“Enkidu did not know how to eat bread, and had never been shown how to drink beer.
Enkidu ate the bread until he was sated, drank the beer—seven jugs full. His mood became free, he was singing, his heart became merry and his face shone bright.”
-Gilgamesh P (“P”=Philadelphia), 1650 BC
A friend of mine is a curator at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and over the last three years she has worked installing the museum’s new permanent exhibition of Middle Eastern artifacts. The gala opening was last Wednesday evening, so I tucked in my shirt and headed over to the museum to check it out.
Penn knows how to put on an event. The reception was in a courtyard built around a fountain and pool where colossal carp lay like dirigibles under the water’s surface. There was live music, a troupe of belly dancers, tables of pita and hummus, and a long line at the bar. My friend met me and took me on a tour of underbelly of the museum. She needed a huge ring of keys to unlock the doors we encountered every 50 feet, and we hustled through a maze of corridors and doors with interesting signs like “Laser/radiography restoration unit” or “Human skulls, misc.” Her office was a windowless space that connected to three different doors: one for artifacts from Iraq and Syria, one for artifacts from modern Iran, and the metal door of a walk in safe that looked like the kind of thing Wile Coyote would try to drop on Roadrunner. There were a few coffins pushed neatly against one wall.
The Iraq and Syria room had long rows of metal shelving supporting thousands of bagged and labeled artifacts. Oil lamps and wine urns lay next to cuneiform tablets and axe blades, and sandbags are positioned to stop anything from rolling off the shelf. The room is maintained at a hot dry temperature, and contains objects from a span of 8,000 years of human history. In preparation for the exhibit items from these archives were loaded onto rolling carts and pushed through the tunnels to be photographed, analyzed, restored, and intricately measured to prepare custom mounting brackets for each one. I thought it was fascinating to see common household objects from 4000 years ago treated with such reverence. I also thought it was likely that at least some items in the room were cursed.
We left the subterranean archives to go up to the main exhibit. You walk in and are greeted by a white wall with a single object: A perfect human footprint with five toes, preserved from when an anonymous worker in Mesopotamia stumbled into a drying mud brick 4500 years ago. The objects are displayed under thick glass illuminated by clean bright lights, and you can see up close every triumph of craftsmanship and every flaw. The 1,800 items on display contain some powerful things. I saw a cuneiform tablet with precise rows and columns that served as an early spreadsheet, noting debts for bushels of sheepskins and the date by which they must be repaid. I saw what is believed to be one of the first graven images of a man riding on a horse or donkey. There was a silver sculpture of a bull that had been flattened under tons of earth for centuries, and then restored for twelve years by one very dedicated conservationist.
What makes the exhibit special is that 95% of the objects on display were found by Penn archaeologists, excavated during trips to the field that started over 130 years ago. The depth and relative locations of each item was carefully noted upon discovery, which makes it possible to form advanced inferences about the day-to-day lives of people in ancient civilizations. The exhibit frames the epoch when people began domesticating goats and donkeys, fermenting grapes into wine, and began keeping track of who was falling behind on their sheepskin debts. What you see in the glass cases is the result of humans innately caring deeply for beautiful and useful things. 4000 years ago someone felt compelled to spruce up a wine jug by painting a geometric pattern on it, 130 years ago someone saw the remaining shards and painstakingly gathered and packed them, and for the last decades teams have used advanced computer modelling and laser cleaning techniques to reconstruct the shattered 3D puzzle pieces. A lot of different people in a lot of different time periods need to be committed to making that jug look good for an exhibit like this to come together.
UPenn still has active excavation sites across the Caucasus and Middle East. I’ll check back at the Penn Museum in 50 years to see what else they come up with.