Found in Translation

A young visitor to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibition was trying to make sense of what he’d just been told: that he was looking at the very first written language in the world. Ever. 

“So, they couldn’t talk?” he asked, trying to wrap his mind around this.

Yes, his adult companion explained, they could talk. But before this, no one wrote down what was said.

An adult scholar visiting the exhibition less than an hour later expressed a similar reaction in a different way. His mind, he said, was “blown” by what he was seeing and learning.

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Imagine what it must have been like to live in the first societies to record their thoughts with the written word. Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks helps visitors do just that. The exhibition reveals 150 artifacts from the Yale Babylonian Collection, which was founded in 1911 with an initial gift from financier JP Morgan and today is “one of the major repositories of Mesopotamian artifacts outside Iraq,” a Peabody press release says.

The area known as Mesopotamia, Greek for “(land) between the rivers,” was originally identified as “the region between the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,” now parts of Iraq and Syria, according to an essay by co-curator Eckart Frahm in the exhibition’s extensive catalog. As early as 3400 BCE, Mesopotamians began recording their laws, records, scholarship, messages and thoughts in characters that looked like the things they represented. Thus, the character for “fish” was an elongated diamond with six stroke marks resembling fins and a tail. The character for the more abstract concept “ration” combined a head with a bowl. Over time, the characters became less representational and evolved into a collection of signs known as cuneiform script. The last known use of this writing system dates to 75 CE and reemerged only as the excavation of ancient civilizations began in the 18th century. We have 19th-century scholars to thank for decoding this lost language so that today, we can read in translation the Mesopotamians’ own words.

Many of them are strikingly relatable. A Babylonian cookbook, written in tiny cuneiform on a small clay tablet, documents how to cook lamb stew and wild pigeon broth, among other recipes. (The catalog cautions that “cooking the recipes, even to the best of our ability, may not reproduce the almost four-thousand-year-old dishes in a form close to the intended one.”) Youthful Mesopotamians required advice just as their counterparts do today: “Do not linger in the market place! Do not roam around in the street! Do not look into the small alleys while passing by!” reads one educational tablet. A riddle on another expresses a taboo against adultery:

One does not walk to him, even though paths may lead to him.
He is not dear to any decent man; life is not given to him.
He is cast away like something impure. No one cares about him.
Who is he?—A man who sleeps with another man’s wife.

The writing itself is perhaps best viewed on a tall black column that stands at the center of the exhibit. Covered with ancient script, it’s a plaster cast of an original 7.4-foot-tall black basalt stele housed at the Louvre in Paris. Presiding over the room like a hooded figure, it bears at its top a carving of two men, one seated and one standing—perhaps a subject addressing his king. Thousands and thousands of white cuneiform characters leap from the black background of the stele’s midsection, illuminated in the dark exhibition space. It’s covered in small vertical columns, some of them filled with characters, others containing just one. They bear some resemblance to our Latin characters—Ts, Vs, Xs—yet at the same time, they’re strikingly different with their spiked, tapered shapes and their three-dimensional forms carved into stone or clay.

You can watch a fascinating video of a cuneiform expert writing on a palm-sized slab of clay with a stylus the size of a popsicle stick, but square-edged, allowing it to cut wedges and lines of different lengths and depths. There’s also a touch screen allowing visitors to interact with some of the artifacts virtually: turning them over, changing the light to better see the characters, rolling cylindrical seals—used to “indicate ownership or other forms of association and to help with counting”—over virtual clay to see their inscriptions. For those who need a more tactile experience, six artifacts have been 3D-printed in sandstone to a weight and color that simulates the originals. These you can pick up and hold in your hands.

Even with the somewhat miraculous ability to read this ancient script, many questions remain unanswered. For example, one tablet lists a short prayer for each string on the lyre. “May Anshar, the king of the gods, improve your (the monarch’s) authority for you” reads the first. But no one knows how this music might have been played or sung. “The prayers may have been chanted to the pitch of the respective string,” the object label guesses.

At the end of the exhibit, a section on current scholarship suggests there’s much more to be learned from the Yale Babylonian Collection, and doing so seems ever more urgent. The exhibition’s catalog “appears at a time when many archaeological contexts in the Middle East are lost yet again, mostly through development, neglect, and looting. Even worse, many ancient sites and artifacts have been deliberately destroyed in recent years,” write curators Frahm, Agnete W. Lassen and Klaus Wagensonner—a reminder of just how rare and remarkable these surviving pieces are, and how fortunate we are to be able to view them.

Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights from the Yale Babylonian Collection
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History – 170 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm
$13 adults, $9 seniors, $6 children; free for members and Yale ID holders
(203) 432-8987
www.peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/ancient-mesopotamia-speaks

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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