Jonathan Taylor, Curator of cuneiform collections, British Museum
Visitors to Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC will find a radically transformed display. Often the galleries struggle to match the impact of temporary exhibitions, but over the last year a team of curators, designers, interpretation officers, conservators, assistant collections managers and others have worked hard to breathe fresh life into the permanent displays. In the south-east corner of Room 55 sits case 8, otherwise known as ‘The Ashurbanipal Library Case’. It is a museum’s worst nightmare – a whole case full of small, brown lumps of mud (‘dog biscuits’ as a former Director was once heard to call them). Even worse – they are there because they’re covered with writing that no-one can read. In reality, they are one of the jewels of the British Museum collection, and among the most important archaeological discoveries ever made. These are clay tablets from the cuneiform library of Ashurbanipal, 7th century BC king of Assyria. Here’s how we have tried to do justice to these marvels.
First we need to make sure people stop and look. Gone is the wall of grey beloved of past decades. In comes a rich green that contrasts beautifully with the reds and creams of the Library tablets, and conveys a feeling of opulence. Out go the diffuse overhead fluorescent lights. In come directional LEDs revealing the contours of the tablet surface. Each tablet looks special, and the cuneiform writing leaps from its surface. Here is something that is recognisably a document. The tablets sit on shelves in a ‘pigeonhole’ system, which was one of the methods by which ancient scribes stored their tablets. This allows us to conceal the new lights discreetly. More importantly, it suggests that this is a collection. The row of complete tablets stood on end (top row) shows us that we’re looking at a library.
Now powerless to resist the temptation to explore this Library, the visitor can explore sections such as ‘Acquisitions’, ‘Enquiries’ and ‘The Chief Librarian’. Each tablet or group of tablets has its own label. Where possible, this is a quote from the text itself. Experience tells us that people always want to know what the texts actually say. It’s basic human curiosity that deserves to be satisfied. ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife) has to be better than ‘This tablet is a letter from the king’s sister to the queen about completing writing practice’. Alongside exquisite copies of the accumulated knowledge of Mesopotamia sit a practice piece by the young boy who would grow up to become ‘King of the World’, detailed contemporary acquisition records and much later texts revealing the lasting fame of the Library in antiquity. Here is the world’s oldest universal library, preserved by the very fires that burnt it down, given new life for today’s readers – we hope you enjoy it. These tablets will never exceed their shelf life.
Want to know more?
A new, friendly introduction to cuneiform is now available:
Cuneiform, by I.L. Finkel and J.J. Taylor (British Museum Press, 2015). It includes examples drawn from the Library.
The Museum’s ‘Ashurbanipal Library Project’ has been preparing a digital version of the Library. A complete set of new photos illustrates a revised electronic catalogue of all 30,000 tablets. This sits on a dedicated website (to appear soon on Oracc) that provides accessible introductions to the Library, how it was found and what is in it. Thousands of English translations are already available and many more will follow. Our work is helped enormously by the active collaboration of colleagues from the small but dedicated international community of cuneiform specialists.