Objects tell stories

Objects tell stories about the history of the ancient Near East and the lives of people, but also about the history of Finnish researchers and explorers.
Clay tablets and cuneiform writing

These clay tablets contain texts written in cuneiform writing. The Sumerians developed the cuneiform writing system around 3500-2600 BCE. Cuneiform signs gradually spread and became the writing system for other languages spoken in the region, such as Akkadian. Cuneiform is the world's oldest known writing system, alongside ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, that can be deciphered.

The earliest clay tablets containing pictographic writing from Mesopotamia date back to the Late Uruk period, around 3300 BCE. However, early symbol systems are known from the Paleolithic or early Stone Age. Later, during the Neolithic or younger Stone Age, more complex systems emerged. As these languages are no longer known or readable, they are referred to as proto-writing. They, along with writing systems of the Vinča-Turdaș culture in the Danube Valley and the Jiahu culture in China (around 6600 BCE), indicate that the invention of writing was not a singular revelation but the result of a long and intricate process.

Hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets have been preserved from the entire recorded history of Mesopotamia. Cuneiform texts have been found on wall reliefs and various objects, ranging from large steles to small clay tablets the size of a memo. The clay tablets are often smaller than imagined, with many fitting easily in the palm of one's hand. Words formed by cuneiform signs were impressed into moist clay using a sharp stylus, after which the clay was either fired or dried. The tablets contain various types of texts, including administrative documents, trade lists, receipts, literature, and personal correspondence. The world's oldest surviving literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was also discovered inscribed on clay tablets. Gilgamesh was a legendary king of Uruk and a real historical figure, around whom an entire literature developed. The stories associated with him circulated orally for a long time before being recorded centuries later. The Neo-Assyrian version of the Gilgamesh epic is one of the best attested and preserved narratives from the ancient world, recording the episodic adventures of Gilgamesh and his savage companion Enkidu, resulting in the latter’s death, which spurs Gilgamesh to look for the secret of immortality. The Neo-Assyrian version of the text also contains an iteration of the flood story Atrahasis, which has been compared with Noah’s flood in the Hebrew Bible. The Flood Tablet, now in the British Museum, tells of the gods sending a flood to destroy the earth, while one was instructed to make a boat. While the tablet itself is from the 7th century BCE, details of this narrative have been preserved in Sumerian poems from the 3rd millennium BCE.

Interest in the study of the ancient Near East spread when ancient writing systems, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs, were deciphered in the mid-19th century. Museology and archaeology began to develop as sciences, although they operated from a Western perspective. European researchers conducted major archaeological excavations in Egypt and the ancient cities of Nineveh and Nimrud in what is now Iraq. For example, tens of thousands of tablets containing cuneiform writing have been found in Nineveh, preserving both scientific texts and literature, including parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ancient Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and one of the largest cities of its time. It was destroyed in 612 BCE during the conquests of the Medes and Babylonians. The city fascinated Western explorers as it is frequently mentioned in biblical narratives. In addition to the famous library assembled during the reign of King Ashurbanipal, several palaces have been discovered in Nineveh.

Nebuchadnezzar II's clay cylinder and the provenance of artifacts

This clay cylinder dates back to the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE). The cuneiform script around the cylinder tells about the construction of a temple dedicated to the god Lugal-Marad in the city of Marad in Babylonia. The city was situated in Tell Wannat es-Sadum, present-day Iraq. Clay cylinders were ritual objects that were buried in the foundations of temples, palaces, or fortresses. They were intended to be read by future rulers and gods. The same text was often copied onto several cylinders. Clay cylinders from Nebuchadnezzar II are also found in collections around the world.

King Nabopolassar and Crown Prince Nebuchadnezzar II conquered the western parts of the Assyrian Empire and brought them under Babylonian rule. The name Nebuchadnezzar is derived from the Old Testament, and in Akkadian, the name is Nabu-kudurri-uṣur. Nebuchadnezzar restored and rebuilt several temples in the city of Babylon, which was already over a thousand years old at that time. These building projects and agricultural reforms led to the flourishing of the region.

The origin of the clay cylinder, which is now part of the archaeological collections of the Finnish Heritage Agency, is unknown. It was purchased in Paris in 1913 by Harri Holma and his friend, anthropologist Kai Donner, from the well-known Iraqi antiquities dealer Ibrahim Elias Géjoult. Many of the items sold by Géjoult can be found in various museums, including the British Museum. Harri Holma, born in 1886 in Hämeenlinna, Finland, studied oriental languages and Assyriology in Helsinki, Leipzig, Berlin, and London. After Finland gained independence, he served as an ambassador in countries such as Germany, France, and Italy. Most of the clay tablets containing cuneiform script displayed in the "Exploring the Ancient Near East" exhibition were likely acquired from the same seller in Paris.

