I thought again of the British Museum’s Assyrian carvings as I voted on Thursday morning, explaining to my daughter as we walked back home why I had folded the paper. A ballot is secret, I said. Can you vote lots of times, she asked, like the X-Factor? No, only once. (Our discussion backfired a bit when she got to school, and her classmates confused her by telling her how their parents were voting. Who will yours vote for?)
My constituency unhesitatingly returned its sitting candidate, and my personal vote was less of a force and more of a thrilling affirmation of the democratic process. Later in the day, when I’m looking at an Assyrian frieze in the BM, I think, it’s no wonder powerful minorities in parts of Western Asia are uncomfortable with democracy. They have so much to lose.
Islamic State can destroy impressive stuff like big stone carvings, but they can’t erase the record. What they smash on their videos will all have been well documented. And as long as we have a free democracy here in Britain, the BM’s collection will continue to tell its stories.
Like this one. Helmeted soldiers terrorise Iraq’s southern river marshes, in panels from a palace in Nineveh, around 630BC. Men flee a reed boat, trying to escape on to a floating village where men and women hide while a headless body drifts by. The soldiers parade in front of date palms with booty and captives.
Or this. Archers attack a town around 700BC, the angle of their fire rising with proximity to the walls, evoking the distances involved. Victorious, they lead manacled captives to execution, while women and children watch. The slabs themselves are blackened by fire, the boastful destroyed.
In March, Jane Moon, excavating in Iraq, posted a message on the London Society of Antiquaries website (accessible only to fellows of the society). “Tragic as it all is,” she says, “on the bottom line we have the records of the things that were broken, so there is no question of ‘history being erased’, whatever Da’esh claim.”
She asked her Iraqi colleagues what they needed most from overseas scholars. They replied, “More fieldwork, more participation, more international engagement – get some others to come and dig here too!”
“There are so many more things to find to fill up the museums and be proud of,” says Moon, “and huge areas safe to work in and rich in sites. We can do more than just express outrage.”