by Luke Sherridan
Staring at the sculpted rock before us, no larger than my hand, I offered an answer: ‘It’s a woman’.
We had been asked for our first impressions on this ancient object. ‘And why do you say that?’, asked our guide Dr. Mallica Kumbera Landrus, quickly and excitedly, and with a curiosity which enlivened our trip around the Ashmolean that afternoon.
‘Her clothes. She reminds me of the Blessed Virgin’. There were some nods from our intimate group of no more than eight or nine, and apparent general consensus over what seemed like the first and most blindingly obvious step to describing the sculpture we had been taken to.
Our guide explained with glee that in fact the sculpture was of a religious man, most probably inside the temple, but possibly outside – his covered head was in keeping with religious tradition in the Roman world where this statuette was sculpted. My initial judgement had been wrong. My instinct that this statue was one of a woman with her head covered by a large sheet was an assumption I thought too obvious to question.
And yet, instead of talking through the differences between the Roman culture and the culture that informed my initial instinct, Mallica provided the ingredients that link the cultures of the world in this respect. From Christian women to Muslim women to Hindus and Sikh men – and the list is inexhaustible – religious ceremony and tradition is universally linked to some form of head covering. It may not have had its origin in Pagan Rome, but those people certainly shared in a facet of one broad aspect of human civilisation – a religious quirk common to all.
It was this sentiment that not only formed the foundation of our Arts Week tour around the oldest museum in the world, but also quite literally of the museum itself. The Ashmolean was completely redeveloped in 2009 so that the very building, divorced from its nineteenth century classical façade, is a showcase for the links between the peoples of the world. Rather than move from room to room divided by geography and period, quite unconnected, we were taken along the trade routes that provide the museum’s shape.
We travelled from the Aegean to ancient Rome, through India and down the Silk Road to China. We headed up the steps over the Himalayas, eventually finding ourselves in Afghanistan and Iran, where the first part of our visit ended. The museum echoes the movement of history and influences of culture over vast expanses of the world. We were ‘crossing cultures, crossing time’.
It became, for me, the focal point of Arts Week, with Tallulah Vaughan giving us an experience that enlightened our understanding of the development of the art and artistry of human civilisation. We were looking not through a judgemental lens which identified the differences between peoples, but from a viewpoint by which we could appreciate the development of humanity as a unit. By looking to our collective past, we could examine the impact on our collective imaginations today.
In the sterile, artificially lit room where the tour ended, our hands sticky with sweat under latex gloves and bodies pushed up against the foam covered table, we were able to handle history. At one point, and in awe, I found myself caressing a small clay cuneiform tablet, one-fifth the size of my palm.
I turned in my hand one of the earliest examples of writing in human history, running my fingers across the barely coherent zig-zag of grooves pressed into the tiny document from 5,000 BC; imagining the care of the accountant crafting it for his everyday records of livestock and transaction in his Mesopotamian village. It dwarfs me to think that the essay I wrote this morning will most likely dissolve into oblivion four years from now – truly feeble in comparison.
In another episode, I found myself fingering beads of lapis lazuli and amber crafted 5,000 years ago in the Indus Valley to be traded across the ancient world. I could picture the terrible toil of boring a fine hole through each precious bead and I could imagine the gentle hands of Agatha Christie who brought them together and threaded them with gold into fine necklaces.
The silk she chained them with gave coherence to the precious confusion brought up from the deep layers of ancient earth. To create this one item, the hands of many people, many millennia apart had been devoted. The beauty of a previous generation, of a distant group of people, was appreciated and reworked reverently.
The materials from across the globe came together in an object that was timeless – it was remarked by one of our group that they could imagine wearing it today. Our culture too is pieced together from influences seemingly distant from our initial perception of ourselves and of our past.
And if anything is to remind us of this fact then it should be the art and the artefacts that we revere as being distinctly symbolic of our civilisation. As the Ashmolean by its very design has elected permanently to do, so too should our judgement be focussed on recognising the traditions and beauties that intricately link humanity today.