Why does one become what one has become? Chance? Fate? Now, if there were a parallel universe where I could have an alternative career, I’d be an Assyriologist.

After university, clueless about my future career, and too green to know what I now know, which is that careers are things that happen to you, I went with a couple of friends for vocational guidance. We were set a barrage of ridiculous questions. Would you rather be a ballet dancer or a bishop? was one I remember with particular joy. The upshot? My squeamish vegetarian friend was advised to go into taxidermy, and the other one to take up bee-keeping – she has a phobia about buzzy insects, after a painful childhood incident. You go to Oxford to end up stuffing dead creatures or getting stung? I don’t think so.

Now, had they said Assyriologist, I’d have signed up. I’d done vacation work in the British Museum, and every day, I walked past the vast Assyrian reliefs from Ninevah; the name alone summons up a world of glory. And there are so many names to enchant: Tiglath Pileser, Ashurbanipal, in whose royal palace those reliefs once stood, Shalmaneser… Probably tyrants all, but the poetry of the exotic syllables makes my head reel.

And that other me, the assyriologist, would know the answer to a question that’s always mystified me – what are the Assyrian kings in the reliefs carrying in their outstretched hands? It could be a handbag, it could be a paint pot – no one has ever been able to enlighten me.


Get more on Elizabeth Aston at SimonandSchuster.com
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Published on November 20, 2008 00:00 • 297 views

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