The Lamassu ice-cream sandwich

Despite being late spring, the weather where I am in Germany is shockingly hot and soggily humid. It’s not really weather that lends itself to turning the oven on, but it is definitely the weather for ice-cream, so I decided that if I had to do one, I’d do the other. Presenting, the Lamassu ice-cream sandwich. Soft chocolate cookie-biscuit, stuffed with meringue, marshmallows, and chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and designed to look like a Neo-Assyrian palace gatekeeper. It is delicious. And indistinguishable from the real thing.

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Just in case you’re thinking of making it for yourself, I should also point out that it is far too much for one person to eat, and your friends will be happy but confused and suspicious if you text them at 11am begging them to come round and help you eat a slowly melting Lamassu ice-cream sandwich. Learn from my mistakes, and have it entirely to yourself for breakfast instead of sharing it as a mid-morning snack.

I really struggled to make this biscuit recipe perfect: obviously for an ice-cream sandwich you want a cookie, not a biscuit: a biscuit will turn unpleasantly soggy when it comes into contact with the ice-cream. But cookies are far too soft to support their own weight, so this one is somewhere in-between: a bit more brown sugar and a bit less flour and butter per egg than a normal biscuit dough. Of course, halfway through assembling it I realised that you wouldn’t know from the photographs that it was a deliciously soft biscuit that went perfectly with the crunchiness of the meringue and blended seamlessly with the ice-cream, and that I should have made a hard biscuit that was easier for construction purposes. Then I ate it, and I regret nothing.

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The lamassu here is one of the ones from Ashurnasirpal’s palace at Nimrud. A lot of the Neo-Assyrian Lamassu are part bull, but these are part lion. The originals are covered with the Standard Inscription of Ashurnasirpal, which boasts of the king’s achievements, but I am definitely not talented enough to have iced all that on as well. But I did read the Standard Inscription while I ate it, just to get the proper effect.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, the picture behind the ice-cream is the Vanity Fairy caricature of Austen Henry Layard, the man who excavated the palace of Ashurnasirpal and wrote an account of it called “Nineveh and its Remains”, despite it principally concerning his excavations at Nimrud. When I was a young undergraduate this caused me far, far more confusion that it should have done, and I’ve resented him just a little bit ever since.

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Anyway, here’s a picture with a print of his original publication showing the excavation of Lamassu at Nimroud. It’s the bottom right image. You may have to squint.

And, as a final point, if you haven’t been to see Michael Rakowitz’s Lamassu on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, you really must. It is absolutely phenomenal, to the extent that it probably shouldn’t be name checked on a waste-of-time blog like this one. But, still, go see it. It’s wonderful.

A short break

I’m in the middle of moving house, and it turns out baking at the same time as trying to pack your baking equipment leads to disaster. Or at least to not being able to find your mini marshmallows when you need them.

Normal service will resume in a few weeks, when, excitingly, I’ll have a kitchen work surface three times as large as my current one (that sounds impressive, but my current one is literally 15cm by 30cm – and yes, I did measure it). Prepare for: Ugaritic tablet cake, the Gingerbread Gardens of Babylon, and a grossly overambitious project to make the headdress of Puabi.

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That entire title is a lie. This started as a Mississippi mud pie, but due to circumstances and the contents of my kitchen it was forced to morph into a tart (it’s meringue over a chocolate pie with a dark biscuit shell. I absolutely promise you it isn’t burnt: it really is meant to look like that). And the face isn’t even based on an image of Tiglath Pileser (of any numeral): it’s from one of the Ashurnasirpal ones.

Absolutely identical.

Somehow the commanding, powerful presence of the Neo-Assyrian kings doesn’t quite come through in meringue. My tart-king looks wet and annoying: you don’t get the feeling he’d ravage your city, but he might put on a slightly whiney voice and ask to borrow it.

