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The Rose
SSar's Beast
morbane
Earlier, I was reading The Rose: A true history by Jennifer Potter. I bought it as a treat, because it promised to tell me a lot about the rose in literature, and as someone who likes fairy tales and symbolism, I was intrigued. It’s a hardback, full of gorgeous, full-colour illustrations on glossy paper, and the typography is also lovely. However, the prose does not smell sweet.

As I read the first few pages, I tried and failed to turn off my inner editor. I saw the word 'enormity' and winced: lately, it’s used to mean ‘largeness’, but fifty years or so ago, a pedant would have laughed and told the author off for accidentally referring to a thing’s ‘great horror’. Well; okay; that one’s just prescriptivism on my part. However, in the next line, Potter used 'prevaricate' to mean ‘procrastinate’. To prevaricate, truly, is to lie. Then this mixed metaphor: 'I had to draw the line somewhere, or the centre would fall apart.' Oh dear. And so on, and so on.

I finally decided to type up a page and pick apart all of the things that make it bad writing. In my opinion, of course. It’s always the way that when an editor really gets on her high horse, she finds she’s failed to tighten the girth and falls off the other side. I don’t claim to be right about everything.

So. This section is talking about the earliest documentary evidence of roses.

The rose may have appeared in cuneiform script recorded on clay tablets and buried in the royal tombs of Ur near the mouth of the Euphrates (modern Tell el-Mukayyar in Iraq), familiar from the Old Testament as the birthplace of Abraham. The excavator was the English archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who introduced the British crime-writer Agatha Christie to the romance of ruins (and to her much younger second husband, Woolley’s assistant Max Mallowan). The tablet mentions the rose only in connection with rosewater, and we cannot be sure that ‘rose’ is the correct translation. The same is true of another of Woolley’s exquisite finds in the royal tombs at Ur: two near-identical gilded and bejewelled statuettes of a horned animal rearing up into a bush with golden flowers, which some have likened to roses. ‘Ram in a thicket’ was Woolley’s name for them, alluding to the ram in Genesis 22:13 which Abraham sacrificed in place of his son Isaac. But the ‘ram’ is more properly a goat, and the gilded ‘roses’ could be any eight-petalled flower, or none in particular.

Other sightings are equally inconclusive. According to some but not all transcriptions, roses occur with the figs, vines and other plants taken as booty from the Hittites by the Akkadian overlord, Sargon I, some time after 2350 BC, and brought back to his palace at Akkad on the Euphrates1. Later kings also planted their parks and gardens with trees and rare plants uprooted from subdued peoples, and as roses appear in a respected work on Assyrian botany, it is tempting to slip them into the empty root-pits excavated at the temple of the New Year Festival built by the Assyrian King Sennacherib outside the walls of Ashur, Assyria’s traditional capital on the Tigris. This would be wishful history, however.

For the oldest undisputed image of a rose we must travel to Crete, where roses grew wild at least 3,500 years ago, their brief flowering captured in the celebrated ‘Blue Bird fresco’ discovered in the 1920s by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans among a stack of painted stucco fragments in the closet of a Minoan town house at Knossos. All take wild nature as their subject: birds and monkeys stalking a landscape of rocks overgrown with wild peas or vetches and what appear to be dwarf Cretan irises, blue fringed with orange and pink edged with a deep purplish green.


1. No roses appear in Ernst F. Weidner,
Der Zug Sargons von Akkad nach Kleinasien (Leipzig, 1922), p. 69, where the list specifies only ‘Feigenbaum, Birnbaum, Weinstock’ (fig tree, pear tree, vine). In ‘History and Utilization of Rosa damascena’, Economic Botany, 35 (1), 1981, pp. 42-58, Mark P. Widrlechner points out that the Assyrian word for rose has not been adequately identified.




The rose may have appeared in cuneiform script recorded on clay tablets and buried in the royal tombs of Ur near the mouth of the Euphrates (modern Tell el-Mukayyar in Iraq), familiar from the Old Testament as the birthplace of Abraham.

The first problem I have with this sentence is the positioning of 'may'. By casting it in the subjunctive mood, the author requires the reader to hold everything in this sentence after 'the rose' in a state of doubt. That 'everything' is a great many facts with stated relationships between each other, any of which could individually be invalidated by that 'may'. Perhaps the rose definitely appeared in cuneiform script somewhere, but Ur is only the most likely source. Maybe tablets that mentioned roses were found in Ur – but not in the royal tombs. Instead of imparting information, this sentence requires the reader to ask, 'What part of this is relevant?' and eventually to conclude, 'None of it.' This is maddening.

The information she is trying to convey is, 'Roses have a hypothetical relationship to X item. Here are the known facts about X item.' There are two different truth relationships here: an irrealis relationship between roses and tablets, and a realis relationship between the tablets and their context. Those two truth relationships should be separated.

