“The hardest work begins in dry dock.” *

Visiting Glasgow is always a pleasure for me. The rough-and-tumble of the city feels familiar and comfortable, and I have a long-ish history with it, largely through its music. But as well as the art galleries, architecture, music and foodie scenes, I’ve become very interested in Glasgow’s archaeology, and its industrial and maritime history. With this in mind, on a recent quick visit I boarded the (free!) ferry outside the Riverside Museum and headed over to Govan.

Govan may not be at the top of the list for many visitors to Glasgow, but it really should be on there somewhere, not least to see the amazing 10th/11th century Govan Stones at Govan Old Church. However, alongside these ancient monuments, there is also evidence of Govan’s more recent, industrial, history to be seen: Govan Graving Docks.

The docks are situated on the south side of the Clyde, just west of the Science Centre. A ‘graving dock’ is another name for a traditional type of dry-dock where the repair and maintenance of ships is undertaken. The ship is floated into the dock basin and then water-gates (or caissons) are closed behind it and the water is then pumped out of the basin, leaving the ship resting on blocks. These docks were constructed by the Clyde Navigation Trust in the late-nineteenth century, opening in stages between 1875 and 1898, and were used for the maintenance and refits of Clyde Steamers and other large vessels up until their closure in 1987.

I wasn’t sure how accessible the site would be but the gate was open, so I made my way in to the dock area where there are three large basins, a couple of derelict buildings and other bits and bobs of dock equipment.


The docks are a Category A listed monument but also on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland. In Glasgow, as in other industrial and maritime cities, many ex-industrial sites and structures have long since been sold off to developers and now command top price as luxury apartments and high-end shopping and dining areas, so the graving docks are special; a rare survival of Glasgow’s industrial and mercantile past (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-45331246).

Some of the fragments of equipment look like winch or crane bases, haulage wheels and some lengths of track. Around the basins there are stone-cut steps allowing access to the working space around the undersides of the ships’ hulls.

This basin still has its depth-markers.

The water-gates are a bit battered but still basically intact.

After some time of wandering around and generally peering at stuff, I made my way back to the gate, only to find that it was now shut! Fearing that I would have to attempt to climb the fence (an unseemly activity for a woman of my advanced years), I tried the bolt and, to my relief, it wasn’t locked*. I did get a few funny looks from the mechanics working in the garages along by the docks but I bet I’m not the first random dock-fan that they’ve seen.

For lots of lovely information about Govan Docks, have a look at the excellent Hidden Glasgow website, where you can see photos of the docks in use. Other references are also below.



* Sam Wineburg

** Don’t worry, I made sure that the gate was shut behind me.

Clyde docks Preservation Initiative http://cdpi.org.uk/govan-docks/default.aspx

Govan Docks Regeneration Trust https://govandocks.wordpress.com/

#Glasgow #archaeology #industrialarchaeology #river #Clyde #docks


The view from above

I was having a little look at some of my travel photos recently, ones that I haven’t posted online before and I realized that I am strangely fascinated with what I can see out of the plane window. This is slightly weird because, truth be told, flying actually freaks me out a bit, but I’ve found that focusing on the view of sites and landscapes on the ground, distracts my mind, stopping me thinking about crashing down to my death in a ball of red-hot flames.

Anyway, here are a few views from the cheap (economy) seats.


Flying over Lebanon, out of Damascus airport, I loved the ripples and curves made by the ranges of hills and mountains in the Bekaa Valley.


In Algeria, flying is pretty well a necessity. The country is enormous and the country’s history has left it with a legacy of, frankly, unsafe areas. There are still a few places where kidnapping is a very real possibility, making driving dangerous.

The distance from the Ghardaia region back up to Algiers is over 600km so travelling by road is a bit of a schlep. The flight is an hour and the views are spectacular. The landscape starts as golden desert, peppered with towns north of Ghardaia.

As you get further north, the landscape turns to lush green with lakes and reservoirs.