Perhaps he could be Esarhaddon (the readership of this blog has expanded somewhat of late, so for the non-Assyriologists: Esarhaddon was a permanently sickly Neo-Assyrian king who spent a lot of his time moping in his room).* On the other hand, the main thing that really sticks with me about Esarhaddon is that he had a horrible skin rash all over his body, and that’s not particularly appetising. Let’s say it’s Ashur-etil-ilani (one of the last kings of the Neo-Assyrian empire, we don’t know anything about him except that he only managed to hold onto the throne for three years, but if he’d been made from meringue he’d definitely have looked exactly like this).

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The breakfast of champions. I mean the afternoon tea of champions. I definitely don’t schedule these blog posts to be published long after I’ve written them. There’s no way I took this photo first thing in the morning even though I’m planning to post in the afternoon. And I’m certainly not going to eat a slice of chocolate tart with meringue and added cream for breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of it.

 

*I should probably be nicer to Esarhaddon. He clearly had a pretty awful time of it, and in order to hide his hideous, chronic illnesses he insisted that everyone who came before him should be veiled and kneeling, which sounds so much like the premise of a Borges story that you have to be on his side.

The Assyriology Easter duck-weight cake

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Happy (almost) Easter, everyone!

Obviously thinking up an Easter themed Assyriology cake wasn’t hard. While rabbits and eggs don’t really have much of a connection with Mesopotamia, ducks certainly do, in that hundreds of Mesopotamian weights are shaped like ducks. (A smaller collection of stamp seals are also shaped like ducks: these aren’t weights, by the way, even though the look like it. I’ve spent the last two months in various museums around the world weighing duck shaped stamp seals and discovering that they aren’t weights. What an exciting life I lead).

Since duck weights are clearly the perfect Easter theme for the perfect Easter cake (I added piped grass and little flowers just to make sure), this is a delicious replica of a hematite weight from the late third millennium BC. Its inscription describes how it was made by the king, Shulgi, and weighs five mina (or about 2.5kg). It’s made of chocolate cake. Or at least the replica is, although to be fair I’ve never tasted the real one.

Here is the real one.

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That is, shockingly, the only available photo. So here’s a replica that’s less cake-based than mine, but far more useful for getting an idea of the object itself.

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Those of you with sharp eyes and an uncanny ability to read my poorly copied inscription may have noticed that the customary royal epithet ‘nita-kala-ga’ ‘the strong man’ is mysteriously missing from my copy. Maybe I accidently forgot it because I was writing this from memory. Maybe I decided that Shulgi, who is mainly famous for reforming the bureaucracy of his state and distributing weights and measures, didn’t really conform to the hyper-masculine standards of 3rd millennium Mesopotamian kingship, and shouldn’t have felt he needed to, so I removed the epithet as a retroactive display of support for his more…administrative approach to ruling.

I really want it to be the second one of those options, because I like Shulgi and his governing style and also because I don’t want to be the girl who has Sumerian weight inscriptions badly memorized, but I should probably just embrace who I am as a person.

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I feel this cake is an excellent show case for my talents. That’s a hilarious joke, because the ‘talent’ was a unit of weight in Mesopotamia, but it’s also true: I made this cake under severely difficult circumstances. I’m in Germany, which in itself is fine, but it also means I’m without access to: my palette knife, my rolling pin, good black edible paint (honestly, decent edible paint should not be that hard to come by), anything that I could use to dye fondant, decent fondant, and baking powder (Germans have baking powder and it doesn’t work. I’m not just making that up, it’s genuinely different from English baking powders. Which is fair enough, but the German stuff is at best a placebo. I tried to bring my own from England but for some unknown reason my box of white powder got confiscated at the airport. This has become a tangent, but I really feel that the lack of working baking powder in Germany is a serious problem of which more people should be aware).

Incidentally, when I wanted to a quick shape guide while I was carving, I just googled ‘duck weight’. It turns out that not everyone makes the immediate connection to Mesopotamia, and google certainly doesn’t. Did you know that a mature mallard weighs 0.72-1.6g?

