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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: the wonders of ancient mesopotamia (5)

Podcast Episode 28: Be My Guest in Mesopotamia

by Dr Andi
Publish date
5 June 2012
Comments (2)

To gatecrash the opening of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition at Melbourne Museum, we disguised ourselves as archaeologists and dug our way into the museum, like a reverse jailbreak.We interviewed the passionate archaeologist and curator Sarah Collins from the British Museum who was part the team that created this superb travelling exhibition. We also hitched a ride on a VIP tour with Patrick Greene, CEO of Museum Victoria.

Ancient civilisations are fascinating, and the Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Babylonian civilisations is where it all began when it comes to bureaucracy, law, government, Zodiac sign readings, writing lists, 60 seconds in the minute and what I might call a mild obsession with lions.

Bronze lion weight Bronze lion weight. One of a set made for King Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC). Inscribed on it is ‘Five mina of the king’ in both Assyrian cuneiform and Aramaic.
Source: The Trustees of The British Museum

Inside the exhibition I saw evidence of people tapping away on clay tablets; outside the exhibition I saw evidence of people tapping away on their digital tablets. So nothing has really changed in thousands of years.

Please enjoy listening to us babble on about the ancient wonders of Mesopotamia.


Podcast credits

Interviewees and voices:

  • Sarah Collins, British Museum
  • Patrick Greene, CEO Museum Victoria
  • A visitor at the exhibition opening
  • And a cast of ancient lions 

Interviews and production by:

  • Dr Andi Horvath – Senior curator, Museum Victoria
  • Arch Cuthbertson – Podcast Recording Services

Visit the Podcast Adventures page to listen to the archive, or subscribe to Access All Areas in iTunes.

Mesopotamian lunar table

by Martin Bush
Publish date
25 May 2012
Comments (0)

Martin is the programmer at the Planetarium at Scienceworks.

A personal highlight for me in The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition is the Babylonian lunar table. I love this artefact not just because of the antiquity of its writing or how long it lay preserved in the ground, and certainly not just because of the skill needed to make the rows of tiny cuneiform script. (How did they do it? I could never have managed.)

Babylonian lunar table Lunar table K.90 from the British Museum on display in The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

This tablet is exciting because shows just how seriously Mesopotamian cultures took astronomy. Observers recorded the appearance of the Moon – and also the stars and planets – every single night of the year. (Ok, unless it was cloudy.) They sent reports of these observations to the king. Babylonian astronomers had centuries of astronomical observations to work with. Unfortunately we don’t as not so many of these reports have survived.

Some concerns of these ancient astronomers – like making horoscopes to advise the king – are no longer of much interest to modern astronomers. But many ancient achievements live on to this day. Astronomers still number lunar eclipse using a system known as the Saros Cycle. This cycle was discovered by Babylonian astronomers around the 5th century BCE.

The work of these Babylonian astronomers can also be seen in the Jewish calendar. Sometime around the 4th Century BCE Mesopotamian astronomers calculated the average length of the lunar month. The extensive observations they had to work with meant that they came up with a remarkably accurate figure, different to the modern value by only a fraction of a second. This value was taken up by Greek astronomers such as Ptolemy and from there it was incorporated into the Jewish calendar when it was codified in the first millennium CE. The value determined by Babylonian astronomers is still used today to determine the date of the Jewish New Year.

This lunar table survived for centuries in the ground while the influence of Mesopotamian astronomy on our study of the skies has lasted even longer.

Gilgamesh the first superhero

by Bernard
Publish date
22 March 2012
Comments (12)

Bernard works part-time at Melbourne Museum devising and delivering presentations for visitors. The other part of the time he writes and draws and edits and publishes comic books, and also teaches and broadcasts about them.

Gilgamesh. What a guy. 

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, we learn that he's the son of a human man and the goddess Ninsun.

Gilgamesh and Lamassu in the Louvre A hero overpowering a lion (left) and Lamassu in the Louvre. These bas-relief sculpures are huge - the man figure is about three times life-size. Lion-taming spirits are often identified with Gilgamesh.
Image: caribb
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from caribb.

He's two-thirds god and one-third human, and single-handedly built the city walls of Uruk to protect his people.

Gilgamesh statue Cast bronze sculpture of Gilgamesh at The University of Sydney. It was made by Lewis Batros and donated by the Gilgamesh Cultural Centre on behalf of the Assyrian community celebrating the university's sesquicentenary in 2000.
Image: D. Gordon E. Robertson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He fought and befriended the wild man Enkidu. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fought the monster Humbaba (or Huwawa). They defeated Humbaba and brought his head back to Uruk on a raft.

