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), , , , , ,

Conserving the pottery, terracotta and tablets from Ur

Duygu Camurcuoglu, conservator, Ur Project, British Museum

My job is to assess the condition of the objects from Ur being studied as part of the Ur digitisation project, conserve them if necessary, and guide the project team on handling and safe storage of the objects before/during photography and further digitisation work. I joined the project in August 2013 to lead the conservation and my first responsibility was to assess and conserve the terracotta objects and the clay tablets with ancient cuneiform inscriptions on study loan from Iraq.

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq.  (ME 127443)

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq. (ME 127443)

There are over a thousand terracotta objects from Ur in the British Museum’s collection, primarily reliefs, figurines and models. Although some are skilfully modelled, the majority are rather crude and mass-produced in moulds. My initial task was to assess each one, selecting those that needed treatment and completing the work before they could be handled and photographed. In the image above, you can see me assessing the condition of one of the important objects from Ur, the fired clay mask of Humbaba, a fearsome monster slain by Gilgamesh in Mesopotamian literature. During the process, colleagues from ceramics and glass conservation joined me to complete the assessment work on the objects, while I undertook the actual conservation treatments.

Following the terracotta objects, I assessed the condition of the pottery from Ur. This large collection comprises over a thousand ceramic vessels in various sizes, shapes, colours and fabrics. This was a huge challenge! Every day, my colleague Gareth Brereton and I went to one of British Museum’s storage areas where the pottery from Ur is housed. We set up a small working area in this room for object assessments, photography and registration. There were a large number of cupboards to go through, so Gareth and I worked almost every morning together, assessing the condition of each pot so that Gareth could handle, photograph and register them. We had plenty of exercise going up and down the ladder each morning as some of the objects were stored very high up in the shelves.

Most terracotta objects and ceramic vessels from Ur are in good condition. They sometimes require conservation work, since they have unstable fragments, flakes or cracks on their surfaces. This is very normal due to the age of the objects, most are which are about 4,000 years old. It is crucial that the necessary treatments are undertaken. When unstable objects are not treated using proper conservation techniques and materials, further problems may occur during storage and handling, such as loss of surfaces and decoration, cracks, breakage of fragments that can make it difficult to study and learn more from the objects.

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

I identify any cracks and/or unstable flakes on the surface of the vessels before stabilising them using conservation grade materials. I often use a fine brush or a micropipette for this work. Once the treatment is completed, I enter all my treatment records onto the British Museum’s curatorial database, Merlin, so that the information is accessible across the Museum and the world via the collection online.

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

I have also been assessing and undertaking conservation on the cuneiform tablets from Ur. It is particularly important to prevent the loss of surfaces from tablets, because that would mean loss of the text.

Apart from undertaking remedial ‘hands on’ work with objects, I am also responsible from supporting the Ur team when they have any questions about handling the objects safely, as some are very fragile. I also monitor the environmental conditions in the Ur project lab and storage cupboards, using digital sensors which we place in different areas. This is important because fluctuating temperature and relative humidity can severely damage archaeological objects. For example, soluble salts in the ceramic and clay fabrics can react very quickly with the fluctuating conditions, resulting in delamination and loss of object surfaces, which can contain elaborate decorations, pigments and reliefs.

When I have completed the conservation work on the pottery and the cuneiform tablets, I will move on to the conservation of other types of objects and materials from Ur, in order to prepare them for digitisation and further study. I am looking forward to the challenge!

Read more about the Ur digitisation project in Birger Helgestad’s post in July.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Filed under: Conservation, Ur Project, , , , , ,

Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum
Detail of a cuneiform tablet

I’ve just come from the press conference launching my new book, The Ark Before Noah. As I told the journalists, it all started with a fairly normal event for a museum curator: a member of the public bringing in an object that had long been in their family to have it identified. As often happens in my case, it was a cuneiform tablet. The visitor, Douglas Simmonds, had been given it by his father for passing his exams. It was part of a modest collection: a few tablets, some cylinder seals, a lamp or two and some pieces from China and Egypt. His father, an inveterate curio hunter, had picked them up after the War in the late 1940s.

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

With kind permission of Douglas Simmonds

This tablet, however, turned out to be one in a million. The cuneiform was a sixty-line passage from the ancient Babylonian Story of the Flood. This story had been well known since the 1870s, when George Smith, a brilliant decipherer who worked at the British Museum, first identified the story known from the Book of Genesis in a seventh-century cuneiform tablet from Nineveh. The two accounts – Babylonian and biblical – were closely related. The new tablet, however, written in about 1750 BC, has startling new contents.

When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s.

Deciphering the tablet was a great adventure, but one development soon led to another: a documentary film in which the Ark is being built according to these 3700-year-old instructions (although not quite full size), and the commissioning of a book.

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Map of the World (ME 92687)

Writing it led to some demanding questions: what was the origin of the Flood Story? How did it pass from Babylonian cuneiform to Biblical Hebrew? Then I discovered that a line from the new tablet was quoted on our famous Map of the World tablet, showing where the Babylonian believed that Ark had landed. I also got to address other questions I have been asking myself for years: how does cuneiform writing really work? What were the ancient Babylonians really like?

The Ark Before Noah_544

Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is available from the British Museum Shop online for £20, British Museum Members’ price £18.

The tablet is on display in Room 56 (Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC)

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