Of museums, foxes… and cuneiform

By Ivo Dos Santos Martins

When the last rays of sun were rolling out, as the days grew cold, the trees unfolded and the lectures and borrels began in Leiden, I found myself lost in London. I have flown across the Channel to enjoy a two-month-long self-imposed academic exile in this Babylon-on-Thames in the wake of a “mad” king.

The Fighting Téméraire last port-of-call

I was based on the borough of Southwark for the duration, not very far from the 00o00’ 00” meridian. This part of London has a suburban feeling to it. Being a suburban boy, I quite enjoyed the neighbourhood. It is so peaceful and quiet that foxes cross the streets during the day just as freely as they do at night [Fig. 1].

Fig. 1 – A fox in broad daylight.

I was able to visit a few of the many public parks London has to offer: Greenwich [Fig. 2], St. James, Southwark, Hyde Park etc. These are all excellent green oases in the heart of this Babylon-on-Thames. And yet, I confess that I liked the smaller and unknown Russia Dock Woodland park and its Stave Hill [Fig. 3] better, as it often served as scenery for my sleepless nights.

Fig. 2 – Greenwich Park
Fig. 3 – Stave Hill

Moreover, the neighbourhood is steeped in history. During the last two centuries, this area was a lively commercial port welcoming inbound ships from Canada, Russia etc. It was also here that the HMS Téméraire, a ship-of-the-line which fought at Trafalgar, found its last port-of-call and was dismantled in 1838. Nowadays, the docks are either drained and turned into parks or have simply become leisure wharves; while the Fighting Téméraire’s last voyage lives on eternalised by the lively strokes of Turner [Fig. 4].

Fig. 4 – The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken. Painting by William Turner, now in the National Gallery.

There and back again: the routine

Each day I cross the clayish waters of the Thames to the heart of London. I spend my days around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, but mostly around Russel Square. After roughly one hour of commuting, I reach the square around eight a.m. Both the SOAS Library and the British Museum are still closed, so I bide my time reading at the Square or in a nearby café. At nine in the morning, I enter SOAS Library to continue my work in a more quiet place.

Alas, by 10:15 a.m. I must be on the move making my way to the British Museum [Fig. 5]. I still need to go through security and on no circumstance will I be late for the rare chance to read a twenty five hundred year old piece of history. As is to be expected, security is a big concern at the museum. All visitors and their bags are thoroughly checked every time they enter.

Fig. 5 – The colonnade of the British Museum

Within the museum, the same zealous attention applies. It has been somewhat tricky to access the Middle East Reading Room at the British Museum, as the shop, which serves as an antechamber to this Reading Room, is officially closed. Often, the security personnel deniesstudents access or locks the doors while the students are still inside the room.

Thankfully, the Reading Room staff has been equally zealous in solving the situation. It will surely be solved from November onwards, once the new exhibition opens its doors.

Once I gain access to the Reading Room, I take my place on one of the long old wooden tables. In front of me, there is always a small black mat, a lamp, and a large upholstered wooden tray labelled with my name. On it, there are fifteen clay tablets or fragments. Most objects have their own cardboard box, in which they rest upon a cotton bed. Some bigger objects such as joined literary tablets or cylinders lack such a box. Curiously, students are only required to wear gloves when handling metal objects and pottery sherds. When handling tablets made of clay, such precaution is not observed.

What lays ahead are five and a half hours to study, copy and read millenary royal inscriptions, literary fragments of wisdom and historical writings that show but a glimpse of political and intellectual world of Babylon during the first millennium BCE.

As if that was not enough, the Reading Room merits a visit by itself. Under its high ceiling the study of the Middle East is disposed on two floors. The first floor harbours a library, used by the department staff, and wide windows designed to flood the room with light; the ground floor, divided into twelve bays with eleven tall cabinets each, houses but a small portion of the cuneiform collections owned by the museum.

At 4 p.m. the Reading Room closes for visitors. Packing my things, I cross Montague Place and Russell Square in the opposite direction and return to the library of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The SOAS Library with its four open levels full of books is impressive. And it is also useful, once you crack the peculiar reference system. Here, cramped into a small workspace, I spend the remainder of my time. Normally, I check the readings done during the day, read on my research topic and try to write. When SOAS Library closes, I board the 188 and head back to suburbia. Tomorrow will be another day.

