Light From the East


SCIENTISTS have taught us to project our imaginations into the future. It is a commonplace of scientific novels ever since the days of Jules Verne to carry the reader easily and without effort into ages yet to come. The voyage is the simpler because the facts which document it are few.

But how many people can cast their imaginations with equal case into the past? That is a habit which is of recent growth, as recent as the archaeology which makes it possible. The youngest of the sciences now at last makes it possible for us to look down endless vistas, to think in terms of millennia more easily than in the ‘light-years’ of the astronomers or in the glaciations of the geologists. And how very few people, in fact, ever think back before the days of written and recorded history! How many ever ask themselves whether the third millennium before Christ was as interesting as the tenth? For it is so much easier to discuss the life of the Emperor Augustus or the Age of Pericles. Yet modern civilization can only be understood by the study of events which gave it rise, and most of those events occurred some five or six thousand years ago.

Archaeology is not unlike the study of European history. You research into the history of several individual nations and, as you develop from being a mere student to the status of an expert, you discover that the history of the various nations is inextricably connected. Until a generation ago archaeology consisted of a series of separate studies. Assyrian and Babylonian archaeology was a rigidly separate science which gave no hint that the countries concerned had ever had more than a fleeting contact with other lands. Egyptology, as the term indicates, confined its attentions severely to Egypt. Greece lived in its own remote crystal palace, and Minoans were even more isolated. Europe at first studied in separate areas recently developed into a unit, and it is now possible to consider non-Mediterranean Europe as almost an archaeological entity at all periods before the historic.

But the main result of post-war research in archaeology has been that we are beginning to realize that the remotest barbarisms of Europe’s most ultimate Thule are related, however tenuously, to the oldest and richest civilizations of the Orient. And for Europeans, odd and unusual though this may sound, it is the plains of Mesopotamia that count most.

A generation ago all that we knew about the early history of Mesopotamia was concerned with Babylon and Assyria. After the war the opening of Mesopotamia to excavation led to a series of careful excavations of which those at Ur of the Chaldees have ultimately proved the most significant. But even so, not even the excavators themselves at first realized that what they were finding was not simply a city of the Sumerians and a vast collection of works of art that illustrated the earliest civilization of the Mesopotamian plains, but the very foundations of civilization itself. Egypt, in comparison, had provided evidence for a culture and a great civilization that were connected with the European; Sumer showed a steady development of civilized life from which came that illumination which lit up, in the end, the whole vast barbaric world between the Near East and the Atlantic — an illumination which made European and, in consequence, American modes of life living realities.

This is one of the new conceptions which recent research has made into a reality. The intercommunication of the two first civilizations of the world, Egypt and Sumer, and their importance as a common basis for all subsequent Western culture, are conclusions only very recently arrived at. Until the various sites of Sumer were examined and until Ur was completely excavated it was only possible to consider the civilization so revealed as one aspect of Near Eastern development. As recently as 1926 there appeared the first brilliant statement of the results of the excavations at Ur, written by the late George Byron Gordon, in the Atlantic Monthly for February of that year. The author — who was, for the Philadelphia University Museum, one of the directors of the Anglo-American enterprise, of which Sir Leonard Woolley was the British director — summarized the existing knowledge of Sumerian culture.

To him and to the other excavators, Ur was the city of Abraham, and the account in the Book of Genesis of Abraham’s departure from Ur was seen to be a stray reference to the earliest period of Mesopotamian history. The Sumerians, unknown before the war, were seen as the background of the Ur of Abraham; they were the inhabitants, not the Chaldees. The Chaldæans were a Semitic folk of historic times, who were the only identifiable people whom the writer of the Book of Genesis could associate with Ur. For the Sumerians had long vanished in the mists of time. The excavators felt that their main task was to enlarge our knowledge of the Sumerians, and with it of the Bible.

But to-day larger ambitions tempt them. Abraham’s Ur, and further evidence to illustrate the Bible, fade into insignificance in comparison with the vaster prospects of human history that open out to us as we consider these ancient Sumerians. For when we first meet them at Ur, shortly before 3000 B.C., they are already fully mature. At least another thousand years must have gone to mould them and their mode of life, and it is exactly in that millennium, the remote thousand years 4000-3000 B.C., that mankind faced all its problems and from their experiments forged the basis of life as we five it today. This is neither rhetorical boasting nor vain speculation: it is one of the vital conclusions that have emerged from the soil of Ur and Kish and the other excavated sites of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates.

