Around 4000 years ago, in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, Ancient Mesopotamia developed the first written language of the world.

On view until June 2020, the “Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks” exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of  Natural History showcases the relics of a civilization that was the birthplace of crucial aspects of the modern world — writing, political institutions and urban culture.

“The exhibit [seeks to] give voice to a civilization that in a way seems utterly dead, but in some regards really speaks to us quite immediately,” said Eckart Frahm, co-curator of the exhibit and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

The exhibit centers around a region called Mesopotamia — which today comprises parts of Syria and Iraq — and contains around 150 artifacts such as clay tablets, seals, figurines and plaques. It records the development of the Mesopotamian writing system known as “cuneiform,” which was invented in the mid-fourth millennium BCE and is found in records until 75 CE.

Most of the objects in the exhibit are part of Yale’s Babylonian Collection. The Collection is typically housed on the third floor of Sterling Memorial Library. Its founding curator, Albert Clay, began the Collection in 1911 upon receiving an initial gift from the financier J.P. Morgan. In 2017, Yale’s administration made the decision to formally affiliate the Yale Babylonian collection with the Peabody. Following this decision, the Peabody offered to display the Collection in its galleries, ultimately leading to the current exhibit, curated by Frahm, Agnete Lassen, the associate curator of the Collection, and Klaus Wagensonner, a postdoctoral researcher.

Lassen explained that the objects displayed in the exhibit were chosen based on their aesthetic, historical and literary value.

“What we really wanted to do was not just highlight stuff, but find objects that we felt could tell stories,” Lassen said.

The exhibit contains hymns composed by the priestess Enhedu-anna, who is the earliest known recorded author in world history, according to Frahm. It also includes the oldest cookbook in the world, a tablet that accurately calculates the square root of two to eight decimal places, a recreation of the Code of Hammurabi and several clay tablets and seals that display cuneiform writing. 

Frahm said that the objects in the collection relate to all aspects of life. He added that the works range from the “lofty and sublime” — as seen through the Gilgamesh epic, religious texts and political writings — to the “mundane and ridiculous” encapsulated by documents concerning marriage, personal letters and school texts.

Frahm also noted that the Babylonian world resonates with problems and conflicts we face today. He referenced current political issues in mentioning that the Sumerian king Shu-Sin of Ur built a wall against the Amorites in 2500 BCE.

“It didn’t work though,” said Frahm. “The Amorites came through anyway and they adapted to Mesopotamian language and culture in an extremely positive way.”

Lassen described her fascination with being able to immerse herself in a “faraway city” that existed thousands of years ago and still finding “points of similarity.” The exhibit allows for reflection across cultures and invokes uncanny similarities to our own present day lives. The objects on view reveal that in ancient Mesopotamia, parents had lullabies for children, kings constructed untrue accounts of their own greatness, students were distracted in school, people tried to evade taxes.

“Even if we think some people from other cultures are different and we can’t really understand them, there’s still something really fundamental that connects us,” said Lassen. “If I can connect to somebody 4000 years ago, humans can connect with each other all over the world.”

Both curators also noted what the world is at risk of losing in the face of recent neglect, looting and deliberate destruction of ancient artifacts in the Middle East. Lassen mentioned the importance of recognizing that the curators must be “good guardians” and show their deep respect and care for the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

“We’re dealing with the first half, almost the first two-thirds of history,” said Frahm. “We have a responsibility to make it available to other scholars, but also the broader public.

Freya Savla |