Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The British Museum – part 2

I've finally had an opportunity to go through more of my London trip pictures, so it's time to finish talking about our favorite spot in London: The British Museum. In my first post I covered some of the larger exhibits that we saw, including the Parthenon marbles. The museum is much more than a few notorious exhibits, however, and we were impressed by a number of the smaller artifacts they had.

Cuneiform tablets
Cuneiform tablets from Ur (top) and "probably Shuruppak" (bottom), dating to 3,000 – 2,650 BC and ~2,500 BC respectively.

Here we have written works dating back well more than 4,000 years, a glimpse into the history of human culture. However, these aren't philosophical works, or records of kings and conquests. They're administrative documents detailing mundane tasks of everyday life, such as the delivery of barley to a temple (top) or the payments owed to and received by a governor (lower left).

There were, however, some grand stories included on some of their cuneiform tablets. Take, for instance, this one:

Flood story
The Babylonian story of the flood, written in 1,635 BC.

For those who have trouble seeing it, here's the full legend:
"This tablet is one of three which contained the Epic of Atrahasis, hero of the Babylonian flood story.

"It recounts how the gods, after several attempts to destroy mankind, which had been making too much noise for their comfort, eventually arranged for a flood to drown the world. The god of wisdom, Enki, surreptitiously warned his devotee Atrahasis of what was to happen, thereby enabling him to prepare a boat in which he, his household and his animals were saved.
Sound familiar?

They also had early biological models:

Babylonian model of a liver
Clay model of a sheep's liver

If this weren't made out of clay, and around 4,000 years old, I could easily see this as an old specimen from a zoology or A&P lab. However, instead of using this model to teach about the biology of the liver, the Babylonians were using the model to teach students to read omens. From what I can tell, each part of the liver has been labeled with the omen of what will happen when a blemish is found in that location. I'm glad biology has advanced past the omen stage.

There were also tablets detailing astronomical findings:

Haley's Comet observation
Babylonian record of the observation of Haley's Comet in 164BC.

This was virtually the last exhibit we saw at the British Museum; the guards had started shooing us out of the building, and as we were quickly walking through a section my SO spotted this tablet in the corner of a much larger display case. The museum has dated this clay tablet to September 22-28, 164BC; apparently Babylonian observatories kept detailed astronomical records dating back to the 7th century BC. This tablet recording Haley's Comet would have been my favorite find at the museum, if not for the one pictured below:

Wrong grade of copper
Clay tablet containing "a letter complaining about the delivery of the wrong grade of copper after a Gulf voyage." The tablet was written ~1,750 BC.

I can easily imagine the Babylonian who wrote this angrily stamping the clay, completely pissed off that he's received the wrong item.

It's amazing how little people have changed over the past 4,000 years.

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