The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot via the British Museum

How could you fit the history of horses and humans into a space? Not even the British Museum could hold it: it would be crammed like Tutankhamun’s tomb. Selene’s chariot horses on the eastern Parthenon pediment would be eyeball to eyeball with Da Vinci’s triple-life-size Spanish steed. The central atrium would be the tackroom to end all tackrooms, with thousands of saddles perched on wall mounts like crows in a rookery: an Icelandic sidesaddle with a tool-worked seat and dinky safety rail, a Western saddle with beaten silver on the stirrups, a wooden nomad’s saddle from Central Asia, spineless, stuffed with deer fur and decorated with snow leopards. Then you’d have to clear out the Egyptian hall for donkey war chariots from Ur, a brougham with some courtesan’s coat of arms on the door, and a racing sulky so light you could pick it up in one hand.

I’d throw in pony rides in the forecourt, floodlit classical dressage and buzkashi matches, some lectures on the subtleties of Stubbs, Peche Merle and Rosa Bonheur… It would represent the life’s work of a batallion of curators and the air freighting of all the artefacts would raise the temperature of the globe by a couple of notches. That would do the trick, I think.

Limits, I suppose, are necessary in these austere times. That’s why The British Museum’s new exhibit, “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot”, would more accurately be called simply “The Arabian Horse: from Arabia to the Royal Ascot”, although it does contain artefacts from non-Arab cultures, some of which even lie outside the Middle East. The museum and its sponsors – the Saudi Royal Family and their various agents – have chosen their own path through the mass of artefacts, cultures and facts. Charged by King Abdullah to “take good care of the Kingdom’s national antiquities and to project them to the world so it can witness the deep-rooted historical civilization of Saudi Arabia and its people”, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities are heavily involved, and the extended programme for the exhibit featured a talk by Prince Sultan entitled “Measures to Promote the Civilization Dimension of Saudi Arabia.”

I’m not going to make some facile point about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record vs. the 21st century notion of civilization because that has nothing to do with horse history. I don’t think it’s wrong, either, for the Saudis to put themselves at the centre of this exhibit. After all, this is how the relation of history works: we learn by creating threads of narrative out of the chaos of facts. We tell ourselves stories. You need a narrative or else it’s just display case after display case: thing with a horse on it, slightly later thing with a horse on it – my fantasy jumble sale of saddles and chariots.

My problem with “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot” is twofold: firstly facts have been overlooked or even excluded to follow an old, well-trodden path. Secondly, a fresh, well-researched narrative could have given Eastern culture an even more central role.

What we actually get is a familiar account of a Fertile Crescent “Birth of Civilization”: Ur, Mitannis, cuneiform, chariots, grain cultivation et cetera. A wealth of booty from the British Museum’s store rooms are laid out to support this in a small maze of dark, air-conditioned rooms in the drum at the centre of Norman Foster’s atrium. It costs nothing to see this treasure, and treasure it is.

It begins with a film of a grey Arabian moving silkily round a floodlit arena in slow motion. Then there are priceless, unique pieces: the Standard of Ur (2600BC) is a small relief carving in shell, lapis lazuli, red limestone and bitumen showing a parade of figures with war-donkey chariots trampling the defenceless underfoot. The donkeys have rings through their noses (“bits hadn’t been invented,” says the caption, which rather overlooks the evidence of bitwear found in Botai horse teeth from 3500 BC). There’s a charming silver rein ring from a driving harness, featuring a trotting donkey with one ear fore and the other aft. Correspondence from Middle Eastern rulers to the pharaohs is carefully chipped in Babylonian cuneiform: memos concerning chariots and horses send by a Mitanni king, and a letter from the King of Cyprus to the King of Egypt, with the formal wish that the king’s “house, horses, chariots and land are well.” Panels provide information on the development of harness, chariots and battle techniques, as well as the spread of horses in the area.

What’s absent is the new story that is emerging from contemporary archaeology, in which horse-centric nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples – like the Saudis’ ancestors, the Bedouins – played a driving role in the spread of civilization. The peoples of the Eurasian Steppes did not leave cuneiform and stone temples, but they shuttled goods, grains, technology and Indo-European languages across vast distances over a long period of time, ultimately leaving traces of their culture everywhere from Ireland to Korea and from Siberia to the Fertile Crescent.  The domestication of the horse in Kazakhstan is mentioned briefly at the British Museum but passed easily over. Nor is there a sense of what role the nomadic Bedouins played in the Middle Eastern world. Horsemanship in “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot” is tied to settled cultures. There is only one “civilization dimension”.

The exhibit begins to make gigantic leaps in time and space after the first room, bucketing along erratically. A dummy horse and rider kitted out in 15th century Ottoman horse armour stands next to another plastic horse in 19th century quilted Sudanese armour stuffed with kapok wool. An exquisitely cut shadow puppet faces an Uzbek blanket. A painting of a late 18th century Mughal horse with its tail dipped in henna segueways into European oils of the same period:  Sartorious’ Eclipse, Stubbs’ Gimcrack and Letitia, Lady Lade.  There’s an accelerated account of the development of the thoroughbred and modern flat racing and, randomly, images of horsedrawn traffic in eighteenth-century London. In the finishing straight we’re treated to a French version of the racing board game Totopoly, footage of dressage-Wunderpferd Totilas and the Saudi showjumping team and then out we’re spat into the exhibition shop. What’s the connection? That all these horses have Arab ancestry? Where are we going? Would you like a hobby horse with your catalogue?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Donna Landry’s excellent Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture. Landry carefully draws on the work of many scholars to show how the English adopted not only oriental horses but also oriental horsemanship. We took their light, forward riding seat and called it the English hunt seat. We copied the Bedouins’ meticulous breeding records, pedigrees and carefully planned matings – it’s to these nomads that we owe the very notion of a “pure bred horse”. Landry’s “Houyhnhnmization” is the ideal inspired by Middle Eastern horsekeeping practices of the Arabian or oriental horse as a loyal, intelligent and noble creature that was both queerly human and better than a human, and to be treated as such by devoted grooms.

