Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Land of Marvels

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Land of Marvels

A Novel

by Barry Unsworth

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2010, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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A Short History of Archeology
The fictional John Somerville's interest in archeology was typical for his time. Most so-called archeologists of the period were, like him, self-taught because there were virtually no academic courses offered. Additionally, his desire to secure a rich benefactor to fund his excavations was standard operating procedure in the field; for example, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923 was made by archaeologist Howard Carter, but financed by the wealthy George Herbert, 5th Lord of Carnarvon.

Archeology as a science is a relatively recent discipline. Before the 19th Century what passed for archeology was little more than grave pillaging with the plundered artifacts removed far from their point of origin to grace the curio cabinets of well heeled private collectors. A relatively few artifacts ended up in museums.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "The development of scientific archaeology in 19th-century Europe from the antiquarianism and treasure collecting of the previous three centuries was due to three things: a geological revolution, an antiquarian revolution, and the propagation of the doctrine of evolution." What's more, as far as Mesopotamia is concerned, the demise of the Ottoman Empire and growth of the European Empire in the Middle East meant diplomats and adventurers began to develop an interest that sparked awareness in the general European public. The embers of this new consciousness were fanned when, in the latter part of the 19th Century, "systematic excavation revealed a previously unknown people, the Sumerians, who had lived in Mesopotamia before the Babylonians and Assyrians."

Howard CarterWith all this excitement it isn't hard to picture a young John Somerville being spellbound by the mystery and excitement of discovering past cultures. Indeed, it is how Tutankhamen archeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter was first introduced to the field. When he was seventeen the young Carter, son of artist Samuel Carter, traveled with a family friend to Egypt where he recorded a dig and copied scenes from tomb walls. He even reportedly spent his nights sleeping in the tombs with the bats and spider webs. After his single, career-making, discovery he more or less retired from active field work and became an antiquities collector. He died in 1939 preceded by the eerily-King Tut-related deaths of Lord Carnarvon and ten other staffers who were present at the opening of the fabled king's tomb.*

Gertrude Bell The University of California credits German excavations of the ancient city-state of Babylon in 1899 (on behalf of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft - German Oriental Society), with the birth of archeology as a scientific discipline. Since then, standards for conducting digs have been tightened up largely thanks to British diplomat and archeologist Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), once head of the Iraqi Antiquities Service under the British Mandate, who is credited as a seminal participant in establishing both the National Museum of Iraq and the modern-day borders of Iraq (the region of Baghdad and Basra were formed into a single country in 1921, the region of Mosul was added five years later). Sadly, following the 2003 United States' invasion of Iraq, thousands of historical documents and artifacts from both the museum and outlying excavations have been lost due to looting. Most likely they will never be retrieved.

*It should be noted that many retain a fair degree of skepticism about King Tut's Curse.

Photos: Top: Howard Carter; Bottom: Gertrude Bell

Article by Donna Chavez

This article was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the January 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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