The World’s Oldest Museum
The story behind the world's oldest museum, built by a Babylonian princess 2,500 years ago
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.
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.
Ennigaldi's museum was just one of many remarkable finds made by Leonard Woolley, generally considered to be among the first of the modern archaeologists. Born in London in 1880, Woolley studied at Oxford before becoming the assistant keeper at the school's Ashmolean Museum. It was there that Arthur Evans - himself a renowned archaeologist for his work with the Minoan civilization on the Greek island of Crete - decided that Woolley would be of more use out in the field, and so Evans sent him to Rome to begin his excavating career.
Although Woolley had a longstanding interest in excavation, he had little or no formal training in how to actually go about doing it. He would be left to teach himself on the job, and many of the techniques and approaches he came up with would prove hugely influential to future archaeologists. Just before the outbreak of World War I, he excavated the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish alongside his younger colleague T.E. Lawrence, who would soon cast aside his archaeological career for his more famous role as...well, as Lawrence of Arabia. You can see the two together in the photo on the left.
But it was Woolley's work in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur that would really cement his legacy. Beginning in 1922, Woolley excavated huge swaths of an ancient city-state that had endured for thousands of years, from the ancient Sumerian civilization of 3000 BCE to the Neo-Babylonian Empire of 500 BCE. One of his biggest discoveries - you might call it the Sumerian equivalent of King Tut's tomb - was the tomb of Shubad, a woman of great importance in 27th century Sumer whose tomb had remained undisturbed through the ensuing 4,600 years.
However, it was the discovery of something from the very end of Ur's existence that interests us in this particular case. And for that, we might as well go straight to the words of Leonard Woolley himself.