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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
This is a Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet from the Ur III period, c.2100 B.C. This was the heyday of the Sumerian civilisation which occupied much of modern day Iraq. Sumerian was a non-Semitic language which is now extinct.
This tablet has writing on both sides detailing how Enlil-izu and Ahi-Sin gave a temple a number of animals to cover 4 months dues. The scribe, Nur-Sin, selected the wet clay and wrote the text with a blunt reed, and then the tablet was baked.
Cuneiform is one of the earliest forms of written expression and so represents a huge leap forward by human kind. This writing system was in use for more than 30 centuries and was finally replaced by alphabetic writing during the Roman era. It was not until 1857 that the decipherment of cuneiform was completed.
Large numbers of these tablets were on the antiquities market c. 1900 and this one was bought by George Titus Barham (1859-1937). When he died he left the tablet, and the rest of his diverse collection, to the London Borough of Wembley and it formed the foundation of the Brent Museum.
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Ancient Near East and Egyptian
The University of Pennsylvania has a long commitment to the study of ancient Near Eastern cultures of Mesopotamia, Syria, Iran, and Anatolia. Since the nineteenth century, the University Museum has mounted excavations in the Near East. The most important of these were Nippur and Ur, each of which produced thousands of artifacts that have become the basis of the collections at the Penn Museum. From Nippur came cuneiform documents that form the core of the Museum’s world-renowned Babylonian Tablet Collection. From Ur came treasures from the Royal Cemetery of Ur (including the entire contents of the grave of Pu Abi), one of the most celebrated sites of the Ancient Near East. In the early twentieth century, the Museum sponsored work in northern Iraq (Tepe Gawra) and in Iran (Tepe Hissar and Cheshm Ali). This Iranian focus increased in the middle of the twentieth century, when the burned city of Hasanlu and ancient Anshan, the elamite highland capital, added substantially to the Museum’s holdings. These collections serve as one important foundation for the continued study of the art and archaeology of the Mesopotamian and pre-Islamic Iran by Holly Pittman, Bok Family Professor in the Humanities, in the History of Art Department and as a Curator in the Near East Section of the Penn Museum.
The study of the visual culture of the ancient Near East at Penn embraces a long chronological and broad geographical span. Courses and projects extend from the Neolithic through the Persian periods. While the general focus is on Northern and Southern Mesopotamia and Iran, program of study also includes the Indus Valley, Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and Anatolia. Students studying the material culture, religion, architecture, and archaeology of this vast region, are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to acquire the skills and methods necessary for their particular interests. This work is supported by Richard Zettler (Mesopotamian archaeology) Steve Tinney (Sumerian Language) and Grant Frame (Assyrian Language) in the department of Near East Language and Cultures Lauren Ristvet (anthropological archaeology) and Clark Erickson (Landscape studies) in Anthropology and still other colleagues at Bryn Mawr College (available to Penn students through the Penn Consortium). For methodology and theory, students are encouraged to work with a range of professors in Art History and other disciplines as relevant to their interests.
Students working in the art and archaeology of the Ancient Near East will have an opportunity to work on museum-based projects and will be encouraged to participate in field projects. Former students hold positions at Brown University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Jersey State College, Penn Museum, and New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. For further information see the web page of Holly Pittman.
Woolley started his excavations at Ur in early November 1922. After digging two initial trial trenches, Woolley spent his first five digging seasons focusing on the high mound with its ziggurat and public buildings within Nebuchadnezzar’s temenos (enclosure wall).
In the second half of the 1920s, Woolley shifted his primary focus to the cemetery. In less than three months in 1927, he uncovered some 600 burials, including one rich tomb (PG 580) that contained a many gold implements. In the next two seasons he uncovered hundreds of additional burials: 454 in 1928-1929 (including PG 755, PG 789, and PG 800) and 350 in 1929-1930 (including PG 1237, the so-called Great Death Pit).
In the last few seasons, Woolley focused on investigating the pre-history of Ur, with the silt flood layer. His last season ended in February 1934.
Ur Online offers an insight into the unique site of Ur, near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, and one of the largest and most important cities of ancient Mesopotamia. Excavations at Ur between 1922 and 1934 by Sir Leonard Woolley, jointly sponsored by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, uncovered Ur’s famous ziggurat complex, densely packed private houses, and the spectacular Royal Graves. Half the finds from Woolley’s excavations are housed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, with the other half shared equally between the British Museum and the Penn Museum. Through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation, lead underwriter, the Kowalski Family Foundation and the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, Ur Online preserves digitally and invites in-depth exploration of the finds and records from this remarkable site. Learn more about the project.
"The Battle between Marduk and Tiamat," by Thorkild Jacobsen. Journal of the American Oriental Society (1968).
"Enuma Elish" A Dictionary of the Bible. by W. R. F. Browning. Oxford University Press Inc.
"The Fifty Names of Marduk in 'Enūma eliš'," by Andrea Seri. Journal of the American Oriental Society (2006).
"Otiose Deities and the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon," by Susan Tower Hollis. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt (1998).
"Textual Fluctuations and Cosmic Streams: Ocean and Acheloios," by G. B. D'Alessio.The Journal of Hellenic Studies (2004).
Accessing the collection
You can search for information and images about objects from the Middle East collection on Collection online which has information about more than four million objects in the British Museum collection.
Our study room remains closed to the public until further notice. Please delay any requests for object study as we are not currently able to accommodate these. We look forward to welcoming you back when our study room reopens later this year.