Flight from Ghardaia to Algiers, Barrage Bouroumi, Mahaizia


Flying into Tripoli, on the coastal plain were miles of neatly planted olive groves.

The olive trees look very sparsely planted but this is the only way get a good yield of fruit, as the tree roots need space around then.


Flying out of Keflavik Airport, Iceland, I flew directly over one of the places where I’d spent much of my time on my first visit.

This is Ásbrú, a former NATO base where the festival ‘ATP Iceland’ was held in 2015. It’s all brightly coloured, crinkly-tin shed, like many of the buildings in Iceland. Simple, functional and not especially decorative.I enjoyed the festival, and I enjoyed Iceland too.

And here’s, not the Blue Lagoon spa, but a similar hot water pool.

The heated water is the outflow from the Reykjanes Power Plant nearby.


Flying down to Marseille, I spotted a very exciting looking quarry.

Google maps calls this the Perasso Frederic Paul quarry but I think it’s actually called the Perasso quarry of Saint-Tronc. The Perasso company quarries gravel, concrete and sand from here. http://www.perasso.fr/societe-perasso-marseille/


Flying into Frankfurt means flying over the extensive forests that surround it. I was struck by the appearance of the motorways immediately adjacent to the airport.

This is where the Bundesautobahn 5 meets Bundesstraße 43 and the Bundesautobahn 3. Not quite Spaghetti Junction, but a striking intersection nonetheless.


Living, as I do, in Olde London Towne, I generally fly in and out of London airports, mainly Stansted (because it’s the right side of town for me), Heathrow (because it’s on the tube) and City, (because it’s actually IN London, as opposed to being somewhere in a field in a neighbouring county).

This means that sometimes I get to fly up the Thames. This is absolutely my favourite, even though the approach to City is slightly terrifying. The first time that I was actually aware of this, and actually thought about it properly, was when I was flying back from Damascus. I happened to glance out of the window and thought, “that’s Southend Pier!”. And it was.

Since then, every chance I get, I try to spot cool ‘something-on-Thames’ things.

Here is one of the wind farms in the Thames Estuary

and nearby, the Maunsell Forts at Shivering Sands.

This is not the greatest photo because we were in a raging storm at the time, but this is a cluster of six, originally seven, ‘army’ style WW2 anti-aircraft gun emplacements, situated in the Thames Estuary. The seven individual platforms were originally connected by walkways and were arranged as a cluster of six, housing guns and the seventh housing the searchlight.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to get a bit closer to the forts as The Waverley does a couple of trips each autumn.

Further into town, we fly over some very familiar sights. The Thames Barrier

City Airport

Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich and the O2

The London Eye…

…and before I know it, I’m home. 😀

‘John, Paul, George, Ringo … And Bert’… And Louis.

In 1976, a new production of Willy Russell’s musical play ‘John, Paul, George, Ringo … And Bert’ by Gareth Morgan, went on a tour of regional theatres. In February 1976 my Dad, Louis, was in this production at the University Theatre in Newcastle. He was away for just about a month in total, which wasn’t particularly unusual, as he was a jobbing musician at the time and worked in different places.

Just recently, when clearing out the attic to deal with a pigeon incursion, my Mum found a calendar on which he had written a little mini diary.

She hadn’t seen this before and loved getting these little insights into bits and bobs that were going on while he was away working.

In no particular order, here are a few excerpts.

Rehearsals were kinda boring.

Days off weren’t any better.

Things were sometimes problematic.

Bloody thieving toerags caused extra worries.

Performances were mixed.

And ‘Arthur’ was a bit of a worry. He kept falling over 😕 (also, eyes-roll, bloody hippies).

We had no idea who Arthur was but a little scout around in the archive of the theatrical newspaper ‘The Stage’ solved the mystery.