This is what the Saudis were looking for. This is a vision of Eastern culture as a civilizing force that left a deep mark on British ways of doing and thinking: the horse in Landseer’s Bedouin tent with its gentle eyes, the feather-light jockey’s hand on the reins.

In this version of events Arab culture would, however, have had to share credit with the Turks and North Africans, and this, perhaps, is the problem. The British Museum states that the thoroughbred was descended from three Arabian horses, but as Landry and others have pointed out, the Byerley Turk was probably so named because he was just that, a Turkish horse, and during his lifetime no one could decide if the Godolphin Arabian was not, in fact, the Godolphin Barb. There is evidence that Arabians themselves are originally of Turkic origin (think of an ancient Akhal Teke type), or perhaps desended from the tiny and fine Caspian horses of Northern Iran.

This rich and complex picture is not only blurred at Great Russell Street but supplanted by an attempt to write a new narrative. At the furthest end of the air-conditioned maze sit the Al Maqar stone carvings, aka Saudi Arabia’s much-trumpeted evidence that horse domestication took place in the Arabian Penninsula 3,500 years before the Kazakhs pulled it off.

It’s a treat to see them so soon after their discovery: the Al Maqar horse is beautiful – hefty, primitive, precise. It has a blunt profile and a smoothly joined rather than pronounced cheekbone. A groove cuts horizontally across its muzzle. To me it’s a Przewalski from the shape of its head to the mealy nose. There’s a vertical line running down its shoulder which the caption optimistically claims “may represent part of a halter or a harness” – what sort of harness would that be? Horse collars and breast yokes for draft are not believed to have been invented until 4th century BC China, and a loose strap on the neck would provide little control for a rider. Even if domestication had happened in the peninsula at that period, it became obsolete as the hypothetical Al Maqar domesticated horse died out: new DNA research shows that all modern domestic horses are descended from animals of the Eneolithic Eurasian Steppes.

The limbless stone horse is exhibited side by side with two companion carvings, one of which is believed to be a saluki and the other a hawk: the classical Bedouin accoutrements of horse, dog and raptor. Could this triptych have been set literally in stone in 7000BC? The caption hedges its bets: “Further research may determine the exact date of the three stone carvings.”

Just behind this display case is a light box which shows a series of images of striking Bedouin rock paintings of Arab-like horses led by stick figure men, black against gradations of red. When you press on an image it is projected onto the wall of the exhibition space. The figures look primitive and ancient enough but bafflingly, no date is provided for them; the caption refers to the artists using the Thamudic script but does not place them in history.  A short Google reveals that the Thamudic alphabet was used by Bedouins in the period 200BC to 300 AD. Quite a jump from the Neolithic.

Ignore me though. Go and have your eyes widened. Pass over the narrative and feast on the tiny golden chariot of the Oxus treasure, on Letitia Lade’s nonchalance and devilry, on a delicate pink chalcedony seal of a flying horse and Rembrandt’s copies of Mughal miniatures. Get confused. Forget the title. Start thinking about 19th century Sudanese cavalry and what inspired Bedouin tribesmen to paint horses on desert rock formations. Take a deep breath and throw yourself headfirst into the richness and diversity that results from millennia of interaction of humans and horses.

6 thoughts on “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot via the British Museum

  1. Great piece. I have just visited the exhibition, and like you was struck by the odd absence of dates on some of the exhibits. I noticed a similar absence on some of the artefacts (principally the paintings) in the War Horse exhibition at the National Army Museum. It’s odd. In something that purports to be an historical survey, why miss these out? Particularly when they are present elsewhere in the exhibition?

    The Al Maqar horse is quite something. I always wonder what happened to the missing bits. Are they crumbled into dust? Part of an ancient building? Still lurking somewhere underground? And how did they get into that state in the first place?

    When I walked in and saw the video of the lovely grey Arab, I had wondered quite what slant the exhibition would be taking, having resisted reading any promo material before.

  2. I took a lot of notes on the War Horse exhibit but never wrote it up – I also found the lack of a thread at the National Army Musem a bit frustrating. All the objects were fascinating but the timeline/geography leapt around randomly without much connection. It’s really hard to create a historical narrative for such a big topic, but there is one – the changes in technology and fashions in warfare, for instance.
    I was in a discussion with horsey businessfolk on Linked In the other day and they all quoted the Al Maqar “early domestication” as gospel, probably because news outlets like the Beeb ran it unquestioningly. Several of them thought the rock paintings were proof, although as you can see, there are thousands and thousands of years between the sculpture and the images.
    I was so excited to find out about the Eurasian Steppes civilizations and their role in creating our world, but they really haven’t hit mainstream consciousness yet, probably because the discoveries are relatively recent. Also, I’m still kicking myself for missing a major exhibit in Berlin a few years before I started researching the Pazyryks et al. Now I’d have to go to the Hermitage to see a fraction of the stuff…

    • I had the strong sense with the War Horse exhibition that the curator was constantly reminding themselves that they needed to appeal to the widest possible audience.

      The thing with Ancient History is that entire edifices are often built on the backs of very few artefacts. There are other explanations for Al Maqar. We just don’t know what the sculpture means, because we weren’t there, and our knowledge of what else was going on at the time necessarily has large amounts of supposition. The sculpture may just as well be a religious piece and nothing to do with domestication at all.

      I hope you get to go to the Hermitage! And I must start reading up on the Eurasian Steppes…

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