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Babylon: New Exhibition, New Ideas

27th November 2008

Jointly with the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society

Irving Finkel, The British Museum

Lecture abstract

This lecture took as its stimulus the recent opening of the British Museum exhibition Babylon: Myth and Reality (November 13 2008-March 15 2009). It attempted by means of illustrations drawn from the exhibits to encompass in outline the span covered by the exhibition itself, with the benefit of ideas and suggestions that could not be incorporated directly in the panels and labels of the display.

Babylon poster

The exhibition, which has sought to juxtapose the reality of ancient Babylon (as revealed through archaeology and inscriptions) with its later reputations (as conveyed through history, mythology and art), is an unusual presentation in British Museum terms. This fertile and broad topic opens many unexpected windows, not least the part-dependence of the ideas and images of Old Testament historical passages on the realia of Babylon (such as the Tower of Babel and Nebuchadnezzar's ziggurat), or the extent to which choice cuneiform inscriptions overlap and dovetail with Old Testament history. In addition, emphasis was laid on such hard-edged phenomena that have made their way from Babylon into the modern world by way of the Greeks: the division of time-measurement into sixtieths, the zodiac and the horoscope, remote achievements that are still alive in our culture.

Strong emphasis was laid on cuneiform tablets, of which a healthy sprinkling made its defiant way into the exhibition, in a determined effort to make all visitors look at them properly for the first time, and appreciate how wonderful they are.

Dr Irving Finkel is Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum.

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