“ARTHUR KELLY, the man who actually might have been a Beatle if he’d had the money to buy a bass guitar, plays Bert in the current production of “John, Paul. George, Ringo and Bert” by the Tyneside Theatre Company at the University Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne. ”
The Stage – Thursday 19 February 1976, p.18

Arthur  had another mishap a little later, but he wasn’t too badly hurt.

Feline intermission.

Money was a worry at first.

But Louis was determined.

And, eventually, things picked up.

Louis seems to have spent a fair bit of time in the drum shop and, when not actually in the drum shop, he also spent time thinking about stuff in the drum shop. It’s a drummer thing.

It’s very gratifying to discover that he also spent time and cash on picking up things for ‘the kids’.

And he liked getting letters from home.

I like Newcastle but my old man was less enamoured and seemed to want to get back to London.


I don’t know why he lost the gig but he wasn’t the only one and it sounds like there were continual tensions. I guess, the theatre can be a bit like that.

Still, the critics liked him:

“Mr Russell chooses the most plaintive Lennon-McCartney songs to comment on the action, movingly sung by local girl. Joy Askew. Her piano playing, the drums of Louis La Rose, the guitar work of Geoft Sharkey provided much emotion.”
The Stage – Thursday 04 March 1976, p.17


Doodle. I think he was actually missing the cats.


Louis died on 13th July 2019 and my heart is broken.


The Stage – Thursday 19 February 1976, p.18 –https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001180/19760219/007/0001

The Stage – Thursday 04 March 1976, p.17 –https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001180/19760304/110/0017

The Italian School

Another short trip to Paris. It was supposed to be one last Paris jolly before they take away my EU citizenship 😦 . It was lovely, as always, but there were issues (Brexit related). I’m trying not to dwell on those and concentrate on the good things.

One of the good things was a small-but-perfectly-formed exhibition at Beaux-Arts de Paris, the fine arts school in St Germain des Pres; Leonardo and the Italian Renaissance.

Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris

2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo and many exhibitions and events are planned around Europe in commemoration. The exhibition at Beaux-Arts de Paris takes items by Leonardo and other artists of the Italian renaissance, mainly drawings and sketches, from the school’s huge collection. The exhibition is small, just about thirty items, and to get to it you have to go through the great court of the school.

This is a magnificent space, decorated with roundels of famous persons and the names of famous artists.

This is where the students show their work so there are sometimes installations here, although when I visited, it was mainly clear (it looked like something was being set up but I wasn’t sure about that). The Leonardo exhibition is in a room at one end of the court behind the least likely looking door imaginable.

The exhibitions focuses on renaissance studio drawing, exercises and preparatory sketches for larger works, by artists including Fra Bartolemeo and Donatello.

Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, ‘Etude pour une draperie et tet d’homme’.

Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, ‘Etude pour une draperie et tet d’homme’.

Girolamo Genga, ‘Homme a demi-nu, a mi-corps’

Then, the four Leonardos. These demonstrate different aspects of Leonardo’s work. Studies of people,

Leonardo de Vinci, ‘Tete de vieillard de trois-quarts a droite’

interesting character-filled faces,

Leonardo de Vinci, ‘Profil de vieil homme tourne vers la droite’

the human form in action and repose,

Leonardo de Vinci, ‘Feuille d’etudes pour l’Adoration des Mages’

and his inventions of military weaponry.

Leonardo de Vinci, ‘Etudes de balistique’

Bombs, shielded-pikes and bows and rolling explosives.

Of the sketches, I particularly liked this double-sided doodle-fest by Baldassare Peruzzi.

Baldassare Peruzzi, ‘Projet pour le Palazzo Pubblico de Sienne, tete de jeune homme’

Faces, feet, buildings, bodies. A design for a public space in Sienna. The head of a young man.

It’s always worth looking at Leonardos and, as an added bonus, this exhibition is free!

The exhibition is on until 19th April


Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre

Another little trip to Paris. Well, Eurostar are doing lots of cheap tickets so it’d be rude not to.