- You can make an appointment to see objects from the Middle East collection in our study room. Please complete our Study room application form and email it to: [email protected]
- The Department of the Middle East Study Room is located in the Museum's historic Arched Room, accessible through the shop at the north end of the Egyptian sculpture gallery (Room 4), from the foot of the West Stairs – view the Museum map.
- It's open from 10.30–13.00 and 14.00–16.00 on Tuesdays to Fridays.
- It's closed in December every year.
- Visit our Study rooms page for general information.
Using the library:
- Records of items held by the Department of Middle East library may be accessed using the British Museum library catalogue.
- Library items can be viewed by appointment only.
- Please contact the library service at [email protected] to make an appointment to consult library materials, allowing 10 working days for a reply.
- – Assyrian sculpture and Balawat Gates – Assyria: Nimrud – Assyria: Nineveh – Assyria: Lion hunts, Siege of Lachish and Khorsabad
- – The Islamic World (The Albukhary Foundation Gallery) – Ancient Iran (The Rahim Irvani Gallery) – Ancient South Arabia (The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery) – Anatolia and Urartu 7000-300 BC (The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery) – Mesopotamia 1500-539 BC (The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery) – Mesopotamia 6000-1500 BC (The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery) – Ancient Levant (The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery)
- You can search for images on Collection online which has information about more than four million objects in the British Museum collection. Most of these images are available free of charge for non-commercial purposes.
- High-resolution digital images of most of the objects in the collection are available for purchase from BM Images.
- To commission new photography or to use images for commercial purposes, please contact [email protected]
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Relief Showing a Man Sailing a Corbita , 200 AD, via the British Museum, London
Primitive rafts and floating vessels have formed key methods of transportation and travel for as long as humans have been moving about the world , but it was the Mesopotamians who revolutionized water travel by inventing sails. The very name of the region means ‘between rivers’, referring to the great Euphrates and Tigris between which Mesopotamia was situated. The importance of these arterial waterways meant that it was in the Mesopotamians’ interests to find a way of navigating them quickly and efficiently.
While the hulls were still made of wood and constructed in a similar design to the boats of the past, Mesopotamian ships had the unparalleled addition of sails, large squares of cloth that caught the wind and pushed them forwards. Unlike later vessels, the angle of the sails could not be changed, meaning that Mesopotamian sailors had to rely on a favorable wind to get to their destination. Sails were nonetheless intrinsic to the development of seafaring in the ancient world.
As well as facilitating trade by allowing the transportation of heavy goods, sailboats also enabled the Mesopotamians to develop more sophisticated fishing practices. The larger, stable ships could sail into deeper and more treacherous waters, let down nets and wait for hordes of fish to swim in. Along with expanding trading opportunities, this led to prosperity and a higher quality of life for those living in ancient Mesopotamia. Sailboats were so important to the culture that they were even given their own god , Shamash.
Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur
The Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur is a foundation text in which king Nabonidus of Babylonia (r.556-539) describes how he repaired the ziggurat called E-lugal-galga-sisa, which belonged to the temple of Sin in Ur, called Egišnugal. It is probably the king's last building inscription and may be dated to c.540 BCE. It is interesting because it offers a full syncretism of Sin, Marduk, and Nabu.
The translation of the Nabonidus Cylinder was made by Paul-Alain Beaulieu, who is also the author of The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 B.C. (1989).
[i.1-4] Nabonidus, king of Babylon, caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, worshiper of the great gods, I:
[i.5-ii.2] E-lugal-galga-sisa, the ziggurat of Egišnugal, which is in Ur, which Ur-Nammu, one of the kings who preceded me, had built but not completed and whose work his son Šulgi had completed, note [Ur-Nammu (2113-2095) and Šulgi (2095-2047).] for in the instructions of Ur-Nammu and Šulgi his son I read that Ur-Nammu had built that ziggurat but not completed it and that Šulgi his son had completed its work, now that ziggurat had become old and on the ancient foundations which Ur-Nammu and Šulgi his son had built, that ziggurat, as in former times, with bitumen and baked bricks I repaired its damaged parts and for Sin, the lords of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, the king of the gods, the "gods" note [Nabonidus uses a plural form to describe Sin, comparable to the Hebrew Elohim ("gods") to describe YHWH.] of the gods, who dwells in the great heavens, the lord of Egišnugal, which is in Ur, my lord, I built anew.
[iii.3-31] O Sin, my lord "gods", king of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, "gods" of the gods, who dwells in the great heavens, when you joyfully enter that temple, may good recommendations for Esagila, Ezida. Egišnugal, the temples of your great godhead, note [Nabonidus attributes the temples of Marduk and Nabu to Sin, something that the priests of the Esagila and Ezida will not have appreciated.] be set on your lips, and instill reverence for you great godhead in the hearts of its people so that they do not sin against your great godhead. May their foundations be as firm as heaven.
As for me, Nabonidus, king of Babylon, save me from sinning against your great godhead and grant me as a present a life long of days, and as for Belshazzar, note [He is mentioned as son of Nebuchadnezzar and king of Babylonia in Daniel 5. Belshazzar is his name in the Bible Bel-šar-usur is a better rendering of his real name.] the eldest son - my offspring - instill reverence for your great godhead in his heart and may he not commit ant cultic mistake, may he be sated with a life of plenitude.
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