Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Mesopotamian Gems on Display and Hidden Away

Once an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham studying Ancient and Medieval History I will soon be attending the University once again to study for a Masters in Ancient Near Eastern and Cuneiform studies. In looking back at what turned my passions towards the Ancient Near East (otherwise known as Mesopotamia and situated in the Iraq and Syria regions) I particularly enjoyed the trips to the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to have a tour of the artefacts on display there but also to go behind the scenes to see and handle artefacts most other visitors are not able to see.

Those of us who attended the trips were a mixture of second and third years who were studying the Neo-Assyrians (an ancient Mesopotamian Empire who ruled the Near East from around 900 to 609 AD). Our first trip was to the British Museum where we were given the opportunity to have a tour of the Neo-Assyrian wall reliefs at the museum by one of the curators, providing us new insights into what once decorated their palace walls. Later we were able to go behind the scenes of the museum where cuneiform clay tablets (the ancient Mesopotamian form of writing) were kept. The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of cuneiform tablets, with over 100,000 of them stored in their archives. Not only were we able to see an area of the museum that few other visitors are privileged to view but we were also able to handle a huge variety of clay tablets, including some of the very first pieces of writing in the world. One of my particular favourites on that day was an astrology tablet observing the position of the stars in which the writing was jagged and sloped as the scribe was clearly writing in the dark whilst gazing up at the stars.

Museum 2
Assyrian Wall Relief
Museum 1
Eye Idols

A few months later this trip to the British Museum was accompanied by a trip to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the oldest museum in the UK. There we were able to view more Neo-Assyrian wall reliefs similar to those at the British Museum as well as seeing other important Mesopotamian artefacts such as the Sumerian King’s list, a significant archaeological find as it lists Kings we know who existed in the Ancient Near East but also others who are embedded in myths and supposedly  lived for thousands of years. Behind the scenes at the Ashmolean Museum we were once again able to handle some ancient Mesopotamian objects, including cuneiform tablets and objects known as Sumerian Eye Idols, which are up to five thousand years old yet their true use and meaning are still a mystery. Together we were able to discuss what we believe these Eye Idols might have been used for as well as attempt to read the cuneiform tablets we were able to handle.

These were two fascinating days and a great opportunity to see some artefacts on display and even handle some of them which we had only discussed in seminar rooms before. Those two museum trips were an excellent addition to our study of the Ancient Near East and gave us the chance to see some of the hidden gems at popular museums. It expanded my knowledge and passion for ancient Mesopotamia and I hope later years will also be given the opportunity to visit and go behind the scenes at the museum.

By Nicola Apps, BA Ancient & Medieval History

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