Serena logged off her phone and stared up, past row after row of stone steps that led to the museum entrance. The door at the top must have been five times her height, and behind it were stuffy old things that stuffy old schoolmasters said she had to study. She took her grandfather’s hand. He was always talking about museums. Maybe the older you got the more you liked dusty old things behind dusty old glass. At least he wasn’t stuffy about it.
“Do we have to go in, Grandpa?”
“I think you’ll enjoy it, if you give it a chance.”
“But it’s just a bunch of old things.”
“Old things that our distant ancestors made and used. Isn’t that neat?”
Neat? Even his language was old.
“Besides,” he went on, “your homework assignment was to experience ancient history.”
Serena sighed. “Yeah, boring old cities in the desert or something. But Tamika’s party is today and I really want to go.”
“Tell you what, Pumpkin,” Grandpa said as he guided her up the steps, “we’ll spend a little time here and then I’ll take you to Tamika’s.”
“OK.” She’d only have to survive a few minutes and then push him to leave. That shouldn’t be too hard.
They passed through the giant door and onto a shining marble floor. The front desk loomed ahead. Even it was too big. That was pretty much the definition of stuffy–making you feel small and unimportant.
“My granddaughter is learning about ancient history in school,” Grandpa said to the front-desk attendant. “Something about ancient cities.”
“We’ve got a great new exhibit on Mesopotamia and one of the first cities in the world. It makes good use of the new net glasses.”
“Don’t most museums have holographic guideposts?”
“Yes, but then everyone has to listen to the same guide and get the same perspective. In our version, if you don’t have the glasses, you see a panel with decorations or words, but with the glasses, you see and hear your own guide.”
“What choice of guides do we have?”
“Scientists, archaeologists, conservators, even popular actors. But some of the most fun is to follow one of our virtual characters, compiled from evidence of the time.”
The attendant leaned over the desk to address Serena personally. With curly hair and a friendly face, she wasn’t stuffy at all. “Would you like to see what it was like to be a kid 4,000 years ago?”
That could be interesting. Maybe. “I guess.”
“We can key it into your school’s homework net so you can save what you’re learning and go back over it later. Just set your phone to the networks you want to share and tap it here.”
Grandpa set their phones while the friendly lady came out from behind her desk and adjusted a thin visor on Serena’s head. It was a light-weight, clear plastic sheet that wrapped in front of her eyes. It also had tiny earphones and a microphone that could be positioned from the sides. She’d used virtual headsets like it in school. They projected images of pretty much whatever you wanted on the real world in front of you. Jimmy Beckett had taught her how to draw virtual mustaches on people. That was funny.
The lady helped Grandpa with his visor and then led them to an entry room. There was a big picture of a field of grain there for some reason. Wasn’t the city supposed to be in the desert? Suddenly the field rippled as if a breeze had taken it.
The grain stalks parted and a young girl’s face peered out. She had dark eyes and darker hair. She seemed a little worried.
“Oh, hi!” she said.
“I’m not really supposed to be outside the city. You won’t tell, will you?”
The girl stood up and stepped out from the wheat stalks. She seemed so real. Her hair swirled in the wind and even her eyebrows were thickly detailed. She wore a cute beaded bracelet, but her dress was simple and looked a bit like a woven sack. Serena giggled, then put her hand to her mouth. It wasn’t polite to laugh at people.
“I’m Erishti-Nanna,” said the computer girl, “but you can call me Risha. What’s your name?”
“Serena, that’s nice.”
“The graphics are great,” Grandpa’s voice blurted from the left. “Looks like an ancient version of that Wyeth painting come to life.”
“Hush, Grandpa! Risha’s talking.”
“I’m ten years old and I live in the city of Ur. It’s nearly 4,000 years before your time in a country that you call Iraq. Would you like to see how I live?”
“I’ll meet you in the next room!”
The grain fields flowed to the right. In the distance a giant pyramid-like building rose from the plain, gleaming white in the sunshine. Water canals cut across the flat land, dividing the fields of grain, and palm trees grew along some of them. She could see people farming, using the canals to water their grain. They’d brought a desert to life. She scurried into the next room, eager to find her virtual friend.
“Slow down,” Grandpa warned from somewhere behind.
Glass cases filled this room, but mixed among them were panels like the one where she’d seen the fields and waterways. Between two cases she saw Risha waving her hands in the air. Behind her was a giant wall of clay bricks and a gateway into a bustling city made entirely of clay.
“This is my city. It might look different from yours, but I think you’ll see we’re a lot alike too.” She pointed to a series of thick clay squares set in brackets. “These are bricks from my time. They’re stamped with the name of the king and the name of the building he built with them. This one’s from the city wall. And this one’s from the temple of Nin-Gal, the Great Lady. Would you like to know more about the wall, the temple, or any other part of Ur?”
