Image Source: IO9.
Imagine travelling back in time 2,500 years to a museum which preserved artifacts that the Ancients thought were ancient! IO9 is reporting on a fascinating mid-1920s' discovery of a Babylonian museum - the world's first - and the tale it told of its own dying culture. The museum was located in a palace in Ur, once an important city-state seat in ancient Sumeria. Ur was later absorbed into neo-Babylonia.
The archaeologists were working on the palace of Nabonidus, the last neo-Babylonian king. They found a strange chamber where his daughter, Princess Ennigaldi, had created her museum. They could not understand why the room contained artifacts from much earlier time periods, all mixed together:
In 1925, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered a curious collection of artifacts while excavating a Babylonian palace. They were from many different times and places, and yet they were neatly organized and even labeled. Woolley had discovered the world's first museum.
The artifacts in the museum were between sixteen hundred and seven hundred years older than the palace itself, which dated from 530 BCE. In other words, Wooley's 1920s' archaeological discovery in the palace at Ur extended tangible human memory back to just over two thousand years before the time of Christ.It's easy to forget that ancient peoples also studied history - Babylonians who lived 2,500 years ago were able to look back on millennia of previous human experience. That's part of what makes the museum of Princess Ennigaldi so remarkable. Her collection contained wonders and artifacts as ancient to her as the fall of the Roman Empire is to us. But it's also a grim symbol of a dying civilization consumed by its own vast history.
Wooley felt that the museum and the study of history for this civilization was a sign of over-sophistication and ultimate decline. While the great city of Ur was winding down and coming to the end of two thousand years of history, its royal family was obsessed with preserving a once-glorious past. By around 500 BCE (a mere thirty years after the founding of the Princess's palace museum), Ur was abandoned. Its territories would soon be absorbed by the new upstart Persian Empire.
This whole story makes me reflect on my review of Paul Laroquod's blog yesterday, including further remarks in the comments section on the current declining value of copyright. This story about Princess Ennigaldi's museum, in my mind, provides some justfication for copyright as a historical tool; it is more than a formula for declaring possession of property and enforcing power over that property in the name of profit. Copyright is also a marker of time; it is a signpost of intellectual precedent and associated historical legacies. Through copyright, we can establish not only who had an idea first, but (perhaps more importantly) the sequence in which ideas and created objects appeared in our culture. The potential of doing away with copyright includes the potential of living in an ahistorical world, where date-stamps (easily manipulated) become meaningless. Our perspective on the sequence of time as measured through our creative achievements will disappear, unless that sequence is described via another legal or other sort of convention.
H. P. Lovecraft was fixated on the idea that annotated scholarship allowed us to penetrate the clouds of the distant past. Carefully following citations (that is, the trail of stated copyright) was like following the trail of breadcrumbs back through time. By tracing historical documents to ever-older tomes, the truly erudite scholar could leapfrog backward through millennia. In a similar manner, a museum curator could follow the artifacts backward. Lovecraft suggested that the right sort of occult object, invested with mystical-temporal magic, could allow a Magus to move from the realm of the known past (history), to the near-forgotten past (legend), to the forgotten past (myth), to the realm of Ur-past (the occult), the deepest past of all. Antiquarians unwittingly crossing oceans of time and disturbing the information and forces that slept there was also a common theme in the stories of M. R. James. James's stories often start in universities, where a scholar has turned up some curio that is more trouble than its worth because it provides a gateway to past time. In those past eras, James hinted that some elements of human knowledge were discarded, forgotten and left behind for a reason, because they were unmanageable and dangerous. Toying with them in the present would only awaken their dreadful potential.
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