Eating Artefacts will return after an Easter break with an Ugaritic tablet cake that was actually requested. By more than one person. I knew I wasn’t the only one who wanted to eat ancient artefacts.

A timeline of writing in the third millennium. Made of victoria sponge.

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This is, obviously, a continuation from my previous timeline of the invention of writing. You could link them up, if you wanted. Of course, that one had dates, whereas this one has period names. Maybe I thought period names were more appropriate, since these tablets are always by known by their period, and never by their dates. Perhaps I ate too many of the strawberry laces to write out the dates. Perhaps that would also explain why the period names are abbreviated, as opposed to written in full. Perhaps it will always remain a mystery.

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So, starting with this nice little little archaic Ur text, from the Early Dynastic I-II period. The large, most obvious signs are the number signs: they still look like the Uruk period ones. And although there are some wedge shaped signs, there are still some with rounded shapes.

 

 

 

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Then we move to the Early Dynastic IIIa. Here’s a copy of a lovely, if slightly broken, tablet from the city of Shuruppak. Notice how the number signs are still impressed in the same archaic as the Uruk and Early Dynastic I-II tablets, but that all the rest of the signs are now the nice, traditional wedge shape. I can attest to the fact that making the signs out of impressed wedges is a much quicker way to write than drawing them out. At least on fondant-ed cakes.

 

 

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This is the next stage: a tablet from Early Dynastic IIIb Girsu. Again, the number signs are still nice and archaic, and probably impressed with the end of the stylus.

By the way, this tablet is exciting for another reason as well: This is one of the first texts that references a measurement of grain called the ‘gur sag-gal’ (poorly written, in the top left hand corner).

Hmm. It’s possible that that particular fact was only exciting to me. I study ancient systems of measurement, and if we’re being honest I lost track of what other people find interesting a long time ago. Does it show?

 

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And then we come to the Old Akkadian period. The Akkadian kings brought numerous changes to the writing systems and the tablets (and to metrology…). As here, the tablets are much more rectangular, and the number signs are at last written with wedges, as opposed to impressed with the end of the stylus (all of the lines on this tablet except for the top one begin with numbers).

 

 

 

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And finally, we come to the uninspiringly titled Ur III period. It’s the ugliest name: flat, unimpressive, and when you say it in conversation to non-Assyriologists they stare at you blankly and make you wish that you studied something that included the word ‘Babylonian’. But it’s tablets are the best. This one here is a little receipt for a quantity of silver. 

 

 

 

Incidentally, Moudhy al-Rashid posts wonderful stuff on twitter under the caption ‘cuneiform is beautiful’. And she’s right, it really can be:

Shiny diorite stele with precise, even signs or huge cylinders with tiny writing covering them completely are very visually appealing (Moudhy’s photography skills help too). But as far as I’m concerned, the scrappy, ugly little tablets are the best bits of Assyriology. They’re the most human of ancient artefacts: tax records, scribbled receipts, bickering letters. Their ugliness is part of their charm, a demonstration of the fact that their contents are all that anyone cared about, and an attestation to their honesty.

Royal inscriptions and the like can be stunning and well written, but they’re also riddled with lies, exaggerations and nonsense. But look at that Ur III tablet (or at least, at its cake-replica). Because of that tablet we know, with absolute certainty, that a man called Basaga gave another man called Akalla 43g of silver in the 33rd regnal year of King Shulgi, over 4,000 years ago. The precision and undimmed truthfulness of that kind of knowledge astounds me ever time. And then I make it out of cake.

The Ur III texts have another, wonderful bonus: they’re the perfect, fondant-fancy size for mid-afternoon tea. IMG-20180318-WA0054

Points if you can guess what book I’m reading. Points in the form of cake. Seriously, I’m producing a lot of cake. Would anyone like some?