In case I am suspected of paradox I will explain; and here we have need of that distant and imaginative vision that will allow us to look with clear eyes into the remotest centuries of the past. The study of Sumerian achievements is an indispensable prelude to any knowledge of civilization in its infancy in Europe. And it is not only Sumer that has swung into our enlarged vision. As I have said, the oins of the Sumerian themselves are wrapped in obscurity, and we are feeling our way gradually towards an even larger conception of the origins of mankind and of the civilization which we ourselves enjoy. For now in the last few years, following hard on the heels of our enlarged knowledge of the Sumerians, has come the discovery in India of a completely organized civilization, equal with the Sumerian in complexity and elaboration, along the banks of the Indus. Since the days when Ur of the Chaldees was just another Mesopotamian site, and since its rise of status to the representative city of man’s first effort at conscious organized city life, India has now linked on to our story, and from the western shores of Europe to the Indian Ocean we now see one homogeneous whole of human endeavor.

Indian culture, as revealed at the sites of Harappa and Mohendjodaro, is discovered complete and more advanced soon after 3000 B.C. than even that of Sumer. Egypt and Sumer started on their development more or less about the same time, but India precedes both, as far as present knowledge goes. This need not be taken to mean that India was the home of all the culture that developed in the Nile and Euphrates valleys. Such an inference would be totally invalid. But it is now known that Sumerians and Indians were in contact. Indeed, the discovery of Sumerian objects on the Indus sites and of Indian works of art in Sumer is one of the outstanding contributions of scientific archaeology of the last few years.

That discovery enables us now to realize that in this intercourse we are in the presence of the first conscious instance of international commerce, extending over vast areas of land or wide stretches of sea. Egypt also was in direct touch with Mesopotamia, and the earliest phases of Nilotic life in Egypt show evidence of trade, caravan-borne, between the two centres of human development. All hither Asia and eastern Africa north of the Sudan were in a ferment of experimental civilization. Some believe that sea-borne traffic contributed largely to the contact between Sumer and India and between Sumer and Egypt, through the medium perhaps of a race of middlemen, ancestors of the historic Phoenicians, possibly the Arabs of coastal Arabia.


This is the stage in which the drama was set. Here in the two vast and fertile valleys of the Near East and in that of the distant Indus were three quite separate and individual experiments, separate by geography, but related by the connection which was inevitably established by curious-minded traders and travelers. And all this happened in that critical millennium before 3000 B.C. Westwards was sheer barbarism. Minoans had not yet appeared on the horizon. Their island was inhabited by mere squatters. In Europe men ware groping without intelligence, living on middens, the slaves of circumstance which they could not control and which they made no attempt to subjugate. Had the Asiatic and African attempts not been made, Europe might never have emerged from the degraded stage of savagery in which her sparse inhabitants ware plunged in those dark centuries between 10,000 and 3000 B.C., an age when climatic circumstances had broken up the mode of life of the cave dwellers and not yet suggested the new life of the farmers and agriculturists.

Nothing that was generated in Europe almost up to 1500 B.C. was of European origin. It was from the Orient that every hint of improvement and amelioration came, either across the seas, by way of the Levant and the Ægean, or else round the Black Sea coast and up the long and lovely waterway of the mighty Danube. Distant Britain and Portugal derived everything that ultimately transformed their life from savagery to culture from those devious routes that let the light of the East percolate to the Western darkness. The ancient tag ex oriente lux now at last achieves its fullest meaning, but in a wholly new sense. Just as remote savages in America were stirred by the stories and the objects that reached them from the first settlements in eastern America, so now echoes of the vast experiments of the East began to filter westwards. How and why they came through, and what exactly were the discoveries which counted most, I will now explain. What was done in those Asiatic valleys and along the Nile which ultimately produced London and Paris and New York is now the problem to consider, a problem which in essence concerns us all. One hears much of the ‘legacy of Greece and of Rome’; perhaps the ‘legacy of the Sumerians’ may soon prove to be the greatest of all.

What is perhaps of greatest importance is that the physical type of the Sumerians, in so far as we can reconstruct it from their skeletons, long buried and well preserved in the salty soil of Mesopotamia, is identical both with that earliest identified in Egypt and with that widespread physical type which is conveniently termed ‘Mediterranean’ by anthropologists. This means that at the very start there was some kind of physical unity in the area that comprised Near Asia and eastern Europe. The type in question was one which meets us still all over the same region — moderate stature, light agile frame, and long heads, implying intelligence and ability. But, admittedly, there were other physical types which soon mixed with the Sumerian. At the same time it is important to realize that the type most common was not something strange and Asiatic and Mongoloid, but one which linked up with Europe.