The second problem I have with this sentence is that glut of context. Why is it necessary to tell the reader that Ur is (or, was; that's another red herring!) located near the mouth of the Euphrates? Is it going to be compared to another historical site located, say, at the headwaters of the Tigris? Should the reader keep a lookout for that comparison? Is the reference to the Old Testament an important factor; are flower references in the Tanakh going to be an important theme in this chapter? If a writer gives a reader a set of facts, the reader is going to do the author the courtesy of assuming that those facts are relevant and their relevance will be explained. It is rude to the reader, especially in an introductory sentence, to lay false trails by foregrounding nonessential information.

The excavator was the English archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who introduced the British crime-writer Agatha Christie to the romance of ruins (and to her much younger second husband, Woolley’s assistant Max Mallowan).

The first thought I have upon reading these words is: why is it important who the excavator was (of these subjective, subjunctive roses)? This is a failure of information structure; a misuse of the expectations that a reader can fairly have about the position of topic and comment. Here, 'the excavator', the predicate, is the topic. By default, a topic should be something that is either relevant to the general point being conveyed, or a callback to known information. When you place something in topic position, you are saying two things: that it exists, and that its existence is important. The reader should be able to take the topic for granted, and move on to the information that is being stated, rather than having to query the information that is being implied.

I am not convinced that the identity of the excavator is important here. I am also not in the least interested in Agatha Christie's romances, because this little factoid is another wonderful red herring with no relevance to the point at hand. Perhaps Leonard Woolley incidentally did a favour to popular literature as well as to archaeology. Not relevant.

The tablet mentions the rose only in connection with rosewater, and we cannot be sure that ‘rose’ is the correct translation.

Another argument that inspires far more doubt than comprehension. If 'rose' is a dubious translation, how can we be sure that 'rosewater' is so solid? What is the evidence for translating this mystery word as 'rose'? Yet, for all that it erodes what little information we've been given so far, this is a far more relevant point than diversions about Woolley and Christie and Mallowan.

Also: earlier, it was 'tablets'. Now 'tablet'. Potter ought to make up her mind about this. She is implying that archaeologists and translators have had to take several difficult things into account when settling on their translation, so whether this word appears more than once in the body of writing is an important point!

The same is true of another of Woolley’s exquisite finds in the royal tombs at Ur: two near-identical gilded and bejewelled statuettes of a horned animal rearing up into a bush with golden flowers, which some have likened to roses.

Exactly what 'same' is true? These are shapes, not a word to be translated. The best I can come up with as a valid explanation is, 'There are two things at Ur that could refer to roses, but we're not sure.' ('Also, I am not giving you any of the interesting context for these artefacts' interpretations.') I also unimpressed by 'which some have likened to'. The relevant part of that is omitted: who has suggested that likening, and why should we care about their opinions? (By the way, have a picture of the relevant bush. You can decide for yourself. Especially if you have particular knowledge about Mesopotamian flower art, but maybe that's not required.)

As a nitpick, there is no need to repeat 'royal tombs of'. 'Ur' will do. Comparing excavations of different parts of Ur is another topic entirely, and I don't see its relevance here.

‘Ram in a thicket’ was Woolley’s name for them, alluding to the ram in Genesis 22:13 which Abraham sacrificed in place of his son Isaac. But the ‘ram’ is more properly a goat, and the gilded ‘roses’ could be any eight-petalled flower, or none in particular.

Grammatical point: 'alluding to the ram in Genesis 22:13 that Abraham sacrificed', because this is a restrictive relative clause.

I am struggling to see the relevance here. I think the author may be making a point that Woolley, excavating “Ur of the Chaldees,” was perhaps overly influenced by Tanakh symbolism. She draws a rather vague parallel between his labelling of the statuettes – and other people's unrelated, possible interpretation of the 'thicket' flowers as roses. However, surely Woolley's predispositions would only be important if they affected whether or not he interpreted roses. I think I'm being too generous. The author just thought the statuettes' name was interesting – if not to the matter at hand – and wanted to use it to (badly) conclude the paragraph.

Other sightings are equally inconclusive.

Author: 'I'm going to blather at you with more of the dead ends of my research.' As a bigger problem, the sense I get from this is that the subject of 'the sightings' is only the author. She's almost pretending that several people before her went through history hoping to find – well – flowers in stony places, had good reason to think they were there, changed their minds in carefully weighted decisions, and had an interesting struggle out of it. Whereas what I think is actually happening is that she's managed to find several unconnected references, has been unsuccessful at tying them together, and is passing off her working as an end in itself.

According to some but not all transcriptions, roses occur with the figs, vines and other plants taken as booty from the Hittites by the Akkadian overlord, Sargon I, some time after 2350 BC, and brought back to his palace at Akkad on the Euphrates.

By definition, a transcription refers to an original. In this sentence, it is almost a mystery what has been transcribed. Potter certainly could be referring back to the 'clay tablets' of the previous paragraph, but this is specifically an other sighting, with entirely different names being dropped. The clue here (/sarcasm) is that Sargon I ruled over the Sumerians as part of his empire, respected their gods, and set up his daughter as high priestess... in Ur. So – I don't know that Potter is talking about the same clay tablets – or different clay tablets with the same provenance, or something – but I think she is. Potter is simply terrible at establishing for the reader the correct relationships between all her facts. Note another glorious example of one of her 'Roses possibly ... [verb] in the [object] with the [tangential fact], [additional tangential fact] [have a sine and cosine fact while we're at it]' sentences.