On my last quick visit I had intended to take in a couple of exhibitions but, due to the yellow vested demonstrators, everything was shut so I couldn’t. Luckily, I was able to book another trip just in time to catch the exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, ‘Le Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre’.

The exhibition is relatively small in size but very broad in scope, taking in the history of the site from its establishment in the first half of the 12th century, through to its ‘rediscovery’ in the 1920s when Syria was under the French Mandate, down to the present day as an important heritage-at-risk site.

Its earliest years, as a home to the Knights Hospiteller, the crusader castle, on which construction began in 1142, was built on the site of an earlier settlement of Kurdish tribesmen under the Emir of Aleppo and Homs, Shibl ad-Dawla Nasr. The site was then known as “Ḥiṣn al-Safḥ” but later became known as “Ḥiṣn al-Akrād” (Castle of the Kurds).

The castle underwent many modifications during its lifespan as a crusader castle, sometimes due to changes in fashion, due to damage from earthquakes, floods and droughts, and due to the changing defensive demands of the site. Eventually in March 1271, after a siege lasting almost a month, the outer parts of the castle were taken by Mamluk forces. The Crusader Knights retreated into the inner ward but, after 10 days, they were persuaded to leave when the besiegers delivered a, possibly forged, letter of permission to surrender from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli. The Knights were granted safe conduct and the new, Mamluk, owners converted the castle for their own needs (including converting the chapel into a mosque).

Several 19th century explorers described and recorded the castle, and it was included in guidebooks of the east and Holy Land but it gained a new audience when in 1926, on a visit as part of the International Congress of Syria and Palestine, Paul Deschamps first saw the castle. In the intervening centuries, a village had grown up within the walls and up to 500 people lived in and around the site. The underground vaults were choked with detritus of human habitation.

Deschamps recognized the site as important and tried, unsuccessfully to persuade the villagers to move out so that it could be conserved. When the villagers proved unwilling to give up their homes, he then hit upon the idea of persuading the French colonial government to purchase the castle from the government of Latakia (the Syrian provincial government responsible for the site). The French government agreed and November 1933 it paid one million francs for the site. Clearance and restoration work was conducted between 1934 and 1936 but then, after the Second World War, due to the questionable legality of the earlier sale the, now independent, Syrian government had demanded, and been granted, the return of the site. Crac des Cevaliers was restored to the Syrian government in February 1949.

The site was cleared and renovated by Deschamps, using soldiers garrisoned there as labour. Duchamps’ notebooks describing this process survive, along with snaps he took on his many visits to the site.

This is how the internals view looked when I visited in 2010.

The exhibition includes posters and artefacts relating to the French Mandate period when travel and tourism to Syria and Lebanon were being marketed to French travelers. The Holy Land in these images is exotic and glamorous, but also with an adventurous slant. Very colonial.

Highlights of the exhibition are the maquettes, the largest a detailed [scale???} model of Crac des Chevaliers created for the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931. The model was created by Etienne Prevost and shows the condition of the castle in 1930, before restoration began.


Here is a view of it in the 1931 exhibition.

In 1928, Duschamp also had casts made of the castle’s architectural elements inscriptions.



This cast is of an inscription commemorating the work carried out at Crac in the mid-13th century.







Inscription in-situ, 2010



This in-situ 13th century inscription, in Latin reads,



Be wealthy, be wise, be beautiful, but beware of pride, which blemishes all it comes near.







There is actually something dreamy about Crac des Chevaliers. Perched on its own mount in the Homs Valley, the views of the castle are spectacular and, before the current conflict, a visit to Syria just wasn’t complete without a visit to Crac. The viewpoint from the road overlooking the valley (top) is the classic view of the castle and road with steep drops and hairpins bends means that the drive up to the castle itself is pretty exciting. From the citadel itself, there are dramatic views down the valley.