Whoever they were, these Sumerians had by the middle of the fourth millennium selected, by some unconscious genius, precisely those factors of advance which ultimately proved vital for the growth of civilization. In the royal and lay graveyards of Ur we can see objects which illustrate how the first conscious civilization had emerged. But the steps which had led to a complex organization of city life had started on the lower and simpler level of agricultural life. As far as we can tell, the most primitive inhabitants of the Tigris and Euphrates lived an utterly barbaric life as marsh dwellers, huddled on swampy islands, living from hand to mouth by fishing and hunting. Inundations destroyed them periodically, and it was perhaps from these inundations that they, or fresh settlers, derived the idea of making the land rather than the swamps and rivers support them. Their emergence from their marshes was comparable to the emergence of Palaeolithic men from caves, ultimately to plant and till the soil.

The birth of agriculture must be placed either along the Nile Valley or upon the banks of the Mesopotamian rivers. At present it would be dangerous to say which region can claim to be the first inventor. But the difference is not fundamental, since, as we have seen, the whole area is homogeneous. It may even be that the source of all agriculture is to be found in the Indus Valley, whose primitive inhabitants also bear the physical stamp of the ‘Mediterranean’ type. Nor is it inconceivable that in three regions where racial types and geographical and geological conditions were so similar the discovery of how to make plants grow artificially and how to domesticate wild animals arose independently, more or less about the same time, as a result of the same stimulus driving on similar people.

But it seems to have been the Sumerians who moved fastest. The frequent representation on the works of art found on Sumerian sites, particularly at Ur, of scenes of simple farmyard life suggests that agriculture, even by 3000 B.C., was still enveloped in an atmosphere of awe and wonder, just as are our most recent inventions to-day. The aeroplane still causes us wonder and admiration, and the aviator is still something of a hero, for true aviation is not much more than a generation old. On the mosaic ornaments of Ur, richly colored with blue lapis lazuli from the Persian highlands and white shell from the Persian Gulf, the ordinary scenes from dairy and farmyard appear side by side with the most sacred scenes and the most regal processions. The milking of cows, the herds of tamed mouflon, one of the ancestors of our modern sheep, are all vividly portrayed with all that enthusiasm which we give to-day to a picture of the newest locomotive or the speed car. At that time these were mighty achievements, whose effects have done more to civilize mankind than a thousand new types of automobile or aeroplane. For from agriculture comes ultimately the city, while from vehicles comes little more than the means of moving from one city to another.

The Sumerians had made the prime invention from which all that we have ever made are no more than irrelevant derivatives. That it was Sumerians and not Egyptians who first domesticated wild animals seems proved by the fact that no wild sheep has ever existed in Africa, while in Asia there are three wild types, each of which could have been selected for domestication. And in the prehistoric settlements of Europe the earliest sheep bones found prove to be domesticated descendants of the urial ram, which is an Asiatic species. So too the oldest Egyptian type conies from the same Asiatic stock. And thus our knowledge of farming owes its origin solely to the experimentations carried out on the Mesopotamian plains.

With a regular food supply assured from crops and from animals that gave both meat and milk, the Sumerians found it possible to devise new schemes. How and why these agriculturists first decided to concentrate in cities must remain an unsolved problem for our curiosity. Once a mode of life has been devised in which a food supply is secure and in which some degree of comfort is assured, it is difficult to see why any further advance is necessary. The world might have remained established on an agricultural basis forever.

In Europe this did indeed remain the stage of development for a far longer period than in Asia. Europeans became agricultural in consequence of the Asiatic advance. The knowledge hammered out in Mesopotamia spread westwards to the ultimate confines of western Europe. But the subsequent swift development into city life and urban organization was complete in Sumer by about 3500 B.C., while nothing resembling a city appeared north of the Mediterranean before 500 B.C. That is a fact to make one ponder, and to give cause for admiration of the amazing ingenuity of the Asiatic compared with the stolid and easy satisfaction of the Westerner, who was content with so little.

