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

Midpoint Musings from the Semitic Museum

It is hard to believe that I’m already past the half-way point of my summer here at the Harvard Semitic Museum. Since my last post, I’ve spent many mornings walking through Cambridge and admiring its tidy gardens and historic homes, and then settling in the museum’s basement, where the collection is housed. Over the past months, I have handled and archived ancient materials- mostly from the sites of Nuzi and Tel el-Keleifeh, and am now working to complete another project- organizing, inventorying, and archiving the museum’s collection of work produced by Theresa Goell, a female archaeologist who worked in the late 1940s through the early 1970s.

Goell was a truly groundbreaking archaeologist, as it was not common for women to lead digs in the 20th century, especially in the Middle East (she dug several sites in Turkey). She commanded so much respect that there are stories of her mediating disputes between government officials and local tribal leaders, in order to acquire the proper permits to excavate. I recently completed work on materials produced at a dig she led at the city of Samsat, a site just off of the Euphrates River. Shortly after the dig, the site was permanently flooded as a result of the building of the Atatürk Dam, leaving Goell’s records even more relevant.

Photo Credit: “Atatürk Dam” by Bernard Gagnon. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

My experience going through artifacts has been satisfying on an emotional and intellectual level. It is truly moving to hold an artifact produced and used by humans living thousands of years ago. One particularly moving moment for me was when I picked up a ceramic figurine of a woman, from a site near modern Eilat in Israel. The figurine was likely a representation of a goddess, or a young girl’s doll. Either way, this figurine was of immense importance to its owner, and I felt a connection to that individual through our shared experience of holding the figurine. Working with these ancient artifacts, I was constantly reminded of the daily lives of ancient Near Eastern people, and to the unique experience of each person and each culture.

A similar clay figurine, but this one is from the collection of the Jewish Museum.           Photo Credit: The Jewish Museum New York, via Wikimedia Commons

It has also been enlightening to steadily work through the Goell materials. I have developed an intimate familiarity with her and her team’s archaeological records, and have gained a great understanding of the process of how excavations are conducted, and the centrality of record keeping to an excavation’s success. As my supervisor put it, being an archaeologist is 90% archival work.

My work at the museum has given me greater perspective on life in the Ancient Near East, and also the many ways in which to study it. I’ve worked with ancient artifacts, modern excavation materials, and I recently met with a museum team that is creating a 3D model of Giza based off of archaeological records (a neat video demonstration is here). I will come back to Brandeis with a broader perspective of the field, but also with more technical archaeological and historical knowledge.

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…