‘Material glory’ of Yale Babylonian Collection comes alive in new exhibit

Featuring 150 unique artifacts, “Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights from the Yale Babylonian Collection” opens on Saturday, April 6 at the Peabody Museum.
Ancient Babylonian tablets with recipes written in cuneiform — the earliest written recipes in history.

The Yale Babylonian Collection houses four tablets with recipes for various types of stews, soups, and pies. Three of these tablets date back to the early second millennium and are the earliest written recipes in history. (Image credit: Klaus Wagensonner)

The many facets of the world of ancient Mesopotamia — a culture in some respects distant and alien but in others strangely similar to ours today — will be on display in a new exhibition at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights from the Yale Babylonian Collection” — featuring 150 artifacts including original pieces, images, and translations dating from the mid-4th millennium BC to the 1st century AD — opens on Saturday, April 6 at the Peabody Museum, 170 Whitney Ave. The exhibit was curated by Agnete W. Lassen, associate curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection; Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology at Yale; and Klaus Wagensonner, postdoctoral researcher at Yale.

There are many ways in which the people who produced the objects on display in this exhibit resemble us. Falling in love, eating good food, and getting an education were concerns 4,000 years ago just as they are today,” says Lassen.

Video: highlighting Yale’s ancient cookbooks

Ancient Mesopotamia, known as the “Land Between the Rivers” and located in what is now Iraq and Syria, was the birthplace of writing, urban culture, the state, and many other concepts and institutions that shape our world to this day. It produced intriguing works of art, myths and epics celebrating gods and heroes, and treatises on mathematics, medicine, and astronomy.

 A terracotta plaque from ancient Mesopotamia which depicts a snarling mastiff wearing a collar.
In ancient Mesopotamia, dogs were faithful companions, guardians, and hunters. The dog was also associated with the goddess of healing, Gula. This terracotta plaque depicts a snarling mastiff wearing a collar. (Image credit: Klaus Wagensonner)

Among the items on view are an early account of the heroic king Gilgamesh campaigning to the Cedar Forest to slay the monster Huwawa; tablets with poems by the first named author in human history, the princess Enheduanna; the world’s oldest cookbooks with 4,000-year-old recipes; and astronomy tablets with the earliest prose descriptions of the celestial constellations. Most of the items are from the Yale Babylonian Collection, which was founded in 1911 and is today considered to be one of the major repositories of Mesopotamian artifacts outside of Iraq.

Curating this exhibition has been an exciting experience,” says Frahm. “Making a long-dead civilization speak again, through selected artifacts, is a challenging task, especially when many of these artifacts are small inscribed clay tablets and tiny cylinder seals. The exhibition designers and other staff at the Peabody have done a great job to display the exhibits in all their material glory, and I hope that we as curators have created a show that sheds light on the complex world of ancient Mesopotamia — on gods and kings, but also on merchants, students, priestesses, slaves, and rebels.”

Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks” is supported by Connecticut Humanities, Victoria K. DePalma, the Viscusi Fund of the Department of the Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, and the Hawkinson Conservation and Exhibition Fund. It will be on view through June 30, 2020. The Yale Peabody Museum is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Visit the museum admission page for more information


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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,