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The Stele of Ur-Namma

This is the detail from the stela of Ur-Namma, the famous image that looks something like the cake I’ve made, and a little more like this:

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The stela dates from the Ur III period, at the end of the third millennium BC, and shows the king, Ur-Namma, receiving the ‘rod and coil’, a symbol of power, from the god of his dynasty, while he pours some water on a tree. Incidentally, despite my reproduction, the stela isn’t actually made of a grey stone, but a nice beige one. I’ve seen the black and white copy above so many times that I bought grey fondant without even thinking.

The cake itself is more proof of concept than a truly excellent bake. It’s a bit rough and ready, and it certainly lacks detailing. All of this is a great shame, because I really wanted to say that it was stellar.

My problem was this: how to properly capture Mesopotamian reliefs in cake. Bas reliefs on cakes are normally fondant, pressed into shape in a mold and then laid on top of the cake. There were a few problems with this technique: first, while I am definitely in the market for ancient Mesopotamian molds, I didn’t have one to hand this afternoon. Second, I really dislike the practice of building up huge deposits of fondant on a cake. It’s not because I don’t like eating mounds of pure sugar (its normally best to buy double quantities of fondant when I’m decorating, because I do snack as I go), it just feels like cheating, because at its heart then fondant is just edible modelling clay.

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So this is what I went for instead: a sheet of cake, with figures cut from a second sheet and laid on top. Then I built up the 3D features, like the arms and clothing folds with more cake and icing, before laying fondant over it.

It sort of works. What a relief (I’m hilarious).

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The other bonus about this cake is that it actually relates to an article I’m writing, which at least references the rod and coil. This is pleasant for me, because my current research focuses on ancient Mesopotamian measuring systems and is heavy in statistics, so it was this or the the Cosine Quantogram analysis. I hear you saying that I couldn’t possibly make that into a cake, and you’d be right. I had to use biscuit to make a version of the Cosine Quantogram analysis results from my last paper. I’ve found the appeal to be limited.

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A timeline of the invention of writing. Which is made of cake and chocolate. And strawberry laces.

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I have spent longer trying to figure out a good pun for this post than I spent baking the cakes, and I’ve finally just given up. I nearly made the entire thing out of Scottish tablet so I could work one in. It would have been the right colour and a pretty good consistency, but then I don’t like Scottish tablet, and what’s the point of making a timeline of the invention of writing in cake form if you won’t enjoy eating it afterwards? So instead this is all chocolate cake, coffee icing, coffee fondant, chocolate and strawberry laces. I can now inform my readership that strawberry laces do not go with any of those other foods. This blog truly is about learning. All dates are, naturally, BC.

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So we start off with chocolate tokens, in geometric shapes (those splodges of chocolate definitely count as circles). Non- chocolate versions are found from 8000BC-3000BC at various archaeological sites, and were probably counters to keep track of goods (so one cone represents one jar of grain, and one splodge represents one sheep).

 

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And then, in 3500 BC, tokens started being stored in round, hollow envelopes. In some cases, impressions of the tokens that were inside were made on the outside, so you didn’t have to crack open the envelope to see what was inside.

 

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Gradually, flattened clay tablets with the signs impressed on them replaced the envelopes. By 3100BC, there were added pictograms, which could indicate the goods, names of individuals, and perhaps even the intended use of the goods.

 

 

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So in the larger, more complex tablet, the box on the top left has a quantity, a picture of grain, and a picture of ration bowls. So maybe this suggests that this grain was intended as rations. Or maybe not. Honestly, every time I read about these archaic writing systems, I become more convinced that they’re just looking at squiggly pictures and making it up.

 

 

This is what all this looks like when it’s not made of cake, by the way.

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It’s terribly impressive, but here’s what you can do with mine that you can’t do with ancient artefacts. They may have invented writing, but this is my lunch. I think we all know who’s winning here.

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I also have a new favourite blog. It’s The CREWS project blog, and their ancient artefact baking, knitting and pun game is on point. I’d like to sincerely thank them for giving me something to read while I avoid cleaning the kitchen.

Next week: how these archaic systems developed into cuneiform. Woo.