The shift from an agricultural life to an urban is, as I have said, a mystery. The change is due perhaps to an increase of population, which in turn led, as it does to-day, to a demand for new occupations. The inventive faculty of man meets the need. Just as to-day additions to the population are absorbed in new industries, just as the automobile and the radio industries open out new possibilities for careers, so the increased populations that resulted from the security and comfort of the new agricultural life found their outlet in new inventions such as architecture, brickmaking, irrigation, and shipping. From these the city emerged, more as a luxury than as a necessity at first, and then gradually grew into a complex organism with a life of its own, dependent on the original agricultural setting from which it had sprung.


There is no doubt at all that the city, in the sense in which we know it, was entirely a Sumerian conception. And in that city we find everywhere the remembrances of the great invention of agriculture that gave it birth. The royal graves of Ur reflect this. Ears of grain, of wheat and barley, pomegranates, — one of the world’s earliest cultivated fruits, — and the domesticated animals appear represented in the gold jewels and ornaments of the Sumerian kings. The wild ass that was tamed into chariots and carts appears not only in the mosaic pictures but also as a statuette in silver from a chariot pole. Bulls and cows rapidly achieve a semi-mystic veneration. For the Sumerians remembered their origins, just as we remember our recent scientific past. Just as we treasure specimens of the first locomotive and the first automobile or telegraph, so the Sumerians treasured their far more important inventions, the yoked animal and the domesticated sheep. One picture from Nippur suggests that they had domesticated the antelope (which we have tried in vain to do) and even harnessed it to the plough!

With the formation of the city came the invention of writing — an invention which can without any hesitation be assigned to the Sumerians. Citizens of the newly invented city found the need for identifying private property or indicating individual personality. So they made seals, each to be as different from the other as fingerprint from fingerprint. From these varied signs emerged a collection of conventional signs which indicated general things, and so a mode of writing was formed. That the knowledge of it was at first well spread over the citizen population is indicated by the enormous number of seals found which bear signs in this new script. Nearly every citizen could read and write. Then it was found that a central place was required where records of property could be kept, and the temple and its priests took charge of the first product of this, the second most important human invention ever made.

But while agriculture and, as it developed, a knowledge of metallurgy spread along the south coasts of the Black Sea via Troy into eastern Europe and the river valleys that led westwards, writing never penetrated the fastnesses of savage Europe until the time of the Romans. The intellectual standards of the European were lower, his processes of thinking slower, than those of the Mediterranean. But metallurgy was the second great Oriental invention given to Europe by the East. The Bronze Age that developed in Hungary and Transylvania about 1500 B.C. was a creditable child of Sumerian metallurgy. Its metalwork can bear comparison with any in ancient Sumer.

There is another advance which is seldom mentioned. The Sumerians, at the end of the fourth millennium, had, strangely and surprisingly, developed that which is neither invented nor consciously produced at any age or time — the strange phenomenon known as good taste. Look at the gold cups found at Ur, at the famous gold dagger, at the delicate drawing and engraving on shell or in mosaic, — examples of all of which are admirably displayed in the University Museum of Pennsylvania, — and you will see the first instance in history of refinement in art, for that is what we mean by good taste. The gold cups of Ur, the carved stone bowls, the silver harps and lyres, and the lovely gold and lapis headdresses of the queens, are all instinct with a quality of restraint and elegance which is not met with in all the subsequent history of Mesopotamia until Persian times, and rarely, except in limited periods, in Egyptian history. Not until Greek taste is fully formed will you meet anything which is at once so skilled or so graceful as these early Sumerian forms.

Good taste in art is indefinable and, as a term, elusive; it cannot be communicated or conveyed by one people to another; it merely grows, and its growing is dependent on a certain mode of life. If life is savage and ruthless, you can be sure that its art will reflect those qualities. Assyrian art throughout Assyrian history shows the brutality of Assyrians. Aztec art can only be the art of a cruel people. But Sumerian art is the art of a simple but exceedingly sensitive race. We can learn of their psychology only through their art, for their literature is never explicit or developed enough to help. Just as we can gauge the character of Greeks from their art, so we must use the art of the Sumerians to understand their outlook. No one who made such exquisite jewelry and plate could conceivably be considered primitive or savage.

Their drawing, their minute skill, and their larger conceptions of form and line show the Sumerians to have developed a mode of art which might have laid down the lines which all subsequent art was to follow. But Sumer had reached her zenith by the early centuries of the third millennium, and, as her racial and political character changed under the impact of new races and fresh intrusions, her art rapidly declined. Its influence never in fact reached Europe and the West at all, except as a faint tendency perceptible in Minoan art or in certain strange elements found in Egyptian art. Virtually Sumerian art was born to blush unseen.

