Monday, 28 November 2016

#19: Babylonian map of the world

Illustration by Minho Kwon

This has proved to be one of the objects which has stayed longest in my mind during five years spent off and on writing Curiosities from the Cabinet– a Babylonian tablet made in 700-500 BC sitting in the middle of room 55 in the British Museum. Assistant Keeper of the Department of the Middle East Irving Finkel explains that it is ‘the world’s oldest usable map’. The Babylonians who drew it were picturing their known world – a circle surrounded with a ring of ‘bitter water’ and six stylised mountains where there are wonders like ‘winged birds [which] cannot flap their own wings’, and oxen which can run fast enough to catch wild animals. 

 ‘The real principle [of the map] is to anchor in position some of the heroes and important things in mythology and odd things that were to be seen if you went far enough,’ says Dr Finkel. ‘It’s an attempt to bring a lot of disparate material under control.’

Perhaps the tablet’s staying power for me is because it is a document as much as an object. Its words and pictures throw out links to other times and civilisations, such as the Judeans who lived alongside the Babylonians and borrowed the flood myth from them (which the tablet’s script touches on), or to later medieval myths recounting the fabulous things to be seen on voyages. Also because of the questions it throws up, often unanswerable – which birds were those? Was it purely a kind of ‘mental map’, to help people understand their world, or might it have been actually used for navigation? 

After speaking to me about the tablet for half an hour at his desk in the British Museum, Dr Finkel went off script and chatted about what he thought museums were for, showing that even very experienced museum professionals still puzzle over the nature and function of their institutions. He commented:

‘Museums are not meant to be universities. In my opinion the correct way to categorise a museum is as a wonder house. The museum should be full of wonders so when you see something you think ‘I never knew they could make something that beautiful’, or ‘I never knew they had earrings like that all that time ago.’ You see something and questions present themselves and sometimes you answer them, sometimes you don’t.

‘Another idea is to connect objects typologically - toys together, cosmetics together, or glasses, dolls, tea strainers, whatever they may be. I have always loved those cases that are absolutely stuffed so every time you go there you see something you’ve never seen before. People’s lives are beset by the same problems, and by and large they tend to respond in the same ways. But the things they produce are always characteristic of their part of the world and their artistic tradition. If you put objects with the same purpose from different parts of the world together, then visitors will automatically supply their own context, and the objects will fizz into a unity.’