Handling History at the Harvard Semitic Museum

Today marks the end of my first full week as an intern at the Harvard Semitic Museum in Cambridge, MA (free admission!). The museum gets its name from its focus on the Ancient Near East, which was inhabited mostly by Semitic-speaking cultures. Semitic languages include languages spoken today, such as Hebrew and Arabic, but also include some ancient languages that are no longer spoken, such as Akkadian, which was the lingua franca for much of Ancient Near Eastern history.

"SemiticMuseumHarvard" by John Stephen Dwyer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SemiticMuseumHarvard.jpg#/media/File:SemiticMuseumHarvard.jpg
The museum has been in its current location for over 100 years. Photo Credit- “SemiticMuseumHarvard” by John Stephen Dwyer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The museum’s collection includes many cuneiform clay tablets, pottery, other archaeological finds, and a full scale model of a typical Ancient Israelite four-room-house. The Semitic Museum also has an impressive collection of plaster casts of Ancient Near Eastern monumental stone inscriptions and wall reliefs. Among the casts that the museum has on display are the Code of Hammurabi, an 18th century BCE Babylonian law code, and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which displays a king of Israel bowing to Shalmaneser.

Most of my work at the museum will be put towards two long-term projects. The first, which I am working on with another intern, is to systematically go through storage cabinets, and record the items and their locations. We are currently going through artifacts that were found during archaeological excavation at Nuzi, a site in North Eastern Iraq. Nuzi was a provincial capital under Hurrian rule during the 15th and 14th centuries BCE, and that is when these artifacts are from.

This is what happens when you search "Nuzi" in Google Maps
This is what happens when you search “Nuzi” in Google Maps

My other primary focus will be working to catalog and organize archival materials that belonged or where related to Theresa Goell, an archaeologist who did a lot of work in the 1950s. Goell excavated sites in modern Turkey, including the sites of Tarsus, Nemrud Dagh, and Samsat. The files need to be organized and documented, in order for them to be properly stored, and easily accessible. Currently, I am working through maps, plans, charts, and other materials related to Nemrud Dagh, which is a mountain site that was probably a royal tomb built for King Antiochus of Commagene.

"Mount Nemrut". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Colossal statues of men, gods, and animals were found at the site. Photo Credit- “Mount Nemrut”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

My workspace in the museum’s seminar room.     Photo credit- Noam Cohen

 

My main goal for this internship is to learn through hands-on experience. This is not something that I can easily do at Brandeis when I am learning Ancient Near Eastern history through lectures and readings. Handling ancient objects, and even more modern works – such as Goell’s maps, plans, and diagrams – will expose me to more tangible aspects of archaeology, history, and the Ancient Near East. I hope to gain a new and intimate appreciation and understanding of what life was like for people living in the Ancient Near Eastern world–what sites did they see, how their pottery looked and felt in their hands…

One thought on “Handling History at the Harvard Semitic Museum”

  1. Noam, this looks like such a cool internship! As a fellow Near Eastern and Judaic Studies major, I recognize the importance of hands-on experience and the interaction between classroom work and experiencing history first-hand. What a cool way to follow-through on much of what we’ve been learning in our NEJS courses. I’m especially interesting in your work with maps in this internship. I often find that sometimes we get so caught up in dissecting and analyzing texts, that we forgot key information that can be found by simply understanding geographic locations and relationships. I would be interesting to speak with you later on in the summer about what you’re learning from these ancient maps!

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