Her use of a date here would also be more useful if she'd supplied a date for the (other?) Ur finds. Perhaps I should know off the top of my head what dates are posited for the Ram in a Thicket figurines; but Ur was settled for a very long time, and one of the things I've found most fascinating, reading about it, was how many different layers of history have been uncovered there. 2350 BC ought to help – for us ignoramus readers who don't have our Sumerian, Assyrian, and Akkadian history straight – and doesn't.

No roses appear in Ernst F. Weidner, Der Zug Sargons von Akkad nach Kleinasien (Leipzig, 1922), p. 69, where the list specifies only ‘Feigenbaum, Birnbaum, Weinstock’ (fig tree, pear tree, vine). In ‘History and Utilization of Rosa damascena’, Economic Botany, 35 (1), 1981, pp. 42-58, Mark P. Widrlechner points out that the Assyrian word for rose has not been adequately identified.

Although this is useful information – it expands on 'some but not all transcriptions' – it could still use context. I am assuming that Der Zug Sargons von Akkad nach Kleinasien is something of a definitive paper – but am I right to do so? Note the publication date. That confuses me again about whether the Sargon I 'transcriptions' came from Ur or not – 1922 was the year that Leonard Woolley began excavating Ur, so this lends weight to my theory that the unnamed 'transcriptions' that Potter mentions are actually from a different city where documentation of Sargon I has been discovered.

Later kings also planted their parks and gardens with trees and rare plants uprooted from subdued peoples, and as roses appear in a respected work on Assyrian botany, it is tempting to slip them into the empty root-pits excavated at the temple of the New Year Festival built by the Assyrian King Sennacherib outside the walls of Ashur, Assyria’s traditional capital on the Tigris.

Minor quibble: later Akkadian kings or later other kings of this region?

Major quibble: 'roses appear in a respected work on Assyrian botany'. Finally, a definite lead! So does she talk about the 'respected work'? No! Argh. Neither its provenance nor how it helps her form her other ridiculous hypotheses.

Minor quibble: I have read about the root-pit structures, because 'root-pits' occurred at Ur too. Some commentators aren't even sure that they were caused by plant growth.

Major quibble: It is not necessary to know that Ashur was Assyria's 'traditional' capital. (And what does that word mean in this context?? Of all the many Assyrian capitals, that one was the centre of political life for the longest stretch of time? Ashur is assumed to be the Assyrian capital by general archaeological tradition? It was the capital in some kind of traditional sense, possibly the centre of spiritual events, but the real governing was always done elsewhere?) Yes, I could find this out by half an hour of googling, but I shouldn't have to. By adding unnecessary modifiers, Potter merely misleads.

This would be wishful history, however.

You don't say.

For the oldest undisputed image of a rose we must travel to Crete, where roses grew wild at least 3,500 years ago, their brief flowering captured in the celebrated ‘Blue Bird fresco’ discovered in the 1920s by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans among a stack of painted stucco fragments in the closet of a Minoan town house at Knossos.

I'm getting a weird kind of Anglocentrism vibe here: is the subject roses, or exceptional British archaeologists? Otherwise, this paragraph is actually a little better. We have some facts to cling to, facts that are apparently 'undisputed'. I am not sure why the roses' flowering was 'brief', or how we can possibly tell the duration of the flowering if we only have a still image for information, but that's a minor quibble. I am still objecting to a glut of unnecessary information: does it matter that the fresco was found in a closet? In a town house?

I know I keep harping on about that, but it's a serious concern. In a nonfiction book, there should be a clear distinction drawn between facts the reader should already know, facts the reader needs to take from the text, and additional facts that add nuance but not essence. Potter jumbles all three up together, and the effect this has is for me to suspect everything. Maybe closets are important. Trying to keep everything in mind, because I can't tell what she will refer back to in future, is tedious.

All take wild nature as their subject: birds and monkeys stalking a landscape of rocks overgrown with wild peas or vetches and what appear to be dwarf Cretan irises, blue fringed with orange and pink edged with a deep purplish green.

Nitpick one: that first 'wild' is quite unnecessary. Nitpick two: I'm not surprised they're Cretan irises. This is Crete. Nitpick three: 'a landscape' in singular is problematic, as it implies they're all part of the same scene. 'Landscapes' would have been more ambiguous and more correct. Nitpick four: are those irises blue, then orange and pink, then purplish green, or are there separate irises in pairs of blue & orange, then pink & green? I can see a rainbow... It's not certain whether that conjunction joins phrases or merely adjectives.

In all, that was a frustrating reading experience, but an interesting analytical exercise. I have not been as linguistically precise as I would like; one thing this has taught me is that I need to revise topic-comment structure as well as implicature, and information structure generally. I know what I'm talking about, but I lack the correct terminology (and, okay, that's almost the same thing).

But I'm glad I typed this up. It's a worthy type of analysis to practise. And it's the most benefit I've got from this book so far.

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