His voice is the deluge, his speech is fire, and his breath is death.
So the monster Humbaba is described in an epic poem about the hero Gilgamesh. These words are written in the ancient Babylonian language etched into a tablet of clay dating to 2500 B.C.E. The tablet contains one of the earliest known references to Gilgamesh and is one of about 150 objects that make up the new exhibit Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights from the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The show runs through June 30 and will be the New Haven museum’s last temporary exhibit before it closes for two years to undergo extensive renovations.
Founded in 1911, the Yale Babylonian collection is one of the major collections of Mesopotamian artifacts outside Iraq. Objects currently on display from the collection date back 5,500 years and include tablets with poems by the first named author in human history, the princess Enheduanna, and the world’s oldest cookbooks with 4,000-year-old recipes including what might be a precursor to borscht.
To walk the exhibit is to feel a profound sense of history and the vastness of time. Here is a tablet from the fourth millennium B.C.E., there an object from after the birth of Christ, between them are flashpoints from a civilization that thrived for close to 4,000 years — a span of time so vast it is difficult to comprehend.
“Ancient Mesopotamia [accounts for] two-thirds of history, if you define history as the period from which we have written objects,” says Eckart Frahm, co-curator of the exhibit and a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Yale. He adds, it represents “a pretty significant portion of human experience.”
During a recent tour of the exhibit, Frahm and his co-curators Agnete Lassen, the associate curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, and Klaus Wagensonner, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale, point out that though Mesopotamian society changed over that time, there were, as Lassen puts it, “incredible continuities.”
Wagensonner says that when numbers were first developed in Mesopotamia there were about two dozen different number systems in use. “[This] depended on what was counted,” he says, noting that rations might be counted with one system and something else with another.
Lassen adds, this “has made scholars suggest that they didn’t have the concept of abstract numbers at the time they invented writing.”
Eventually they did develop abstract numbers, and a culture emerged that was far more literate than most people realize today. While there were trained scribes who were writing experts, everyday folks would frequently write letters to one another. These were impressed on clay tablets that, when dried, look almost like small stones, many of which are included in the exhibit. There are letters and documents about marriage, raising children, divorce, adoption and even the first day of school.
A centerpiece of the exhibition is a replica of a stone inscribed with Hammurabi’s Code, one of the earliest law collections. Parts of the code were lifted almost line for line in some of the laws laid out in the Torah. However, the curators say that the often harsh penalties prescribed in the code were rarely, if ever, enforced and the code was far more aspirational than literal.
Given the political turmoil in modern Iraq, where the ancient Mesopotamian civilization once flourished, there has been a great deal of looting of historic sites as well as destruction. In 2020, Lassen and Wagensonner plan to travel to Iraq to help create detailed digital scans of various ancient artifacts, as part of efforts to preserve them for future research, and make them available to more researchers for study.
Even with these preservation challenges, there are more Mesopotamian texts than from other ancient civilizations because the texts were written on clay. “Clay is an eminently durable material in the right conditions. Most text media are destroyed when there’s a fire,” Lassen says, “but clay survives.”
As a result, experts estimate there are at least a half-million cuneiform texts scattered throughout museums worldwide, and new insights are constantly being gleaned about the society that produced them, because, amazingly, many of these texts have not yet been translated. “Our problem is we need more assyriologists that can decipher these texts,” Lassen says.
This exhibit might just inspire a few.
Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights from the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
On exhibit through June 30, 2020
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven