Sunday, 30 January 2011

World enough and time - Austen Layard and the Library of Nineveh

For my valedictory post on this blog, at the end of my residency at the NLS, I thought I'd share two more favourite items from the John Murray Archive.

What you can see above is a passport, circa 1842, personally signed by Lord Palmerston, then foriegn secretary.

Pretty cool to start with.

It's issued to one Henry Austen Layard, son of a reduced aristocratic family, who'd been born in Paris on his parents heavily extended honeymoon, raised in Italy, and then had been uncomfortably educated at an English public school, where his knowledge of foriegn parts and foriegn ways (and enthusiasm for art) had gone down pretty much as badly as you'd expect with his beef-eating schoolmates.

His father by now was serving the Empire in Ceylon, and young Layard got this passport in 1842 intending to travel overland to India to take up a post as a solicitor.

He never made a glance at the rest of his passport can show.

It all got a bit complicated in the Middle East...these entry stamps show him going back and forth between Constaninople, Damascus and one occasion pretending to have the plague...travelling in company with a chum (who was also heading to India), and then alone, but finding himself detained...intelligence gathering on the activities of the Otttoman Empire, the Persians, the Russians and, of course, The French.

He ran into and befriended a Major Henry Rawlinson, who we last met giving a cameo appearance in Afghanistan when he himself was spooking around the Hindu Kush and running into Russian agents on a similar mission.

Layard bears, then, a family resemblance to Alexander Burnes, my previous hero, who had combined his personal, outsider's passions with officially unofficial derring do.

Burnes had been a bit obsessed with his name sake, Sekundar -Alexander, of the Great variety - but Layard, in contrast to Burnes bloody fate, was to live into respected old age as an MP and art collector...and long time contributor to the Murray's Quarterly Review. (His correspondence with the Murrays fills several grey folders in the archive).

Because he had a bit of luck.

The French had been doing some digging in Mesopotamia, exploring "tels" or mounds, which yielded more archaeology on a Sunday stroll than Time Team can dig up in a couple of series. And Layard thought he'd have a go.

What he (and his partner and rival , the similarly eccentric French diplomat Paul Emile Botta) dug up over the next two years (1845-7), now crams room after room of the British Museum and the Louvre.

(They took half each, roughly)

They'd found Babylon...the Babylon of the Assyrians, and before them, the Sumerians. They discovered ancient civilizations, city after city, room after room, carved fresco after carved fresco. They discovered languages, ancient script, carved into walls and pillars. That which had only existed before in the pages of the Bible and the fantasies of Byron, was before them...theirs were the first eyes to see any of this for two thousand years.

It almost beggars the it must have felt to see the massive stone lions, the fantastically detailed scenes of battle and hunting...and how inscrutable it must have been to them, like landing on another planet.

It's an amazing story, for which I have not world enough or time...the deciphering of the script over the next thirty years, the discovery of a flood narrative that seemed to confirm Noah...accounts of the Babylonian exile of the Jews...and, above all, the story of Gilgamesh, King of Kings, and his battle with death recently brilliantly dramatised by the late lamented Edwin Morgan (as yet unstaged)...itself the oldest written narrative we know.

Rawlinson, already a Murray author, put Layard on to Albemarle Street, and the Murrays published book after book of Layard's adventures and discoveries, including Monuments of Nineveh in 1849, which is a quite beautiful coffee table sized presentation of the most spectacular archaeological find before Tutankamun.

(Rawlinson was among the translators and interpreters of this materiaL)

But what I want to leave you, and this blog with, are these.

On his knees in the dark of the burial mounds of lost cities, Layard, by the light of a lamp, exactly transcribing page after page of cuneiform from the very walls...painstakingly copying stories he couldn't begin to read or understand.

For me, the most heroic image imaginable, and the most appropriate for a library like the NLS. One can imagine, ten thousand years from now, scholars and curators, (if there will still be such people), painfully examining the buried remains of GBIV, picking out the characters and attempting to piece our lives together from a labyrinth of scratchmarks.

I hope we get that lucky.

Enjoy. Even better, come to the NLS and enjoy before the ten thousand years are up. It's all here. It's all available free. To everybody.

It's been a priviledge.