Cessair, from a New York Hotel Room

Dear Dick:

I have your note of the 19th. Thanks for the encouragement! I needed that. Sometimes I get annoyed with my whiny attitude and wonder why you bother. But I'm grateful nonetheless.

I went by the Metropolitan museum when I was in New York. They had a special exhibit on Sumeria. It was interesting. Tiny stone stamps for making wax seals, and great sculpted lions. Fine green pottery, better than I could ever make with my college degree! It gave me some ideas on how to research the Mesopotamian flood. I had most of the day off Thursday so I went to the NYC public library and looked up some background material for you. On the way back I stopped at a bookstore called the Strand -- have you heard of it? You'd like it I'm sure. I found a book on the excavations at Ur, by Sir Leonard Woolley. Anyway, right now I'm back in my hotel room and I'll summarize my notes on what I found.

Both the history itself but perhaps more so, the history of discovering the history (or should we say creating it?) are interesting. So I'm not sure when to start, with Sir Leonard in 1929 or with Upnapishtem in 3500 B.C.!

Maybe a couple of comments on 3500 B.C. to start. Good Judeo Christians that we are, we all remember from high school that when the curtain of history rises we are in the fertile crescent, specifically in Mesopotamia ("between the rivers") in the floodplains of the Tigris-Euphrates, in what is now southern Iraq. According to the archaeologists earliest signs of settlement on the floodplain are around 5000 B.C.though there were towns to the north, up past Bagdad, much earlier. It seems that some interesting things were happening in the lower valley at least by 4000 B.C., a few little villages, some of them coalescing into towns where they made exquisitiely beautiful painted pottery of the exqusite Ubaid style; outside the towns a culture of nomads and cattle raiding; the burials are interesting in the light of the grave on San Francisquito Creek; one archeologist, a Sir Leonard Woolley (more on him later) described them this way:

They buried their dead in the earth lying on one side with the knees bent, and as they placed with them offerings of food, personal ornaments, tools, etc., we may suppose that they had some kind of belief in the continuation of life after death" (fnC. Leonard Woolley, The Sumerians.)

Then something happens. Somewhere around 2700 B.C. we have substatntial Sumerian walled cities, writing, the rise of earthly rulers (in Sumerian, "lugar", literally translated "big man"!) Obviously the beginning of male oppression!

Between the two active rivers we find that the villages have grown, so we have ancient cities of Uruk, Shurrupah, Jemdet Nasr, Kish, upstream on the rivers, 100 miles from the present shoreline. But as I mentioned to you when we talked, the old way of looking at history was that while this early Sumerian civilization was mildly interesting nothing really interesting came out of this culturally until later, with the Bible and the Greeks. Now at the typical university "Western Civ" course they have the curtain go up at Sumer. This is disturbing a lot of people, rich alums and conservative parents, but the disturbance is more than a century old now, as I will try to show.

Now to the Flood. You will be happy to hear that there may actually have been such an historical event. For a long time of course the "original" flood story was taken to be the Genesis flood but this idea received a serious blow on the evening of December 3, 1872. On that evening a young banker's clerk and archeology enthusiast named George Smith lectured to an audience of members of London's Biblical Archaeological Society. Prime Minister Gladstone sat in the audience. Smith had translated a tablet that he had found in a great pile of debris that had been delivered from Iraq to the British Museum in which the seer Upnapishtim survives a flood sent by the gods to punish mankind by building an ark onto which he put his family along with all "the beasts of the field." According to the story, six days and nights of rain "destroyed all life from the face of the earth." Smith was said to be an excitable man and there was a rumor that when he first discovered the fragment, he took off his clothes and ran around the room. I have been unable to find a published explanation of this particular response. The Victorians did odd things. Perhaps he felt that he had somehow regained a glimpse of the Garden of Eden.

Now this early flood story dating from at least 1900 BC and probably much earlier is supposed to be a myth. According to the out-of-date NYPL shelf version of the Cambridge Ancient History says, "from what reality this famous story derives it is vain to enquire" though the same book says thatt an exceptional flood is noted to have occurred at the end of Dynasty I.

Now the scene shifts to the 1920's when the British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was in charge of a joint U.S. - British team that was excavating at Ur, or what remained of that ancient city, that being a huge forlorn mound of dried up adobe bricks and "rubbish" (surely Sir Leonard's favorite word) remaining from ancient occupation and now baking in the sun and "infested" (as the Brits would say) with lions and scorpions, more than ten miles from the nearest navigable river. The place is said now to be occupied by an Iraq military airfield. Woolley's expedition had been mostly funded by the Americans but Woolley was a dashing adventurer and an excellent publicist and was selected as the leader. Woolley dug down into the bottom of Sumerian civilization, through the ruins of the so-called Early Dynasty (2900 - 2800 B.C.) In 1929, he amazed the world with his discovery of a gold- filled royal cemetery that had been overlooked by past grave robbers. It was a discovery comparable to Carter's discovery of undisturbed tombs in the Nile.

A few words on Woolley himself. Dashing in the Victorian style, given to colorful pronouncements. He had been a spy and a war prisoner in Turkey. He could tell stories of getting out of jams by pointing his pistol at the temple of difficult officials. He could write and speak in an entertaining way to a popular audience. He believed that archeology was relevant to the twentieth century because he thought people thought and acted fundamentally the same in 3000 B.C. as they do now. He had spent time with Lawrence of Arabia and Agatha Christie, ending up as a character in one of her novels. Interestingly these qualities were mixed with a tendency toward shyness. In many ways Woolley was a loner. He didn't care for honors and he hated cars! His wife was a difficult woman, a snob, a "walking catalogue of obscure ailments."

I've enclosed a photo of her. Why do I think that you would like her? Would you have enjoyed meeting her at the creek instead of me? (And why am I asking these ridiculous questions?)

Though Woolley was a severe and domineering classical scholar, he had a talent for interpreting his shards and runes in a vivid way. He could look at a small clay shard and feel the fading humid heat of an ancient summer afternoon, hear an underpaid schoolmaster criticizing his quaking students' progress in learning the difficult art of writing; see outside in the crowded alley the patriarch Abraham jostled by a braying ass carrying sticks of firewood.

Well, I think I'm beginning to go on here more than I should! Anyway, I've got some more material but I'll write again.

Best, Cessair

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