After a short flight to Berlin, the early train ride to Jena takes us through a misty East German countryside but also through the country’s rich intellectual history. In one of the beautiful valleys stands the town of Naumburg where young Nietzsche was once a boarder. Later, once in Jena and on the way to the Friedrich Schiller University, our itinerary through the winding streets takes us past the Old University Building where Karl Marx was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. But this is not the history our delegation of Assyriologists is seeking: our aim in coming to Jena is to travel to Nippur. The gate to this world is the door to the Institut für Orientalistik, Indogermanistik und Ur- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie.
Professor Manfred Krebernik welcomes us in a specially equipped classroom: daylight lamps stand on the tables, gloves are to be seen, and in the far back a strange robot-like creature with what seems to be two big black eyes is staring at an empty stand. The soft speech of the professor increases this feeling that we have penetrated into a very special place and time. Leading us to the well protected storage room where the Frau Professor Hilprecht Collection of Babylonian antiquities is preserved, he tells us the history of the collection and details its content while presenting to us some of the more emblematic tablets, carefully stored in their small black boxes. Once the presentation of the collection is completed, we proceed back to the main room where the Professor ascertains our wishes regarding the time periods and types of document we would like to work on. He then briefly disappears to the vault and returns with the clay tablet we will be working on for the coming days.
For me, Professor Krebernik selects a fired clay brick that gradually revealed its secrets, the first one being that he couldn’t have chosen better! As a social anthropologist specializing in the invention of tradition and on the uses of the past in the pursuit of political goals, this brick was to take me far back to the times of Assurbanipal (667–626 BCE) and even further. Built into the foundations of the Enlil Temple in Nippur, the notable fact about it is that it is inscribed in Sumerian and that the text is suspiciously similar to the building inscription of the Kassite King Adad-šuma-usur found in the foundations of the same temple. Why would Assurbanipal resort to this procedure? The question has occupied many scholars and is still debated.
For the next three days, we all decipher and copy our tablet under the watchful eye of Professor Krebernik. Every now and then, he hurries to the white board to effortlessly sketch the thousand-year-evolution of a particular Sumerian pictogram to the Neo Assyrian sign. Outside, the shopkeeper of a grocery store named “Baghdad” is smoking cigarettes, waiting for his next client.
3D tablets in the clouds
One day the two-eyed robot machine comes to life. The robot is a 3D scanner, the masterpiece of the Institute’s project to digitalize the content of the Frau Professor Hilprecht collection. As we gather around it to listen to a young student explain the procedure and witness the robot in action, one can’t help but wonder what the people of Nippur would have made of this strange sight.
Back in Helsinki, we started thinking about how we could let our colleagues and students benefit from the Institute's wish to open up its collection. Yet another journey began for these tablets, piercing the cloudy skies of Helsinki to materialize in the workshop of the Archaeology Department of the University of Helsinki, thanks to the help of Wesa, our partner in this adventure.
Last week, these tablets were passed around the table of the main meeting room of the National Museum of Finland, where researchers of ANEE and curators of museums around Finland regularly gather to sketch the outline of a an exhibition focusing on Migration in the Empires of the First Millennium BCE with one major ambition: to introduce the people of Nippur and of the Ancient Near East to the Finnish public!