Unfortunately, the events of recent years have not been kind to Crac, which was occupied by armed groups in the summer of 2013 and sustained damage in bombardments over the next 9 months or so. Ongoing work being carried out under the auspices of Unesco includes recording using digital technology to produce 3-dimensional digital plans of the site. Hopefully, this detailed work will help with both the Syrian and international conservation efforts.

Le Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre’ is at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, and the run has been extended until 4th March.

Age-old cities


Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits  is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo,  Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du PatrimoineLe Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul

The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts  but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.


The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.


Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.

One  of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.

Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.

As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.

Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 


Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.

Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,

…and up the ramp to the Citadel.

This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.

The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I  found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.

Leptis Magna

Arch of Septimius Severus              

The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of  an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.

The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.


Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.

Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *



Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.

One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.

This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015). 

Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment. The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life. A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.

He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.

The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.


The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.

For updates on the current situations in these regions, follow: @AinSyria ‏ and @AinIraq


*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok. 





A Persian Odyssey: Slight Return

The Netherlands is home to some cracking museums; the Rijkesmuseum, Rijkesmuseum van Oudheden, Allard Pierson, the museum at Castellum Hoge Woerd and many more.

But I’ve never been to the north of the country, so I had no idea what was up there. That is, until, a Twitter post by @FollowingHadrian about an exhibition of Iranian (Persian) archaeology and artefacts at the Drents Museum in Assen. As I’m always on the lookout for exciting things of an archaeological bent to do and see, and as I was actually due to be in the Netherlands (albeit much further south) over the August Bank Holiday, I immediately set about working out how I could fit in a very quick trip north to have a look.

Artefacts in the exhibition were on loan from the excellent National Museum of Iran, which I visited when I was in Tehran in 2015, so I was very keen to get another look at them. As well as artefacts that I remember seeing, there were ones that were either not on display, or which I just didn’t see or notice, so there were plenty of ‘new to me’ things to see.


The Drents Museum was purpose-built as a museum in 1854, but the exhibition was in the newer extension, opened in 2011. The exhibition space, downstairs, is quite large, although not huge, open and nicely lit and there seemed to be a good number of people visiting the exhibition, including groups, although it was not packed (this was a Monday* lunchtime, so I wouldn’t have expected it to be really packed).

The exhibition, Iran: Cradle of Civilisation, takes in a really broad sweep of Iranian/Persian history, including prehistoric artefacts dating from as early as 7000BCE right into the Islamic period, ending in about 1700CE.

Prehistoric culture is represented by some really beautiful and delicate pieces. I was particularly struck by this small stone bowl (it’s about 4-5 cm in diameter). It’s carved out of a piece of the darker-coloured stone in which there are lighter bush-coral inclusions.

2600-2400BCE, Shahdad, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

This terracotta bowl is decorated with a painted frieze of dancing figures. Perhaps commemorating a particular occasion or a festival of some sort.

I was particularly fascinated by this clay ball, as it brought to mind the stone balls seen in collections in the north of Britain (have a look at the Huntarian Collection in Glasgow for some examples).

Clay Bulla, 3200BC, Susa, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

It isn’t really known what the balls found in Britain were for but the accompanying film explained this Persian ball. It’s a seal!

The ball is covered with figures of human and animals.

I stood in front of the screen filming the whole video because it really explained this artefact very well. You can see the video here: Clay Bulla (message to anyone from the Drents Museum: If you would prefer it if I took this video down, please let me know and I’ll do so).

The two objects below, although not particularly fancy looking, are evidence for the technological development of the region. The first a rather mucky-looking footed-dish, is actually a crucible in which copper was smelted.

Clay crucible 4000-3700BC, Tappeh Qabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. When copper ore is heated to a temperature above 1084c it will melt and can then be poured into moulds. At first only pure copper was melted, but the coppersmiths gradually started to mix it with other metals. One of those experiments lead to the discovery of bronze (copper and tin).

The second, a mould for casting a copper axe-head. Found at the site of Tappeh Ghabrestan, northwest of Tehran, which is known for its finds associated with copper-working, with furnaces and moulds dug into the ground as well as these smaller, terracotta moulds.

