How far can we trace back that which we would recognize as archaeology? Well, if we use the wide definition of archaeology, that being the study of the human past through material culture, we can trace it all the way to Bel-Shalti-Nana, a Babylonian princess and priestess who curated and ran the world’s oldest recognizable museum.
Bel-Shalti-Nana, also known as Ennigaldi-Nana, lived some 2500 years ago. She has an interesting part to play in history, and in the history of archaeology. Ennigaldi-Nana’s means “the priestess, the desire of the Moon-god,” and appearers to be part of her father’s attempt to rekindle the old ways of Babylon. In her life, Ennigaldi-Nana would serve as the high priestess of the moon god Nana/Sin and oversee the reemergence of an 800-year-old school for young priestesses.
When Ennigaldi-Nanna’s was appointed by her father Nabonidus, the religious position she represented and the rituals associated with the role had been forgotten (Pryke 2019). Interestingly, Ennigaldi-Nana was able to recreate her role using a steal supposedly belonging to Nebuchadnezzar I. She was also able to use the writings of a previous priestess named En-ane-du to help recreate her role (Pryke 2019). Perhaps using such historical documents to recreate her religious duties also helped kindle the fire to preserve and curate the remnants of Ur’s past.
Her museum appeared to have built around 530 BCE to display artifacts recovered under her father’s orders. It’s to her that credit is given for the labels that accompanied these artifacts. The labels are the greatest indicators that the museum was meant for more than just personal use.
These labels took the form of clay cylinders, written in three different languages, including the language of ancient Sumerian and the more modern late Semitic language (Pryke 2019). Why include three different languages if this was just a personal collection or one limited to a single group of people?
Ennigaldi-Nana’s museum was lost in the sands of time until Leonard Woolly uncovered it in 1925. Woolly was baffled when he first came upon the discovery, a camber full of seemingly random artifacts that predated the floor they were on by almost 1500 years. He found artifacts from different geographical areas and historical time periods, yet they were neatly collected, almost like they’d been curated (Pryke 2019).
The artifacts ranged in dates from around 2100 BCE to 600 BCE (Pryke 2019), and showed signs of preservation. A statue of the king, Shulgi of Ur, was inscribed around its surface and had been carefully restored in order to preserve the writing (Pryke 2019). There we also texts that included boundary markers and a votive offering that looked like a mace head (Pryke 2019).
Unfortunately, this is about all we know about Ennigaldi-Nana and her museum. We know a great deal more about her father, Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, and her brother Belshazzar who ruled as his regent (yes Book of Daniel, “writing on the wall” Belshazzar). Sadly, as hard as Ennigaldi-Nana worked to preserve and recreate history in her lifetime, history wasn’t kind enough to remember much about her.
Hopefully, we will continue to learn more about Ennigaldi-Nana. Maybe there will be a stash of records somewhere waiting to be discovered. Still, we at least know who she was and what she worked to create. She certainly sits as a Mother of the Field, if not THE Mother of the Field.
Palace of Bel-Shalti-Nannar | AD
2019 Hidden women of history: Ennigaldi-Nanna, curator of the world’s first museum
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