Some other time perhaps…

At its inception, this research trip to London had two main objectives. The first one has a somewhat broad scope, namely to gain some experience in reading and collating Neo- and Late Babylonian cuneiform tablets. The second aim, more zeroed in on my current PhD research, was to access, collate and copy an important literary text from that same period.

This tablet, which has been published twice before, is commonly known as the Verse Account [Fig. 6]. Usually, this artefact is displayed at the British Museum as a highlight concerning the last Babylonian monarch, Nabonidus. Due to its popularity and the fact that it is on display, it is difficult to gain access to this source. However, for the time being, it is even harder to gain access to the source than usual. As it turns out, the artefact is part of an exhibition on political dissent through the ages, guest curated by Ian Hislop. Unfortunately, this central objective has to be postponed. Yet, more than enough tablets are accessible to me, so I will be able to fulfil my secondary aim.

Fig. 6 – A brief glimpse at the Verse Account

A museum of the world, for the world

By now, the British Museum is an old and cherished institution both in and outside the United Kingdom. It is both a cultural centre hosting various events and also modern art; and a house of tradition where the wall clocks are still winded by hand every now and then…

Nowhere else is this respect for tradition more manifest than in the so-called Enlightenment Gallery. This gallery aims to reproduce the original configuration of the museum. Two hundred and sixty tall cabinets exhibit books and artefacts, several display cases are disposed through the hall. Classical statues intermingled with modern ones, representing the first curators and Sir Hans Sloan, the “spiritual founder” of the museum, lay around the room. And, testifying that the early inclinations of the institute were just as vast and international as the modern ones, a replica of the Rosetta Stone is also on display here, upon a display stand similar to the one which held the real artefact in 1801.

Despite its name, The British Museum has indeed become “grande maison des étrangers” as an anonymous prophet announced in 1845 [1]. But, contrary to his calamitous view, this is a good thing. From staff to visitors, the world comes here to tend to and to see the treasures of the world. Moreover, the museum is an important asset for research fields with an international standing such as Assyriology. This worldwide scope has been the main argument presented by the British Museum when ownership of possessions such as the Elgin Marbles are contested. These worldwide famous archaeological remains, named after the British official who secured their acquisition and transport to the museum, were once part of the Parthenon in Athens. There is a lively debate on whether these marbles should remain at the British Museum or if they should be returned to Athens’ Acropolis Museum.

Babylon-on-Thames AKA London

On Sundays, I take a leave from work. Its time bury my thoughts on something else and explore the city. All and all, I expected a much darker and more oppressive metropolis. Gratefully, the heavy smog is now only a thing of memory enclosed on the pages of Dickens, and hopeful billboards announce zero emissions in the city centre in a near future.

And, as the cherry on top, the last and resilient Summer days mostly keep rain and fog away. It is nice to stroll along the banks of the Thames [Fig. 7], to walk in the public parks and to chase squirrels and foxes around. It is equally good to enjoy the many free of charge museums like the Tate Modern (which besides contemporary art offers a great view of the city [Fig. 8]) or the Museum of Natural History in Kensington with its majestic hanging blue whale skeleton [Fig. 9].

Fig. 7 – The Thames Barrier
Fig. 8 – The view from the Tate
Fig. 9 – The blue whale

More interesting still is the city itself and its people. This is truly a Babylon-on-Thames: diverse and multicultural. Several communities live here together, everyone goes about their daily strife shoulder to shoulder. And yet, this Babylon is not just a majestic, beautiful and lively city, there’s a darker side as well. Just take a short bus ride and pay attention. You will see several young and able-bodied men sleeping on the streets and under the bridges. For them, this city is all but beautiful or kind.

In any case, because I am only a tourist here, I can still find some charm to the city and its views. It is amazing to see how the old and the new play with each other [Fig. 10]. I especially like the way the history encroaches itself on the modern city [Fig. 11 and 12], or rather the solutions the modern city has found to preserve and embrace the old cities of London [Fig. 13]. The whole city feels like an open-air museum.

