Everybody’s working for the weekend — or at least Yale’s Assyrilogists.
The Yale Babylonian Collection celebrated its centennial Saturday at a conference attended by 60 members of the local community, with events including tours of the collection’s highlights and a Saybrook College Orchestra concert of Mesopotamian-influenced classical music.
Founded by Yale professor Albert Tobias Clay in 1909, the collection was established with a donation from financier J.P. Morgan, who later entrusted the University with his own library of Babylonian artifacts.
Today, the collection — which has grown to consist of about 45,000 clay tablets, seals and other objects — contains historical material such as a tablet with a section of the Gilgamesh epic poem, lists of ancient magic spells and even ancient Mesopotamian recipes, said Ulla Kasten, the collection’s associate curator.
Benjamin Foster GRD ’75, professor of Assyriology, acting chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, and curator of the collection, said that the celebration was necessary to curb waning interest in his field.
“I feel that Assyriology is receding from a social and economic point of view in America and Europe, compared to where it should be,” he said.
One of the collection’s current initiatives, Foster said, is to collaborate with a team of Japanese scientists in studying not just the tablets’ inscriptions but the clay in the tablets themselves, which can yield a wealth of information about climatological change.
Foster cautioned, however, that too much emphasis on technological progress could take away from the more important study of the tablets’ purposes.
“Digitization is the current rallying cry which is apparently going to solve all our problems,” he said. “But in the end I don’t think there’s a substitute for the trained human eye in these matters.”
Marc Van De Mieroop GRD ’83, a professor of ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University who spoke Saturday, praised the collection’s completeness, which he said allows scholars to study changes in similar kinds of primary sources through time.
In his presentation at the celebration’s symposium, Van De Mieroop commended the collection’s curators for allowing researchers access to its resources.
“I think it’s crucial for a person in this discipline to feel a connection to the people you study,” he said. “By studying and touching the writings that they produced, you can create this connection.”
The celebration concluded with a screening of “The Fall of Babylon,” one of four episodes from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic film “Intolerance” and the Saybrook College Orchestra concert in Battell Chapel titled “From the Euphrates to the Nile,” featuring Rossini’s “Overture from Semiramide” and selections from Handel’s Belshazzar.
Assyriology aficionados can see selected items from Yale’s collection through January in “From Nineveh to New Haven,” an exhibition at Sterling Memorial Library.