It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Their Head Stuck in a 3,600-Year-Old Sumerian Pot.
BY IAN WOOD
[Originally published May 7, 2009.]
Beautiful piece. In excellent condition. One of only two complete pots from a pottery works at Larsa, dated to the reign of Rim-Sin I.
I honestly didn’t think my head would fit into it.
But it did, and now I can’t get it out. In addition to my extensive knowledge of the ancient Near East, I am blessed with a near-inexplicable touch-typing ability, so, if you will, picture me sitting at the computer with a pot on my head that dates from roughly the time when the Hittites invented iron-forged weapons. Or, to put it in more familiar terms, the pot on my head was about 400 years old when Troy was sacked.
It is of course priceless, which means I must extract my head without breaking it. Or, perhaps, my head should be cut off. But that would still leave the head-in-a-pot problem unresolved, wouldn’t it? And I’m sure that this dry ancient clay would soak up quite a lot of blood. So there would be this blood-soaked pot with a head in it, and the one in the British Museum, nice and clean in its case with no bloodstains and no head in it. I suppose one could cut off my head and then reach into the pot and sort of cut it up or mash it into easily extractable pieces, but there would still be the blood problem.
So it would, I think, be best for all concerned if no one cut off my head.
It’s the physics of the thing that galls me. I got my head into it, after all. I should be able to get it out, shouldn’t I? Perhaps once I got it in the humidity of my breath swelled the clay, just enough to prevent extraction. This is fired clay, so it could have been used to store liquids. But after almost four millennia my head might have brought enough humidity to change its shape. There’s also the matter of the gin sweat.
I always sweat when I have martinis. That’s why I never drink them at formal occasions. But this was a casual gathering, just a few fellows from the department, and Putnam has that clever little bar hidden in the bookcase next to his lab bench. I wouldn’t have had the martinis but for that: it’s not proper to have one in anything other than a martini glass, and he’s got two in there, along with a pair of highball glasses. Caleb and Johnston drank whiskey and gin and tonic, respectively, leaving Putnam and me to our olives and juniper.
They’ve all gone off to confer and resolve the issue, which is, after all, the result of their collegial goading. The pot’s been in the lab for almost a month, crated and shipped from Marsten’s dig as soon as he unearthed it, but it’s only been cleaned and perched on its stand for the past week or so. Just sitting there, well out of the way of stray elbows and graduate students, a few patches of its glaze winking seductively beneath the fluorescents. An intermittent slick of glass, lead, saltpeter, and lime: just enough remaining to catch the modern eye with its shine. It seemed a perfectly reasonable question, even after two martinis: “Do you think I could fit my head into that pot?”
It was Putnam, really. “You know,” he said, “I bet no one has had his head in that pot.” He’d already snatched up my glass and made me another one. “Almost 4,000 years, and no one has ever stuck their head into that pot.” Putnam’s always been a bit of a troublemaker, with his hidden bar and his quite willful misinterpretations of Akkadian hepatoscopic practice.
By the time I’d eaten my third olive, I was ready to give it a go. And now here I am in the dark, my nose pressed up against the arid smells of fired earth and history.
History smells like old lentils.
I hear noise behind me. The door, I think. I expect the others have figured something out. Lotion, perhaps, or some other grease. It occurs to me that, with me sitting up this way, most of the blood would fall away from the pot.
I hear whirring. I think it’s the saber saw that Johnston uses to cut through stubborn crate nails, which means that they’ve devised a way to get my head out afterward.
Clever lads, really. Some of the best in the field.
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