Terracotta mould, 3500-310BCE, Tappeh Ghabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

Although these not the fanciest exhibits in the exhibition, they are hard evidence of technological development and expertise in the region.

So what are the fanciest artefacts?

From the third millennium BCE, comes a gorgeous selection of carved soapstone vases, pots, cups and bowls. Soapstone is soft and relatively easy to carve, so it lends itself to these kinds of intricate, detailed designs. The imagery include real and imagined creatures, demons, deities, scroll-work and complex, interlocking geometric designs. I spent a long time admiring these wonderful artefacts and wanting so badly to be able to touch them.

From the 6th until the 3rd centuries BCE, the first Persian empire, the Achaemenids, founded by Cyrus the Great, dominated this part of the world. This dynasty, which included the other Persian ‘Greats’, Darius, and Xerxes, is notable for, among other things, its fine gold work. Examples in the exhibition also include beautiful vases and drinking horns (rhyton).

And one of the many highlights of this exhibition, this wonderfully weird pottery jug. Fashioned in the form of a man tending his bird-beaked pot-beast 😀

Pottery jug 850-550BCE, Kaluraz, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. This jug appears to have a spout in the shape of some kind of beak. Such beaked jugs were used for special wine ceremonies at burials. The Kaluraz cemetery is well known for its beautiful pottery vessels. This is the finest example – functional and yet artistic.

And there were even some reliefs from the imperial city of Persepolis.

Many reliefs at Persepolis show representatives of the 23 peoples of the empire, who came to the imperial city to pay tribute to King Darius. on the left, a gift-bearer climbing the stairs and on the right, a ma presenting a gift of arms to the King.

A whole wall of the exhibition space was transformed into a famous and spectacular monument, the original of which is situated at the World heritage Site of Behistun in north-west Iran (there are several spellings of this: Bisotun, Bistun or Bisutun).

The life-sized figure holding a bow, as a sign of kingship, is Darius the Great, beneath his foot is a figure, possibly the pretender to the throne, Gaumata. Behind him are two attendants and facing him are bound captives representing the conquered peoples. The symbol above the scene is the Faravahar the central symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.

The text, is written in three ancient languages; written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (an Akkadian dialect) and it provided the key to the decipherment of cuneiform, in much the same way the The Rosetta Stone was the key that unlocked Egyptian hieroglyphs. The inscription begins with the biography of Darius the Great, for whom the monument was created, and the history of the empire following the death of its founder Cyrus the Great. It describes the battles fought and won, and the rebellions put down by Darius and the generals subjugated.

This life-sized replica, measuring 15 x 6 metres, was created especially for this exhibition and installed at the same height as the original would be viewed. This gives a good idea of how the original in-situ would be seen, although, obviously, in a very different location.

When I was looking at visiting this exhibition, one of my burning questions was how on earth it had come about. I assumed that there must be some professional connections between curators in Assen and Tehran that had enabled the Drents Museum to secure such an amazing array of loans. Handily, the exhibition included a film answering this, and other questions, and the curatorial connections between the museum services has resulted in this exhibition and a return exhibition of Dutch art and archaeology now on display in Tehran. You can watch a mini-doc about the exhibition here:  https://drentsmuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/iran

This is certainly one of my exhibitions of the year and I would love to visit again, but I doubt that I’ll be able to get to Assen again before the exhibition closes on 18th November.  However, I think I’m going to have to plan a return visit to the Drents Museum in the not-too-distant future, for the next exhibition, ‘Nubia – Land of the Black Pharaohs‘ I just wish that exhibition catalogue was available in English. If it had been, I would have snapped it up.


*I should say that the Drents Museum, just like pretty well every other museum in the Netherlands, isn’t generally open on Mondays. I was lucky in that I was visiting at the end of the school holidays and it happened to be open on the day that I was able to get there.