Provenance refers to a precise information about the origin and ownership chain of a museum object. This information is important for verifying the authenticity of the object. Knowledge of the place of discovery aids in the study of the object and increases its scientific value. Especially when an object is from the era of Western colonialism, it is crucial to ensure that it was ethically obtained from a legal owner. Unfortunately, the high demand for ancient artifacts, such as clay tablets with cuneiform script, coins, and sculptures, in the antiquities market has led to looting of archaeological finds in the Near East.

Many Near Eastern countries have enacted strict laws to regulate the excavation and export of archaeological objects. Legislation concerning archaeological objects was passed in Iraq in 1936, while Egypt and the former Ottoman Empire banned the illegal trade of archaeological objects in the 19th century. In 1983, Egypt imposed a complete ban on the export of archaeological objects.

World War II caused immense damage to material cultural heritage, including buildings and objects. After the war, there was a strong international desire to build peace through international cooperation in science, education, and culture. In 1945, the international organization UNESCO was established for this purpose. One milestone in UNESCO's cultural heritage work is the international project to rescue sites and objects belonging to Nubian culture from the Aswan High Dam. The Nubian region, located between present-day Egypt and Sudan, was once home to a vast kingdom. Finland participated in the international rescue project from 1961 to 1964, together with other Nordic countries. Nearly 500 sites, 4,200 burials, and about 2,600 rock paintings.

The findings of archaeological excavations were divided between Sudan and the Nordic countries. A selection of these unique but rarely exhibited objects still belongs to the archaeological collections of the Finnish Heritage Agency.

At the international level, UNESCO's 1970 Convention is a significant step in the protection of archaeological sites and objects. The goal of the Convention is to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage, and it has been ratified by 141 countries to date. Finland incorporated the Convention into its legislation in 1999.

A key value emphasized in laws and conventions is the ability of local communities to have control over their own cultural heritage. Communities can autonomously use their cultural heritage in the way they desire. For example, in the 1970s, the Iraqi government strengthened its ties with other countries by donating ancient artifacts. Former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen also received donations from Iraq.


Egyptian burial coffin and the fragile legacy of the ancient Near East

This wooden coffin or sarcophagus belonged to Ankhefenamun, a high official of the Temple of Karnak. His wife, Tanetnebu, was a cult singer in the same temple. As Egyptians ceased to build tombs and began to bury the dead in coffins in communal graves, illustrations originally intended for the walls of tombs were painted on the coffins.  Pharaoh Amenhotep I, who was worshipped as a god after his death, is illustrated on the base panel of the coffin. Next to him are the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. In the upper part of the coffin, the sun-god Rahorakhte protects the head of the deceased in the shape of a falcon, with his wings extended. The sides of the coffin illustrate the deceased and his wife receiving the gifts sacrificed by their son. 

On the outer surface at the sides is a rare portrayal of the deceased’s funeral. Read from left to right, first comes the catafalque, which is drawn to the grave. Next come the bearers of the grave-goods and the weeper women. The ritual of opening the mouth is depicted in front of the grave. The Sem Priest restores to the deceased the abilities he had in life: to be able to hear, speak, digest food, and procreate. In the last scene on the right, the wife of the deceased bids her last farewell to the mummy standing before the grave.

This coffin ended up in Finland through the efforts of the explorer Georg August Wallin. He acquired the coffin in Cairo in 1848. Wallin sent numerous other objects to Finland for research purposes from his travels in the Middle East. During its long journey, Ankhefenamun's mummy disappeared, and the empty coffin arrived in the collections of the Imperial Alexander University of Helsinki in 1860. Later, these collections were merged with the National Museum's collections.

The interest in Egypt grew in 18th-century Europe, particularly due to Napoleon's military campaigns. Vast quantities of ancient Egyptian artifacts were brought to Europe as a result of conquests and explorations. In Finland as well, the collections of the Finnish Heritage Agency and museums contain hundreds of objects originating from Egypt. The fascination with Egypt was so strong that it is referred to as Egyptomania. Learn more about Wallin and Egyptomania in the Researchers section of this virtual exhibition!

The Western interest in the past of the Middle East has significantly influenced its material cultural heritage. Objects from the region are preserved in museums worldwide, and efforts are made to protect local archaeological sites through international agreements and legislation. The transportation of archaeological objects between countries is generally regulated and requires permits. In Egypt, the trade and export of ancient artifacts began to be regulated by laws in the 19th century as their export to Western countries became more common. The protection of cultural heritage on an international level is promoted by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, established in 1945.

However, the material cultural heritage of the Middle East remains endangered. Like in other parts of the world, construction and land use have a significant impact on the preservation of cultural heritage sites. Wars and conflicts destroy cultural heritage sites and museum collections across the globe. Additionally, archaeological findings from the Middle East are sought after in the antiquities market. Through online platforms, illegal antiquities trade has become easier and more widespread. The interest in archaeological objects fuels looting and the illicit export of artifacts. In addition to UNESCO's cultural heritage conventions, European Union regulations, local legislation, and international cooperation are crucial factors in preventing illegal activities targeting cultural heritage.