But what concerns us is the fact that the swift rise of art in Sumer from that of the primitive marsh dwellers to the art of the Kings of Ur indicates that the Sumerians were instinct with genius and imagination, far beyond the usual measure. Until the completion of the excavations at Ur, no one had an inkling that they were the first people in the world to become artistic, in the highest sense in which this word can be used. That marks an advance from the stage at which, ten years ago, we thought of Sumerians as merely one among the many obscure Oriental peoples. If you examine the marvels of Ur you will see at once that they belong to a period of high culture.


With such events occurring in the Middle East, with such great strides in human advancement being made, is it surprising that something of these great stirrings penetrated into the vastnesses of Europe and planted the seed of civilization even in those wild regions? For Europe, while these high endeavors were afoot in the hot Asiatic plains, was still recovering from an Ice Age. The ice had retreated, but the climate was still frigid and rough. Dense forest covered almost the whole of the European plains north of the Balkans and the Alps, save for one region, now Central Europe, where the soil is unfavorable to the growth of trees. This is the famous flatland of Poland, South Russia, Bohemia or Czechoslovakia, and North and Central Germany.

It is no mere idle remark to say that one can ride on a bicycle from the shores of Holland or Denmark right across to the Pamir and the confines of India without meeting any obstacles except rivers and without finding any gradients worthy of remark. A large part of this tract consists geologically of the soil known as ‘ loess,’ a light loam, yellow and fertile, best seen in the flat plains north of Vienna. This deposit is never deep and consists of the dust blown by the arctic winds as the glaciers retreated, the weather became drier, and the detritus of the ice sheet, mud and slime, was blown hither and thither as it dried. Loess soil is one of the strangest in the world, and it is the basis of many Central European industries, particularly vinegrowing.

Through this great belt of loess running east and west across the flatlands cuts the mighty river Danube. Where the impenetrable forest of the rest of Europe forbade advance from east to west, the Danube gave a moving highway along whose banks flocks and herds, settlers and explorers, could pass with ease and comfort, or on whose waters adventurous fishermen could pursue the innumerable fish of these rich waters. Along that route came the knowdedge of agriculture to us, from the other flatlands of the East. Far inland in the Rhine Valley and in Thuringia you will see in the prehistoric settlements of Neolithic farmers shells that are found only in the Mediterranean. Hither they had been brought as ornaments by some of these early adventurers. Other archaeological influences you will also find that show the contact of East and West and indicate the impact of the new ideas.

Imagine the continent of America with no European settlement at all except one vast and civilized city at New York, and then imagine that it would not be long before the art and culture and knowledge stored in New York percolated through to California, across the Indian trails, and ultimately down to Patagonia. Man is so curious an animal that he will come wandering for thousands of miles merely to inform himself about a rumor! So did Mycenae the Golden, and Byzantium the Walled, draw like a magnet a million barbarians, some to gaze and depart, others to stay and envy or assault.

Rumor had gone into the limitless lands of the North. Norsemen from Visby came to see what they called Miklegarth; Gauls from upper Europe a few centuries earlier had so come to see the treasures of Delphi and get them if they could. So there was a coming and going between the recesses of forestbound Europe and the open lands of the Danube Valley and the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Danube mouth opened widely and invitingly to any Easterner who had crossed the narrow span of Asia Minor and passed the Bosporus. And that was the way along which drifted, at first imperceptibly, not so much the men as the ideas of the East. The Patagonian would learn about New York at hundredth hand; but even so, he would learn.

And that is what happened in the fourth and third millennia before Christ, scarcely six thousand years ago. Civilization reached us just in that way and no other. We have been so long accustomed to thinking of civilization as a kind of spontaneous generation that happened in various places at various times that we seldom take the trouble to look for its origins. Nowhere else has it originated or developed in the same way or risen to the same level. The culture of the Maya of Central America could not be properly classified as a civilization. It reached the highest level possible to a human group which had no external contacts, but it never rose to be more than a highly specialized barbarism. China is often held up as an example of a separate civilization that grew up in a vacuum. But the earliest remains found in China link it up with the Western world, with South Russia, with eastern Europe, and with the Middle East. It was segregated after the same seeds that had been sown in Middle Asia had taken root. And the recent discovery of the Indus civilization adds a missing link to the long Eurasiatic chain.

Mankind, as archaeology can show, may remain static for many thousands of years without any advance at all. It may also stride forward at an unimaginable speed. It does that because the mind of man is incalculable, and because human existence is filled with uncertainties and inconsistencies.