“Do you go to school?”
“Most people don’t. Especially girls, unfortunately. They learn from their parents and take on jobs that are already in the family. But I’m learning to write because I’m going to work for the temple one day. Come over here and I’ll show you some of my homework.”
Risha appeared on a wall near another case and waved to Serena. Inside the case were pieces of clay arranged in rows. On the clay were scratchings–triangular impressions in orderly lines. It was very strange homework.
“The round tablet is my school text. You can see that I’ve been writing the same sign over and over as practice. Your archaeologists call this writing cuneiform.” Risha stood behind the case, pushing a squared wooden stick into a round piece of clay. She was concentrating so hard that her mouth twisted up and her tongue stuck out a little bit. It made Serena giggle behind her hand again.
“Writing on clay isn’t easy, but it lets us keep records, write stories and declare laws.” Risha said. “We don’t use an alphabet. Instead we write each syllable as it sounds. Here’s what your name would look like in my writing.” Risha held up her round tablet. Three symbols sat there, odd triangles and lines. Risha pointed to each with her stick and pronounced them individually, “SE – RE – NA.”
“That’s neat!” Serena cried. Neat? Now she was using Grandpa’s old language? Well, Risha wouldn’t mind. “Save it to my homework page, please.”
“And my personal page too. I want to show Tamika!”
“Is there anything else you’d like to know about me or my people?”
“What do you eat?”
“We raise animals and grow grain outside the city walls. Most families have kitchens where they grind grain to make flour for bread.” Risha walked behind a glass display and indicated a large, mostly flat stone inside the case. It had another, rounder stone resting on top of it. “This is a grinding stone that we use to make flour.”
The stone was ugly and so basic in shape that Serena would never have thought twice about it. “How does it work?”
“I’ll show you.” A virtual version of the big, flat stone appeared in Risha’s hands. It was obviously heavy and it was more curved than Serena had first noticed. Risha put it on the ground and knelt down. She poured grain out of a clay pot onto the big stone and then bent over it, grinding the smaller stone back and forth across it. That must have been what made the curve. Serena looked at the real stone in the case again. Its surface was worn smooth from a long time of grinding. It must have made a lot of flour in its day.
Risha stood back up, sweating. “It’s hard work,” she said, “but we have to eat.
“Can’t you just buy bread?”
“There’s a baker in our neighborhood and sometimes we trade with him, but we don’t use coins the way you do and most families make much of their own food. We have to make our own clothes too. My mother does a lot of the weaving for our family. Would you like to see how that’s done or would you like to see my toys?”
“Toys sound like fun.”
Risha skipped off along the wall, behind a few more cases. Each one held objects that Serena realized must have their own stories.
At the corner of the next dividing wall Risha sat down. The case here was lower and there was a bench near it. Serena sat too, looking over a table under glass. On the table were a few simple objects, some recognizable as dice, a checkered game board, and some miniature animals, carts, and figurines. They weren’t very detailed, but Risha was playing happily with a four-legged miniature and a clay boat.
“Is that a horse?” Serena asked.
“My people don’t raise real horses yet. We mostly have donkeys and oxen. I’m pretending this one is carrying goods from a long trade journey. It’s going to pick up a load of pretty stones that just came in this boat from way across the sea.”
“What do you do with the stones?”
“We make jewelry. My father’s a jeweler.”
“Really? Can I see?”
They moved to the back corner of the room and the first case they saw held only small copper rods, green with age. But Risha explained that these were drill bits used to bore holes in the beads. The next case was dark at first, but a light rose as they approached. It glinted off polished red and blue stones and flashed from gold ribbon. The beads were arranged on a mannequin in long lines, a cloak of precious stone, and the gold made a beautiful headdress.
“My mother’s calling, Serena. Stay here and look at the beads. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Serena couldn’t believe that such amazing things could be made with such simple tools. Or that such ancient people could accomplish so much. They’d built a giant city out of clay, learned to write, fed themselves with grain they ground by hand, played games and decorated their clothes with fancy stones and gold. This was much more than she’d ever imagined. That would be the theme for her homework assignment, she decided.
She didn’t notice her Grandpa standing next to her until he spoke. “Are you ready to go, Pumpkin?”
“We only just got here!”
“It’s been more than two hours.”
“Really? Did you see the games and the writing and…”
“What about Tamika’s party?”
“Oh, yeah. But look at the jewelry! And Risha said she’d show me how they drink out of long straws made of metal.”
“We can come back another day.”
“OK.” Serena shuffled her feet. “Grandpa…”
“Thanks for bringing me to the museum!”