Fig. 10 – Street Art Shakespeare
Fig. 11 – Roman wall, modern hotel
Fig. 12 – The millenary London Stone on a modern building


Fig. 13 – From the narrow road to the High Finance

With all said, seen and done, it is about time to wander on to other shores and say: Dear, damn’d distracting town, farewell! [2][Fig. 14].

Fig. 14 – Farewell London!

[1] “Situations in the Museum, as they became vacant by death – no one ever retires – are given to German and Italian boys; so that in time our great national institution will be one grande maison des étrangers” ‘Correspondent of the Edinburgh Review’ 1845, Madden collection, fol. 85 in Millard, Edward (1974) That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum: 172.

[2] Alexander Pope, “A Farewell to London”.

* This study trip was sponsored by Leiden University Fund/Dr. C.L. van Steeden Fonds and the ERC Project Persia and Babylonia.

An ancient Near Eastern scholarly hub in the capital of the Alps

By Evelien Vanderstraeten

From 16-20 July, leading and upcoming scholars in Ancient Near Eastern Studies gathered at the Leopold-Franzens University in Innsbruck (Austria) for the 64th edition of the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (RAI). During one week the beautiful city of Innsbruck was the scientific hub where old and new friends met, swords were drawn as discussions heated up and were parried with good arguments and a nightcap or two in the local pubs.

Maria-Theresien Straße (Innsbruck, Austria) with pubs, restaurants, shops and a magnificent view of the Nordkette mountains.

The RAI is an annual, international conference on Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology, Philology, History and Art History. Each year a different institute somewhere in the world takes on its organization. This year’s host was the Leopold-Franzens University in Innsbruck. Almost celebrating its 350th anniversary, the University, founded in 1669, holds an outstanding tradition in the Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Figures like Professor Thomas Friedrich (1855 – 1927) or his successor Carl Friedrich Lehmann-Haupt (1861–1938) were pivotal for initiating these studies at Innsbruck.

View of Innsbruck between Seegrube (1.905 m – 6.250 ft.) and Hafelekar (2256 m. – 7400 ft.) (Nordkette, Innsbruck, Austria).

A diverse program

This year’s RAI also hosted the 12th Melammu-Symposium which resulted in a diverse program of 20 parallel sessions and 17 workshops taking place over 5 days. The joint theme this year was “The Intellectual Heritage of the Ancient Near East’’. It refers to an aim of the Melammu-project to investigate the cross-cultural influences of Mesopotamian cultures and societies from the second millennium B.C.E to the Islamic period. There were sessions and workshops on Anatolia and its Culture, Kassite administration, Sumer and Elam, Urartu, Babylonia and Assyria. New ideas put forward by upcoming academics were interchanged with thoughts and opinions of established researchers. This provided fireworks in a workshop like (Mis)use of Sources: Ancient and Modern.

An objective of the RAI and the annual Melammu-symposia is to enhance the dialogue between assyriologists and archaeologists. This is something close to my heart, as I enjoyed both an archaeological and assyriological training albeit separate from each other. Working together and not apart generates the best results. Workshops and sessions on studies that combine the archaeological data as well as the text corpora were among other Archaeological and Textual Perspective on Ritual and Religion and Current Archaeological Research and Epigraphic Research in Iraq.

An evolving discipline

Next to gaining insight into the lives of some elusive predecessors like A.H. Layard, the session Towards a History of Assyriology emphasized the evolution the field has known. From being a more inward looking discipline with a focus on making and publishing copies, to serving the interest of biblical studies, the field has evolved to fully engage with other fields of research such as the computer sciences, sociology and anthropology. It is clear that so much more is yet to be done. Throughout the week’s lectures the usefulness of for instance Social Network Analysis in Ancient Near Eastern Studies has once again been put forward.

