Shortly before lunchtime on a recent sunny day in central London, the last few seats in the British Museum's basement lecture theater were filling up fast. Students came in nibbling their sandwiches. A lady in a silk headscarf waved hello to a friend. Behind me, an elderly man in a green quilted vest of the kind worn by rural English spaniel owners was telling his wife about the bird life in their London garden that morning.
"I saw blackbirds and thrushes," he said. "Crows were about, though."
Displaying what in Britain passes for shock and awe, the wife absent-mindedly pulled a couple of twigs from his gray thatch of hair.
"Goodness," she chided. "You've half the tree on you."
If museum curator Dominique Collon noticed the foliage she was too polite to say so. Standing at her lectern dressed in a vintage emerald tapestry jacket from Uzbekistan, Collon began her talk about "Sumer, Babylon, Assyria and the Cradle of Civilization." Up flashed a slide of the Fertile Crescent, where animal husbandry began 10,000 years ago and over which U.S. tanks rolled more recently.
"You probably don't much need maps at this stage," she said, and a rueful chuckle rippled through the audience. "You all know where Iraq is."
It's hard to persuade a Londoner to spend a lunch hour underground on a warm spring day. Except, it turns out, in wartime. And this war, with its graphic television images, has taught us that we British are, above all else, a nation of armchair archaeologists. All it took was for the BBC to start showing Iraqi machine-gun posts atop ancient tombs -- perfect lookouts in a flat terrain -- and viewers began bombarding the British Museum's Department of the Ancient Near East with e-mails and telephone calls, desperate to know which "ziggurats," or royal burial sites, might come under fire. Stricken, we recalled our old history lessons from sixth-grade: Iraq. The Cradle of Civilization. One giant open-air archaeological site. Help!
The museum's response was history. Literally.
John Curtis, keeper of the department of the Ancient Near East, mobilized his version of a rapid response team, including Collon, a "world expert on cylinder seals," or cork-shaped tablets of ancient writing from 3,500 B.C., to host a series of free public lectures and guided tours of its Mesopotamian and Assyrian galleries. Twice when I went it was standing-room only in the 150-seat lecture theater. One evening, I met a 7-year-old girl named Gemma, who had persuaded her mother to drive from their home in the countryside an hour away to hear the museum's expert on ancient Babylon's magic texts describe how to write cuneiform, the world's oldest script, which originated in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. Tip: Wiggle a cut-off wooden popsicle stick into a lump of clay to make wedge shapes, but mind your chest-length beard and bow tie.
Last week, following the postwar looting of ancient treasures from Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad, the number of visitors to the British Museum's Ancient Near East galleries was up by about a third.
Collon thinks the British want historical facts about Iraq because the war made them "feel powerless," and she is right. This does not mean people here are unmoved by the human costs of this war: They are appalled. But their fascination by what, before last week, they called "the greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq" does strike me as endearingly, well, British.
Try as we might to run from our colonial past, we cannot stop ourselves from trying to make sense of the present by looking back -- way back. We inherit a conviction that the study of ancient history will shed light on ourselves and the world around us because some of our most learned men have told us so. Or, as the English courtier-philosopher Francis Bacon wrote 400 years ago, wonder is the seed of knowledge. "Antiquities are history defaced," he wrote, "or some remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwreck of time."
It is tempting to dismiss the British fascination with archaeology as evidence of a bunch of dotty intellectuals pining for the glory of the British Empire, but that wouldn't be fair. People here don't talk about toppling Saddam Hussein to expand "zones of democracy." That's U.S.-government talk. Nor can the average person here be bothered with cultural expansion of the sort the British empire once pursued. This time, second fiddle is fine. We lost one empire and it took us half a century to recover.
Maybe we haven't entirely lost our inclinations toward empire-building, but at least we have grown up. Our first experiment with imperialism was a tragedy. We prefer to conduct our second as archae- ology, ideally without having to return any of our past spoils, whatever the circumstances of their removal.
Naturally, we think we're onto something. At the Royal Academy's recent "Aztecs" show, children on school trips lay on their tummies and sketched ancient sculptures used for sacrificing still-beating human hearts to the gods. Gemma, the little girl at the British Museum, is about to study the ancient Egyptians as part of the national state curriculum.
Jane Snowden, a researcher-librarian, came to the British Museum this past Tuesday and found herself "drawn" to its Assyrian reliefs, which are "all about war and looting" and were vandalized in the seventh century.
"We think we've evolved, but we haven't really," she says. "It's important to see the continuity of history. It's all part of a link." Indeed, the Rest of the World still competes with gardening as one of our more palatable national obsessions. At my local bookstore, in Chelsea, the stockist knows his old-school clientele. A copy of Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" stands next to "Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners," a first edition of William Dalrymple's "White Mughals" (a tale of "love and betrayal in 18th-century India") and "Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity," alongside several globes the size of softballs.
These days, our sights are post-imperial. We've abandoned our rhetoric of acquisition. Postwar talk today at the British Museum is about helping Iraq recover its looted treasures. Gone are the aristocratic plunderers of yore. So acute is our national feeling of responsibility that an anonymous donor has paid for a team of museum conservators and curators to travel to Baghdad this week to help Iraq track down its treasures.
"I don't know what I think about the Elgin Marbles. I genuinely don't," says Snowden, glancing over the shoulder of her plaid jacket. "But I'm bloody glad they're here right now. Same for the Assyrian Bulls."
What strikes me about the visitors to the Department of the Ancient Near East, however, is how their feelings of powerlessness emerge as curiosity, not fury. Their quest for facts is an apolitical one. It's impossible to tell if they support or condemn the use of force to free Iraq of Saddam Hussein.
The same cannot be said for the audiences at the growing number of war-related arts events across London. The other evening, I went along to the Royal Court Theater in Sloane Square, where playwrights, actors and directors were showing short works based on their reactions to the war. It was a lively crowd. Couples gathered over late-afternoon beers in the bar. One woman, in her sixties, planned to attend all six performances, and I asked why.
"I would have thought it was obvious," she snarled.
Nothing about background or historical perspective. No. Everyone she knows is "angry" about the war and wanted "something to do with their feelings."
Inside, during a "documentary" by playwright Caryl Churchill, five actors, including a very gloomy Alan Rickman, read excerpts of an Internet chat between a handful of mostly repugnant and verbally aggressive Americans and Iraqis. One American referred to the Iraqi leader as "So Damn Insane," while an Iraqi yelled at the pro-war Americans to get back "to your own chat rooms."
Subtle it was not. But it did draw the audience onto the sore subject of Empire. Not ours. America's. One man earned bitter applause when he said the real reason for the war is that George Bush wants "Wal-Marts in Basra."
Frankly, I preferred the British Museum. There, at least, it was easy to admire the power of archaeology and to transcend -- and avoid -- politics. As Snowden told me after her most recent museum gallery tour: "It's an indication that we are doing our best as a civilized society that we have some- body in Bloomsbury who can read cuneiform texts to us."