When I was a child, I had a brief obsession with Egyptology. My brother had been to London to see the exhibition of treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb and brought back a gorgeous full colour catalogue. I loved reading this over and over, fascinated by the beautiful, exotic objects that had been discovered, entranced by hieroglyphs and the faintly menacing figures of Egyptian gods, Ra, Isis, Osiris. Lapis lazuli was for a long time my most evocative term.
So I was inevitably drawn to Barry Unsworth’s novel, Land of Marvels, which concerns an archaeological dig and is set in 1914, just prior to the start of World War I, but in the middle of the fierce competition to uncover the lost treasures of the ancient world. An English archaeologist, Somerville, has put his family’s money into directing an excavation in the deserts of Mesopotamia, a country that will one day become Iraq, but which is still part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Somerville has much to prove, to himself and to others. His wife is losing faith in him and his money is running out, and above all else he desperately longs for recognition in his field. His commitment to the project borders on an unhealthy obsession but he feels obscurely and relentlessly targeted by fate. Somerville is a vividly drawn character, in whom paranoia tends to undercut the genuine brilliance of his mind, and as Tell Erdek, the unpromising mound of earth he has chosen to dig, begins to reveal its spectacular secrets, so his operation looks increasingly threatened in ways that risk unsettling the balance of his mind.
This is a novel essentially about territory, and the ongoing fight for it that dominates the male imagination. The powers of Europe are aware that this part of the world is on the brink of internal collapse and, with the threat of war looming, many interested parties are looking to win a cut of the spoils. The Germans are building a railway that will cut a swathe through the country and, Somerville fears, run straight through the middle of his dig. A historian’s interest looks very unconvincing when set against the power of commerce and money. When Somerville goes to his old friend, the Ambassador, to ask for government protection for the site, he ends up embroiled in another covert battle. He is asked to offer hospitality to an American, Alex Eliot, who will arrive in the guise of an archaeologist, but who is in fact assessing the land for the presence of oil. Eliot is supposedly in the pay of the snazzily dressed Lord Rampling, a mover and shaker who is trying to strengthen British links abroad and solidify the Empire. But in reality he is a double agent, and a seducer at that, as he sets his sights on Somerville’s disgruntled wife.
Against the backdrop of these ongoing events, Barry Unsworth cleverly unfolds the stories of the lost Assyrian kings, a dynasty known for its brutality and dictatorial command. What is most brilliant about the book is the way that it uses history as a palimpsest, which is to say, as a series of stories written on top of one another, whose traces are never fully erased. The archaeological dig works beautifully as a metaphor, as Somerville pieces together the last days of the Assyrian Empire from his finds, whilst all around him, quietly violent struggles for power go on and the first World War casts its long shadow in the reader’s mind. We know that all this wheeling and dealing will come to nothing on the bloody battlefields of Europe, we know that vast quantities of oil will be discovered in the middle East, and that it will be the cause of more conflict and bloodshed. I did not realize that oil and its potential were so recent a discovery – to think that we have discovered oil and almost exhausted its reserves within the century is extremely unsettling. We are every bit as rapacious and greedy as our supposedly primitive ancestors, only we have taken this land of marvels as our victim and plundered it for its treasures and precious resources.
There is much to recommend this novel, but I must point out that it is very learned and erudite. A great deal of information is delivered to the reader, more, really, than is necessary, on geology, on the Assyrians, on trade and industry in 1914 (not all of which I followed). It is beautifully written and rich in meaning, but in some ways I enjoyed thinking about it more than I enjoyed the actual experience of reading it. If you came fresh from Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia to this, say, you would find it a bit of a shock. However, it is well plotted and manages to flesh out its characters, despite having the fundamental outline of a thriller, and the vast majority of the information it has to offer is interesting and evocative. I would certainly read Barry Unsworth again, and I’d like to read more about the archaeologists from the early part of the twentieth century. They continue to fascinate.