During the workshop Methodological Developments in Prosopographical Studies Prof. dr. Waerzeggers and dr. Groß presented the online relational database Prosopography of Babylonia. This research tool for experts and non-experts is being developed under the auspices of the ERC project Persia and Babylonia (ERC CoG-project ID 682241). The sources are the thousands of cuneiform clay tablets belonging to private archives dating between 620 and 330 BCE. People’s names, roles, professions and relations mentioned in these tablets are being systematically collected and inserted in the database. From the thousands of attestations found in these tablets, unique individuals are being identified. They will be presented via itemized biographies. With multiple flexible queries it will be possible to search for tablet information, objects mentioned in the texts, attestations, spellings and itemized biographies. We don’t have to wait too long! The first batch will be made available as soon as early 2019.

Presentation of Prosopography of Babylonia, followed by Q&A.

Recent years has seen a peak in digital initiatives for Assyriology (e.g. NaBuCCo, PROSOBAB, Oracc, MTAAC, PNA database, LaBaSi, NATC, Achemenet). They make the exceptional data recorded in the cuneiform tablets easy accessible to a broad audience and for a wide range of research purposes. Thousands of cuneiform clay tablets are namely scattered across different museums and research centers or stuck in different stages of publication. Several of these digital initiatives were presented during this and the previous RAI’s. The discussions following these lectures and workshops highlighted some growing pains that need to be addressed in the near future. This to ensure that future research can build on previous research, instead of redoing the numerous hours spent in collecting the data, and to ensure that these groundbreaking initiatives are long-lived. Questions to be answered are: How long after a project is finished are these digital initiatives accessible for the public and kept up-to-date? How to adapt to future ICT developments? How to connect these digital initiatives together? Another point raised was the correct citation of these digital initiatives and the protection of the intellectual ownership rights of individual scholars whose publications are being used. This last and interesting question of intellectual ownership rights was also raised at the end of Wednesday’s IAA Plenary Session. As you see, enough exciting thoughts to work with and tackle in our everyday work and at the next RAIs!

Elections and ethics

The Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (RAI) is supported by the International Association for Assyriology (IAA). This is a non-political and non-profit organization that on an international level aims among other to advance the research on the Ancient Near East and to stimulate debates on difficulties encountered in this field of research. The question of the proper professional, ethical conduct when faced with cuneiform tablets derived from illegal digs, and when working in countries that are torn by war, or that violate the human rights, is merely one of the points on the agenda. Discussed at several previous RAI’s, including last year’s 63rd RAI in Marburg, a written guide for ethical practice was presented and accepted by a majority of votes at this year’s IAA Plenary Session on Wednesday. Note that it is a guide with recommendations which each IAA member or non-member, student and scholar alike can choose to apply according to his or her conscience. This meeting was presided one last time by Prof. dr. Cécile Michel, who stepped down as president of the IAA. I speak for all, as we thank her for her unwavering efforts as president and welcome the newly elected president Prof. dr. Walther Sallaberger.

Hafelekar (Nordkette, Innsbruck, Austria)


During lunch or in the evening there was time to enjoy some of the beautiful sites of Innsbruck. The city is surrounded by the impressive mountains of the Nordkette and the Patscherkofel. A Cable Car can take you up to the Hafelekar in less than 30 minutes from where you can walk to the top. There you have a spectacular view of the Tyrolean Alps and the city of Innsbruck. In the Old Town of Innsbruck a visit to the Neuhof with its famous Golden Dachl is a delight. This roof of 2657 fire-gilded copper tiles above an alcove balcony was added for the wedding of the Emperor Maximilian I with Bianca Maria Sforza. Some of the other splendors to visit are the Hofkirche containing the grave of Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) surrounded by 28 bronze statues, the Hofburg restored by Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) and refurbished for Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) and Schloss Ambras. The organizers of this year’s RAI were so kind to arrange a delicious Tyrolean Buffet on Thursday evening and a thrilling Near Eastern Pub quiz on Tuesday evening.

Golden Roof (Innsbruck, Austria)

Bienvenue à … ?

Le musée du Louvre, le jardin du Luxembourg, la Seine, la Tour Eiffel, le fromage, le vin, …

You guessed it! Let’s get that calendar out, because next year we are going to Paris! The 65th anniversary edition of the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale will convene from 8-12 July. Keeping in mind the grandeur of Paris with its rich history, cathedrals, palaces, and historical monarchs, next year’s theme “Gods, Kings and Capitals in the Ancient Near East” is well chosen!

À la prochaine!