The First Archaeologists and Museums

The history of archaeology and museums is closely tied with colonlialism over the last few centuries, with wealthy Europeans in particular travelling to Italy, Greece, Egypt and the Middle East, and collecting antiquities that could be purchased by tourists. These were often artefacts that were looted from archaeological sites, such as ancient Egyptian tombs, and sold by locals to wealthy visitors. As these artefacts were removed from their archaeological contexts, it often makes it difficult to study antiquities that have made their way from private collections to museums because we are missing much of the information about where the objects came from and what this tells us about them. 

Humankind's fascination with its past is not just a recent phenomena, but is seen across the ancient world. Individuals from various cultures have been taking interest in objects and monuments both from other cultures and those in their own culture's past for a long time. The Middle East, as the birthplace of many complex cultures in antiquity, is not surprising as the possible place of origin of the world's first archaeologist and museum.

British archaeologist Leonard Woolley led excavations in the Middle East in the early 20th century, including at the Mesopotamian site of Ur (see on Google maps), located in modern day southern Iraq. The Babylonian Empire dominated this region in the 19th to 15th centuries BCE and again from the 7th to 6th centuries BCE.

Early Mespotamian City-States Map showing Ur
Early Mespotamian City-States Map showing Ur (link here)

Woolley's exploration of Ur in 1925 included excavation of settlement layers from this later period of Babylonian dominance, during which artefacts from the preceding millennia and a half were all found in one room of the Babylonian palace. Clay cylinders written in cuneiform, the earliest writing system, were found here that labelled this assortment of artefacts, each written in three languages including the older Sumerian language and the more recent (for the 6th century BCE) late Semitic language. 

The collection in this room was curated by Princess Ennigaldi, who was the daugher of the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, King Nabonidus. As the daughter of a king, she had religious roles including as a high priestess and administrator of a school for young priestesses. Her part in collating these artefacts together with their labels around 530 BCE makes her the earliest known museum curator.

Her father, King Nabonidus, could be considered one of the world's first known archaeologists. Around 550 BCE Nabonidus discovered a settlement from the earlier Akkadian Empire dating from the reign of its ruler Naram-Sin (who ruled circa 2200 BCE), and oversaw excavations of numerous temples erected by Naram-Sin. Nabonidus also undertook the first known attempt to assign an archaeological artefact to a particular date, although his estimate was far off. Cuneiform records of the excavation and analysis of artefacts by Nabonidus that have been found at Ur serve as evidence of this early archaeological work. 

Cuneiform account of the excavation of a foundation deposit belonging to Naram-Sin of Akkad (ruled c. 2200 BCE), by king Nabonidus (ruled c. 550 BCE)
Cuneiform record of excavation of settlement deposit of Naram-Sin of Akkad by King Nabonidus (link here)

The origins of our intrigue into the human past clearly stretch back much further than we might think. The examples of the first archaeologist and curator given here are limited by what can be read, with cuneiform and the languages it has been used to depict having being deciphered by scholars. Perhaps the inception of human interest in our shared past is even more distant, tracing to the prehistory of the human species, prior to the development of writing. 


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