Š-L-M from the Harvard Semitic Museum

This week marks the close of my internship at the Harvard Semitic Museum.

I came, I saw, I archived. I also learned a lot.

I came to the museum hoping to gain greater context and appreciation for my studies of Near Eastern history, through interactions with the museum’s collection of artifacts. I was excited at the prospect of handling tablets, pottery, and other artifacts from thousands of years ago. To my surprise, I have done just that, and more. This summer at the Semitic Museum has given me an even greater intimacy with artifacts than had I expected, and I have been amazed by the level of trust and responsibility the museum staff gave to its interns.

This is the second floor of a full-scale model of an Ancient Israelite house. The display mixes artifacts (pottery) and replicas (food). Photo credit: Semitic Museum, via Tumblr

In addition to handling artifacts, I’ve learned a lot about archaeology, geography, and general Near Eastern history. I now know about ancient sites like Nuzi, Tell el-Kheleifeh, Nemrud Dagh. Only months ago, those names would have been foreign to me.

And while I’ve had previous curatorial experience, this internship immersed me in the collections-management side of museums. The Semitic Museum is a small museum, with long-term exhibits, so most of its efforts are put towards its collection rather than planning new exhibits. Still, being in a small museum gave me access to almost every part of the museum process. I would recommend interning in a small museum to anybody interested in museum careers, as you really get to see all aspects of the museum’s operations, and work directly with the entire museum staff.

My time at the Semitic Museum has certainly solidified my interest in continuing my study of the Ancient Near East, and particularly its languages. I hope to return one day and read from the cuneiform tablets that I held this summer! At the same time, the internship has reaffirmed my interest in curatorial and collections work, and I will certainly look for more ways to stay involved in museum work.

A shirt with “Harvard” written in four ancient Semitic scripts. Photo credit: Noam Cohen

Of my varied projects at the museum, I am most proud of my archiving of Theresa Goell’s archaeological records. The materials- mostly maps, plans, and sketches- came to the museum roughly sorted and rolled into boxes. After spending two months sorting and organizing the identifiable materials, I moved on to the last box- the unidentified papers. Using my knowledge of the different sites Goell worked on, I was able to identify nearly all of the previously unidentifiable maps and plans. This was a particularly proud moment for me, as it was tangible evidence of the familiarity I gained with Goell’s work.

Semitic languages (from which the museum gets its name) are defined by their triliteral root system. The three letter root Š-L-M, which can mean ‘whole’ and ‘peace,’ is used both as a greeting and farewell in several Semitic languages (such as shalom- the Š is pronounced as a ‘sh’-  and salaam), arising from exchanges of wishes for good health.

So, ŠLM.

–Noam Cohen ’16

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