British Museum blog

No more dog biscuits: a new life for Ashurbanipal’s Library

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.

The new display of Ashurbanipal’s Library in Room 55. Photo by Alberto Giannese; © The Trustees of the British Museum

The new display of Ashurbanipal’s Library in Room 55. Photo by Alberto Giannese; © The Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Family dynamics, 7th- century BC style: ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife). British Museum K 1619b.

Family dynamics, 7th- century BC style: ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife). British Museum K 1619b

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.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC), , , , , ,

A loan from Berlin: a lion from Babylon

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter the Museum has been loaned a reminder of warmer, sunnier climes, which is helping to beat the mid-winter chill. The Department of the Middle East is preparing to display a panel of glazed bricks that has been generously loaned to us by the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin group.

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king. © Vorderasiatisches Museum - SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

Complete reconstructed panel from Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room on display at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Pacing lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king.
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB, photograph by Olaf M. Teßmer

The panel shows a pacing, roaring lion and once was part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s throne room in his palace in the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar II reigned from 605-562 BC, and supposedly had the hanging gardens of Babylon built for his queen. Although there is little evidence to confirm his passion for gardening, it is certain that Nebuchadnezzar commissioned other major building projects in Babylon, to glorify the capital of his empire. Inscriptions stamped on bricks reveal the extent of these works. In the city of Babylon, glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were used to create public monuments that emphasised the power of the king and the gods. In Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room the roaring lions emphasized the power and might of the Babylonian king, whose empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and from the Caucasus to northern Arabia.

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914

Staff at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, sorting fragments of glazed bricks excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914
© Vorderasiatisches Museum – SMB

Finds excavated by Robert Koldewey at Babylon between 1902 and 1914 came to Berlin packed in crates. Staff spent years painstakingly joining fragments of glazed brick together to recreate Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, in Berlin. The panel loaned to the British Museum has been similarly pieced together from bricks the Vorderasiatisches Museum has in store and so is being seen complete for the very first time in London.

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The lion panel being installed in Room 55

The panel will be displayed in Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC) from 20 December 2013

Filed under: Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC), , ,

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This is one of a collection of photographs taken by the photographer Frederick York of Notting Hill, London in 1875.
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