided a melting pot for races, languages and arts. Mr. Lloyd has made good use °f his primary authorities. His brief history of those arts which began in Egypt and Sumer and were arrested by the Persian domination is sober s eno and clear. One should not perhaps be hyper- Higin ritical about his choice of plates. The prepon- vn an erance of Egyptian works is dictated partly by nothi the accident that in Egypt climate preserved more char first-rate painting and sculpture, along with the end 1°ns of mechanical rubbish inseparable from , totalitarian cultures. A popular book of this order imag, cannot dispense with the hackneyed Subject:

Nefertiti is of course here. So are the gaudy figures from Babylon, and the dull slabs of

P,ersian, Anatolian and Mesopotamian carving.

Y.et Mr. Lloyd also selects much off-beat Egyp- tian painting, such as the pastiche Cretan fres-

e°es. And from the peripheral cultures he has 4,hosen samples which are sometimes archzeologi- eat curiosities and also masterpieces in their own right. Among these are the Kassite terracottas and the beautiful and amusing Phrygian tomb- -- *THE ART OF THE ANCIENT EAST. By Seton Lloyd. (Thames and Hudson, 30s.)

pottery from Gordium; a mysterious bronze axe from Luristan, and a surprisingly 'modern' mural from Mari.

How much has art advanced? How much better is Picasso than the artists of Lascaux and Altamira? Can chimpanzees ever compete with the disciples of Jackson Pollock? Are the masks of beetles or the nests of some birds works of art? Whatever the answers, only civilised man can put them down in writing. Writing, in Egypt and elsewhere, but not everywhere else, evolved out of painting. Yet again the picture of these beginnings has changed in the last decade or so. It used to be taken for granted that all writing began as picture-writing, advanced by way of the rebus and pictogram through ideogram and determinative to qllabary and thence, with luck, to an 'alphabet.' Heavy scorn was reserved for those cultures which failed to make the alpha- betical grade. It is now more generally conceded that several quite different systems of written communication have amply justified themselves; and that in practice the more useful scripts are still part ideographic and part phonetic. The alphabet we inherit from Phoenicia via Rome is no longer accorded any superlative virtue.

What is certain is that without some generally agreed, legible and coherent system of writing a culture must remain in a state of arrested development. A lettered community is able to keep in touch not only with its own contempor- aries but with its successors and forebears, with its prospects as well as with its heritage. And it is of course largely from their written records that we know even the little we do know of the peoples of the past. For extremely little has in fact survived. It is natural for literate people to write on common and expendable materials. Be- fore the invention of paper, this meant palm- leaves, bark, textiles, wood or bamboo, clay or soft metal strip, according to the area. A good many papyrus manuscripts survived in Egypt : for the most part copies of copies of routine documents, preserved in coffins. The great libraries of the ancient world were all fired. In these fires only documents on clay remained. Inscriptions on stone or bronze. cannot be expected to be any more typical of literature than are our own church brasses and tombstones.

Still, it is from such fragments that the two great detective stories of the civilised past must begin. First, the breaking of the codes, the crack- ing of the major hieroglyphic and cuneiform cribs which enable us to receive messages direct from the ancient Egyptian, Mediterranean, Mesopotamian and Anatolian worlds. Secondly, the collation of these snippets of partial and dis- torted information with evidence from arch :to- logical and other sources. The two new bookst which respectively attempt to retell these stories in the light of recent research are not irreproach- able in detail, but are to be welcomed for the

t VOICES IN STONE. By Ernst Doblhofer. Trans- lated by Mervyn Saville. (Souvenir Press, 30s.) IT BEGAN IN BABEL. By Herbert Wendt. Translated by James Kirkup. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 42s.)

success with which they rough out the general picture. Both are by enthusiasts without first- hand knowledge of all their material.

Mr. Ernst Doblhofer, who bursts into italics and exclamation marks when excited, writes clearly from a certain measure of scholarship as well as love. He tells again, very well, fully and faithfully, the story of the decipherment of Ancient Egyptian and several varieties of cunei- form. He deals more cursorily with Hittite, Ugaritic and Gublitic writing, reproducing in some cases tables of signs with their values, transliterations and translations of specimen texts, and samples ot ancient scripts not yet deciphered. The amateur who can accept Dhormd's version of the Byblos, bronze tablet, wtih those memorable lines These are the words of Lilu: I have rolled the copper of Tophet. I did this In the time of the Governor Ipush.

is unlikely to be deterred from trying his own hand at the world's greatest insoluble crossword, the Phestos Disc, here presented in all its inno- cent-looking detail. One should not assume that such scripts will never be deciphered. One of the points Mr. Doblhofer drives home is that accident and luck have played almost as big a part as scientific method and perseverance in cases where an initially unknown tongue was encoded in an unfamiliar set of symbols. The story of Cretan Linear B is told again here, though not so well as Ventris and Chadwick have already told it themselves. The thing to note here is that even these store inventories, together with the legends transcribed from the bricks of Ras Shamra, have already subtly altered and enriched our picture of the Homeric and pre-Homeric world. The discovery of a key to the Etruscan tongue, or to the scripts of Easter Island and the Indus Valley seals, with their baffling affinity, may one day illumine other blank pages of history.

It Began in Babel is not about language but about the movements of peoples, about migra- tions and geographical discovery, about the his- tory of races and the impact of group upon group. Mr. Wendt is as Teutonically brisk and dogmatic as Mr. Doblhofer is humbly Swiss, but he too is a graphic and infectious writer, intoxi- cated by the romance of his subject. His dramatic little chapters hop disconcertingly about the map and in and out of the centuries with an order all his own. The resulting juxtapositions, howevcr, are effective. He ties up legends and travellers' tales with the facts of recent archwological and ethnological research. He will quote you Josephus or Herodotus and follow it up with a Carbon 14 dating. From the Rape of Europa and the Queen of Sheba to Gog and Magog, there's never a dull moment, though one may have moments of doubt. Mr. Wendt has a fond- ness for conundrums introduced by rhetorical questions. Where did the Negro come from? Who were the Phomicians? The. Scythians? The Gipsies? You sense his glee when he can find experts differing. Yet in the end a composite pic- ture does emerge from this dizzy ride through time and space, through mythology and actuality. It is important to keep the large general picture in view, corrected to date, but without quibbling over details. We depend here on the middleman, however brash, for the syntheses the specialists, the patient analysts, shrink from attempting. Hindsight and foresight are complementaries, and interdependent. We need our horizons restoring, and look to the amateurs with indul- gence. Mr. Wendt and Mr. Doblhofer, for all their shortcomings. give a depth and a breadth and a resonance to the old story of man.