Clay mask of the demon Huwawa or Humbaba. Clay mask of the demon Huwawa or Humbaba. The cuneiform inscription on the back says that if the intestines of a sacrificed animal are looped around to resemble Humbaba, it is an omen of 'revelation.' Gruesome.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gilgamesh and Enkidu also defeated the Bull of Heaven, who was sent to destroy Uruk by the furious goddess Ishtar after Gilgmesh said that he wouldn't go to the prom with her.

Queen of the Night relief The 'Queen of the Night' Relief, possibly a representation of the goddess Ishtar. It might also be her sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal, or the demoness Lilitu, known in the Bible as Lilith. Old Babylonian, 1800-1750 BC, from southern Iraq.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sure, Gilgamesh is the legendary demigod hero-king of Mesopotamia, but is he actually the first comic book superhero? Of course he is. There were definitely legendary heroes and gods before Gilgamesh, but he's the first one we have a publication for. That publication weighs a little more than your standard comic book, because it's made of tablets of baked clay. But there are 12 of those tablets, each telling of a separate episode, so each could be considered an 'issue' of the Gilgamesh comic mini-series.

The one possible argument against it being a comic book is its total and utter lack of pictures. However, this objection is easily overcome by holding the tablets of cuneiform up against the large narrative Mesopotamian wall-carvings. The tablets thus become word balloons, containing a tale that the characters on the carvings are telling to one another. THEN it's a comic book. A weighty comic book. It might even, given the scope of the story, be a 'graphic novel' (=long comic book). Ooh la la!

Three thousand years after that original clay publication of the adventures of Gilgamesh, the brilliant Jack Kirby, 'King of Comics', who virtually invented the visual language that we associate with American superhero comics, put the Babylonian demigod on paper. BK (Before Kirby), comic books used the restrained compositions and drawing styles that they had inherited from newspaper comic strips. Kirby changed all that. His characters burst through the frames. They leapt from the page.

Bernard reading comic book Me ensconced in the classic Jack Kirby comic book series The Eternals, which features his character Gilgamesh.
Source: Museum Victoria

Gilgamesh shows up in issue #13 of The Eternals (1977), a comic book series that Kirby created for Marvel Comics. In the intervening years, the character has been drawn and written by various writers and artists. Sometimes he's working under a different name (simply 'Hero' or 'The Forgotten One'), sometimes he's costumed in the hide of the Bull of Heaven, and sometimes he's fighting alongside the team called The Avengers, but I'm pretty sure he won't have a cameo in the film of the same name directed by Joss Whedon (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator) coming from Marvel Studios later this year. More's the pity, eh?

An eye for an eye

by Kate C
Publish date
29 February 2012
Comments (5)

Whether you know it best from the Bible, the Torah or Nick Cave's song The Mercy Seat, you might not know that the common phrase 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' has Mesopotamian origins.

prosthetic eye and teeth Left: Acrylic eye prosthesis made by Loyer Artificial Eyes, Burwood,Victoria, circa 1999. (HT 23234) | Right: Porcelain artificial teeth made by DeTrey's Diatorics, circa 1925. (HT 11829)
Source: Museum Victoria

It describes principle of retaliation – a harsh system of justice that permits someone suffering an injury at the hands of another to return like for like. The concept was first documented in the Code of Hammurabi, an upright stone pillar inscribed with 282 Babylonian laws by King Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC). It was uncovered in modern-day Iran in 1901 and is exhibited in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. 

Code of Hammurabi Code of Hammurabi on display in in the Musée du Louvre.
Image: Nick Olejniczak
Source: Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 from nicholasjon

Detail of the cuneiform on the Code of Hammurabi Detail of the cuneiform script on the Code of Hammurabi.
Image: Boris Doesburg
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 from batigolix

Museum Victoria is borrowing a cast of the code from the Australian Institue of Archaeology to display during The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition. The cast, purchased by the AIA in 1968, is an exact replica made in very limited edition by the Musée du Louvre.

Much of the code addresses contracts, payments, terms of transactions and marriage laws, but a handful of laws are paraphrased in the well-worn 'eye for an eye'. In the 1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King, the contributing laws are stated explicitly:

196. If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.

200. If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

But it's not as simple as that. In Babylonian society, there were three distinct social classes: the freemen, the second-class citizens, and at the bottom of the heap, the slaves. If a slave suffered the injury, retribution was less about flesh and more about cash:

199. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price.

