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The Story of the World’s First Known Museum

Where would you imagine finding history’s first museum? If you said London or New York, you’re on the wrong part of the map. The earliest evidence we have of something like a museum comes from southwest Iraq, where a port city called Ur once flourished along the Euphrates River. One of the earliest cities in human history, Ur was the heart of ancient Sumerian civilization. It was home to a thriving trade network and religious culture that first emerged about 6,000 years ago.

We have a British archaeologist named Charles Leonard Woolley to thank for much of what we know about Ur. Born in London in 1880, Woolley worked as an assistant at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum before excavating sites in northeast England, Africa, Italy, and Syria. In the Middle East, he worked alongside T. E. Lawrence — the archaeologist, military officer, and writer later known as "Lawrence of Arabia." Lawrence was just one famous figure Woolley crossed paths with; he also later became friends with Agatha Christie, who wrote a detective novel about his digs in Mesopotamia and eventually married one of his assistants.

Discovering the Riches of Ur

Aerial view of Iraq with river running through
Credit: nasa/ Unsplash

In 1922, after the first World War interrupted his work with Lawrence, Woolley started the work that would make him famous: 12 years of excavations in the ancient city of Ur. In digs sponsored jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, he uncovered troves of ancient artifacts that became the basis for much of what we know about Ur and the Sumerians. His most spectacular discovery was a sprawling royal cemetery packed with gold, silver, and bronze treasures. It was also packed with bodies — a royal court sacrificed as part of funeral ceremonies for a monarch. Both the treasures and the graves earned splashy coverage in the press, competing only with Lord Carnarvon’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb around the same time.

About two years after the excavations began, Woolley discovered something less headline-grabbing, but perhaps equally important to history. While excavating ruins that he interpreted as a palace complex, Woolley and his team found chambers belonging to Ennigaldi-Nanna, daughter of the Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus. The chambers appeared to date from around 530 B.C., just before Ur was abandoned (possibly due to drought) and absorbed into the Persian Empire.

But something about the discovery perplexed Woolley. Among the loose rubble and bricks, the team found an odd assortment of objects from various places and times, all gathered together. These included a large black stone from about 1400 B.C., which was covered with carvings indicating the boundaries of a property (plus a “terrific curse” on anyone who defaced it). They also found the arm of a statue of a king, apparently trimmed to show writing on it, perhaps from about 2280 B.C.; clay tablets and foundation cones from about 2000 B.C.; bronze figurines; and a large “votive stone mace-head” whose date was unclear.

“What were we to think?” Woolley later wrote in his book Ur of the Chaldees. “Here were half a dozen diverse objects found lying on an unbroken brick pavement of the sixth century B.C., yet the newest of them was seven hundred years older than the pavement and the earliest perhaps two thousand: The evidence was altogether against their having got there by accident, and the trimming of the statue-inscription had a curious air of purpose.”

After a bit more digging, Woolley found the key. “A little way apart lay a small drum-shaped clay object on which were four columns of writing” in several languages, he wrote in Ur of the Chaldees. Woolley transcribed part of the text on the cylinder, which read: “These are copies from bricks found in the ruins of Ur, the work of Bur-Sin king of Ur, which while searching for the ground-plan [of the temple] the Governor of Ur found, and I saw and wrote out for the marvel of the beholders.”

To Woolley, this clay cylinder was the first-ever museum label, proving that “the room was a museum of local antiquities maintained by the princess Bel-Shalti-Nannar,” using an older name for Ennigaldi-Nanna. The drum was also a record from “the first scientific excavations at Ur,” Woolley wrote. Although the bricks to which the writing referred had long since been lost, Woolley believed they were likely once located near the cylinder and among the other artifacts in the museum. He also speculated that both Ennigaldi-Nanna and her father Nabonidus were archaeologists, who may have personally dug up some of the objects in their collection.

Priestess of the Past

The Great Ziggurat temple in Ur, Iraq
Credit: ASAAD NIAZI/ Getty Images

While we know little about the specific motivations behind the collection — we don’t have records from Ennigaldi-Nanna about what she was doing, let alone her own words — an interest in history was common among monarchs of the period. They were the first home-grown leaders of Mesopotamia after centuries of foreign rule. History was perhaps a fitting preoccupation for an empire on its last legs, and one that often looked back toward past glories as a means of preserving power for the present.

Alongside her work as perhaps the world’s first museum curator, Ennigaldi-Nanna was the priestess of a moon deity called Sin or Nanna, whose rites and traditions her father had helped resurrect from centuries ago. She also ran a scribal school, which likely helped elites translate and understand the past.

Echoes of Ennigaldi at the Ashmoleon

Artifact from the museum
Credit: Photo 12/ Getty Images

It would take roughly two millennia after Ennigaldi-Nanna lived for European precursors of the modern museum to develop, first as “cabinets of curiosity” or “wonder rooms” assembled by wealthy aristocrats and church members in the 16th century. It would be a few more centuries still before the modern museum really got going, with institutions such as London’s British Museum (founded in 1753) and Paris’ Louvre (founded in 1793).

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which opened in 1683, is often said to have been the first modern museum to open its doors to the public. Perhaps it was Woolley’s days as an assistant there, back at the start of his career, that helped him recognize Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum for what it was — despite a gap of thousands of years and just as many miles.

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