A Conversation on Re-creating History with Llyd Wells

July 3, 2018 | By Eve Tolpa

Santa Fe tutor Llyd Wells, pictured in the white shirt, spent time in Syria almost 20 years ago doing textual and archaeological work.

Llyd Wells is a tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. On Wednesday, July 11, at 6 p.m., he is discussing antiquities collected by the ancients in a lecture at the SITE Santa Fe event: Digest This! Middle Eastern Coffee, Arabic and Ancient Collections.

Describe the context of your lecture for SITE Santa Fe.

They have this exhibit by artist Michael Rakowitz, which includes his attempt to re-create some of the artifacts from the Iraqi National Museum that were stolen during the invasion of Iraq, and SITE Santa Fe was looking for someone who could talk about the ancient Mesopotamian world. As an undergraduate my major was Assyriology, and after graduating I did textual and archaeological work in Syria, so I’m more versed than most in the ancient world of Mesopotamia.

I’m making a great deal of effort to relate what I’m going to say about the ancient world to Michael Rakowitz’s exhibit. There are several things that interest me about it. One is the way in which our encounter with the past and past objects is always a re-creation and not simply some sort of passive event. Rakowitz has re-created these ancient artifacts with modern materials: modern Arabic newspapers, museum labels, and other materials that I think are self-consciously intended to be recognized as modern. So I’m interested in that—the way in which we don’t just encounter the past but re-create the past.

How does your lecture go about addressing that issue?

I’ll begin by talking a little bit about whatever it is that we mean by the history of Mesopotamia. Originally SITE Santa Fe asked me to give a survey lecture on the history of ancient Mesopotamia—or, actually, I think they said ancient Iraq—and already that’s a problem, because Iraq is a name that has a history, and there was no Iraq until after World War I. When we all of a sudden associate these things—these people, these events that happened, in some cases four or five thousand years ago—with Iraq, it’s anachronistic.

So that’s already a kind of creative aspect of our encounter with the past. I’m not saying there was some way that we could be more careful. Calling it Mesopotamia doesn’t do any better, because Mesopotamia is the ancient Greek word for this region; it’s not how this region was named by the people who inhabited it.

I’m going to focus a lot on what it means to encounter the past as a creation, and specifically I’m going to do a sort of whirlwind tour of some the more famous events in the history that we call Mesopotamian. Then I’m going to spend most of my time talking about the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, and his daughter Ennigaldi-Nanna. Both of them were unusually interested in the past. I’m interested in looking at how they encountered history and the same problem of how to create the past.

What were their particular methods?

Nabonidus did weird things like excavate ancient temples and try to get to their foundations. He did things like try to date his predecessors, which to my knowledge no prior king had done. For example, there’s a very early king called Naram-Sin, and Nabonidus calculated that he had lived over three thousand years before Nabonidus’ time, the 6th century BCE. It was not a trivial thing to figure that out. He was wrong, but it’s still not a trivial thing. One wonders why it mattered to him, what this number meant to him.

I’m also going to talk about how Nabonidus found an ancient statue and dedicated himself to restoring its face. It’s very interesting. If a face has been demolished, how can you possibly restore it?

The next kind of weird thing Nabonidus did was that he discovered a stele a kind of monument describing an ancient priestess, and then he initiated his daughter into that priesthood. She was married to the god of the moon, and for the rest of her life she lived in the temple.

It was immensely problematic, because no one knew what this priestess did, no one knew what her roles were, and I spend some time in the lecture just thinking and talking about, well, what was it like for her? On the one hand, it’s a very creative relationship with the past. They had to basically make up a lot of the rituals, all the while doing their best to remain faithful to at least their idea of the past, and at the same time I just think, what would you have done if you were the daughter? What does it feel like, and what does it mean to be made into an ancient priestess?

How do you respond to those questions?

I think that she herself might have felt like she was a kind of artifact. This is pure conjecture, but I wonder if that isn’t why she started collecting artifacts. It is popularly said that she is the founder of the world’s first museum. I describe the archaeological discovery of that museum. The way that the archaeologists figured out it was some kind of museum—and we should bear in mind “museum” is probably an anachronism, as well—was they found, basically, museum labels: cuneiform documents written in several different languages that describe the item and where it was found.

I’m going to invite us to think about how she might have responded to discovering herself as an ancient priestess by collecting ancient items and trying to re-create an ancient world in some way around her. Throughout the lecture, I discuss these features in relation to specific aspects of the exhibit by Michael Rakowitz, the attempt to re-create the past in our modern world but also the way we may end up feeling like artifacts which properly belong nowhere.

Will St. John’s students recognize any of the issues you address in relation to their curriculum?

They might. We are always reading these texts, most of which are ancient with respect to us, and we try very hard to read them on their own terms. But I wonder whether there isn’t a kind of naivete to that project, to the extent that it pretends to itself that we can so do without also creating them. And such creations always combine, in unpredictable ways, fidelity and infidelity to what inspires them.

I don’t know what it was like when Plato was writing, much less Homer, and I can’t help but import any number of assumptions—even just ideas—based on my own experience that probably don’t apply to the world that Homer lived in. Already this is an issue in the fact that we read Homer in translation. English didn’t even exist when Homer was singing.

Maybe the best place that this becomes thematized at the college is in our language classes, where we focus on the problem of translation and explicitly encounter the ways in which we have to be creative and can’t simply be mechanical and pretend that we’ve attained some sort of objectivity. Translation, it seems to me, is one of those impossible things which every now and then we manage, more or less, to do—but certainly not by presuming simple identity between past and present, this language and that one.

Prior to this upcoming event did you have any relationship with SITE Santa Fe?

No, but I think it’s very good for St. John’s to get more integrated with other types of things that are happening in Santa Fe. I think there’s lots we can learn from those other groups of people and those other approaches to the world, and there’s much that we can offer them.