The Code's rules, penalties and payments are a fascinating (and often contradictory) glimpse into the lives and values of the Babylonians. For example, if you leased a field and your crops were lost to the storm god Adad, it was your own problem. Yet if you hired an ox to work your fields and it was eaten by a lion, the loss was borne by the ox's owner. If the ox's death was caused by a god, an oath to that effect absolved the hirer of any responsibility. (It sounds like ox-hiring was a tough gig in Babylon.)

King Hammurabi's legacy persists and many of the philosophies of his code still ring true today. It established concepts such as medical malpractice, penalties for negligence and the role of government in resolving family matters like inheritance and divorce. Another important idea enacted in the Code of Hammurabi was assumed innocence, whereby both parties in a legal dispute were required to provide evidence of their claims – even if the evidence was no more than an oath that a god killed your ox.


The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition at Melbourne Museum

1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King (PDF, 128 KB)

Code of Hammurabi in the Musée du Louvre

Q&A with Dr Andrew Jamieson

by Adrienne Leith
Publish date
22 February 2012
Comments (0)

Adrienne creates and presents public programs at Melbourne Museum and coordinates Museum Victoria's lecture series.

A new major exhibition is coming to Melbourne Museum this year called The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia. To learn more about the history and significance of Mesopotamia, I interviewed an expert in ancient civilisations, Dr Andrew Jamieson.

Can you first tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved with the exhibition?

I am an archaeologist from the Classics and Archaeology program at the University of Melbourne, and for the past 25 years I have been working on archaeological projects in the Middle East. I'm helping with the development and presentation of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at Melbourne Museum, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of my knowledge at some public lectures at the museum.

Where exactly is Mesopotamia?

Ancient Mesopotamia corresponds with the area known today as Iraq, north-east Syria and south-east Turkey. The word 'Mesopotamia' is of Greek origin (meso 'middle' and potamia 'river'), meaning the land between two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers start in the mountainous regions of Turkey and flow into the Persian Gulf.

It was here, in a land through which the two rivers flowed, that some of the world's first great empires flourished - the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II that was placed in the Temple of Ishtar at Nimrud where Ashurnasirpal established his capital city.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

So why is Mesopotamia so significant?

Mesopotamia is important for a number of reasons.  For example, Mesopotamia witnessed experiments in agriculture and irrigation, the invention of writing, the emergence of cities and complex society, and developments in art, literature, science and mathematics. Mesopotamia is also sometimes referred to as the 'fertile crescent' or the 'cradle of civilisation', because the crescent-shaped region was a moist and fertile land, and because the first complex societies emerged in this region.

Why is Mesopotamia relevant to us today?

For me, Mesopotamia is relevant today because it represents the origins or beginnings of western civilisation. Ancient Mesopotamia has a long and rich history that continues to influence our lives.

The Mesopotamians were amongst the first people to build and live in large cities. They also developed many aspects of technology including metalworking, pottery production, glassmaking, textile manufacture and leather-working.

The oldest writing yet discovered comes from southern Mesopotamia and dates to circa 3500 BC. It consists of pictographic signs incised on clay tablets that record the Sumerian language. The earliest writing was used to communicate basic information about crops and taxes. A few centuries later the pictographs were transformed into more abstract cuneiform ('wedge-shaped') characters. This distinctive script was incised on wet clay with a stylus (pen-like instrument), usually cut from a reed. Over thousands of years, Mesopotamian scribes recorded daily events, trade activities, astronomy, myths, and literature on thousands of clay tablets. So successful was this system of writing that it was used over three millennia by the different peoples of the ancient Near East.

Early cuneiform writing tablet, c. 3000 BC Early cuneiform writing tablet, circa 3000 BC. Quantities of barley allocated to officials listed by rank. The impressed circles and half-circles represent numbers.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

What can people expect to see in the exhibition?

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is specially designed for Melbourne Museum It features over 170 objects highlighting significant episodes of Mesopotamian civilisation, including masterpieces from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. It is rare for the British Museum to tour such priceless pieces. Some of these objects include an early Sumerian cuneiform writing tablet, a fluted gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur that may have been used for drinking beer, a large stone statue of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II inscribed in cuneiform giving his titles and lineage, and much more.

Gold cup Gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi. The long spout would have been used like a drinking straw, probably for drinking beer.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is a collaboration with the British Museum. It is on at Melbourne Museum from 4 May to 7 October 2012.


The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia

Video: What is Mesopotamia?

Video: The Mesopotamian Minute

Pre-purchase exhibition tickets online

Dr Andrew Jamieson at the University of Melbourne

About this blog

Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.