Cuneiform follows function

Ray Cassin
Lapis lazuli necklace from the Sumerian city, Ur. Photo: By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Melbourne Museum, until October 7

IN OUR end is our beginning. As visitors leave The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia they pass a video message from Sarah Collins, curator of the British Museum’s Early Mesopotamia collections, from whence this exhibition derives.

She reminds those about to escalate up from the Melbourne Museum basement that “it is a challenge for us today to feel a connection” to the peoples of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon, the civilisations of the remote past that produced the ”wonders” on display.

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Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s <i>Dying Lion</i> relic.Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s Dying Lion relic. Photo: By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

But the connection, or rather connections, exist, and in case anyone might have missed them while perambulating through the exhibition, Ms Collins offers a summary. Our measurements of time and the physical universe – the 60-second minute, the 60-minute hour, the 12-month year and the zodiac, the 360 degrees of the circle – all derive from the mathematics and surveying techniques of the ancient Mesopotamians. Even more central to the thread of civilisation, so does the medium of communication that connects The Age to its readers. The Mesopotamians invented the oldest known systems of writing, too.

There is distinct difference in tone between The Wonders of Mesopotamia and Melbourne Museum’s previous forays into ancient worlds, The Treasures of Tutankhamun and A Day in Pompeii. It is as though the curators felt a need to defend one of the things that museums traditionally exist to do: to inform those who visit them while trying to entertain, too.

Perhaps it is because Tutankhamen, the mysterious boy king with the glittering tomb, and the wretched Pompeians, victims of a disaster even more spectacular than the iceberg-stricken Titanic, entertain so effortlessly that we scarcely notice what we might be learning.

A cuneiform writing tablet (C.3000BC).A cuneiform writing tablet (C.3000BC). Photo: By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

And of course, Tut’s glitter shone so very brightly that he seems a hard act to follow. But for those who can only be lured by gold, Wonders of Mesopotamia has it, too, albeit in lesser amounts. A resplendent lapis lazuli necklace with gold leaf pendants, and associated jewellery found in the King’s Grave in the Sumerian city of Ur, is testimony that the ancient Mesopotamians were as in love with luxury as any ancient Egyptian or modern Melburnian.

The curators are nonetheless resolved that we should never forget that our connection to this particular clutch of ancient cultures goes way beyond a shared predilection for bling. On entering Wonders, an illustrated timeline, winding back from 2012 to several millennia BCE, walks the visitor through culture after culture, each linked by its reliance on that world-changing Sumerian invention, writing.

It is though we are being warned: this is serious. But that is as it should be, and if Melbourne Museum is worried that Wonders might not draw the hordes who turned out to pay homage to Tut, it should not be. Visitors who were as moved by the boy king’s plain wooden chair as by anything made of gold – and there were many of us – will not feel cheated here.

A catapult from the interactive <i>Ancient Rome</i> exhibit.A catapult from the interactive Ancient Rome exhibit. Photo: By permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

A great deal of ingenuity has been employed in prompting visitors to find the familiar in the apparently unfamiliar. The carved reliefs depicting the military victories and hunting expeditions of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal may seem severe and unapproachably remote to those seeing them for the first time, but the computer-generated graphics that are used as commentaries help to dissolve the culture barrier.

A lion threatens one of Ashurbanipal’s attendants, and the mighty king, approaching the beast from the rear, grabs it by the tail. This is depicted on the relief, and very bizarre it seems; but the CGI strip shows the same events in motion, and suddenly we get it: this is political spin leavened by humour, just like any photo opportunity staged for a modern politician.

Some purists of museum-going object to this kind of cartoonish clarification, preferring the traditional labels and scholarly commentaries. Wonders has those, too, but privileging any one kind of interpretative technique in an exhibition of this kind surely misunderstands what the exhibition is seeking to do.

Other purists will feel uncomfortable with the fact that not everything on display was retrieved from an archaeological site in Iraq. Some of the exhibits are copies, for the obvious and unavoidable fact that they are too precious or fragile to transport around the world. The same was true of Treasures of Tutankahmen, of course, for Tut himself did not accompany his gold to Melbourne. His mummy isn’t leaving Cairo, and visitors had to be content with a facsimile instead.

For me, none of this invalidates exhibitions of this kind, or makes them only bigger and grander versions of the Ancient Rome exhibition in Melbourne’s Docklands, which displays scale models of various Roman engineering devices, some of which visitors may handle and use. (Parents of small children may be reassured that the hands-on exhibits in Rome do not include the military catapult or the battering ram).

Interpretation of ancient artefacts is one of the things that museums do, whether through scholarly research or public exhibits, and any expectation that museum visitors might make a connection between older forms of human experience and their own without some form of mediation – sometimes including fabrication – will always be a vain one.

All human knowledge is mediated if it can be transmitted at all.

It’s what’s been happening ever since the Sumerians hit on the idea of turning their primitive pictographs into the script we call cuneiform. Those abstract strokes, to be seen on the tiny cylinder seals that abound in the glass cases of Wonders, began writing. Go and marvel at them; they beat bling any day.