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8 The Word
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Perhaps the one object that most Museum visitors want to see is not a great work of art or even an Egyptian mummy: it is a fragment of black rock covered with writing, known as the Rosetta Stone. The well-known role of this stone in the understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs is what makes it such an unmissable exhibit. Other objects throughout the Museum have played similar roles in the rediscovery of lost classics of world literature, others demonstrate the formidable power of words while some remind us there are still ancient scripts that have not yet been deciphered.

8 The Word


Marble panel


A less well known but nonetheless important collection of objects in the Museum contains what is left of one of the greatest libraries of the past, amassed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in what is today northern Iraq. This library was probably larger than the more famous library at Alexandria in Egypt. Excavations in the nineteenth century revealed over 30,000 clay tablets and fragments of tablets that had survived the destruction of the palace which housed the library. Covered with cuneiform writing, the tablets include documents such as administrative records as well as works of science, religion and literature. The first modern translation of one of the great classic poems of world literature, the epic of Gilgamesh, was the work of a nineteenth-century curator at the British Museum called George Smith. This poem included an account of an ancient flood very similar to the story of Noah and the flood in the Old Testament. This was the first time another version of a flood story had been found, and its discovery had a major impact on people's ideas about religion and history. It was so shocking to Smith himself that it was said he' ... jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself’.

Cuneiform is one of the oldest forms of writing. It was developed in the area of southern Iraq over 2000 years before Ashurbanipal created his library. Examples of the earliest texts can also be found in the Museum. Cuneiform appears to have originated in order to keep administrative records, such as allocations of beer or grain. Other languages and writing systems have different origins, and there are some, such as the script of the Indus Valley civilization, that still remain to be deciphered.

Many of the examples of writing found across the Museum are official texts, including public inscriptions and proclamations on stone (such as the Rosetta Stone), the phrases found on coins and money, or even signatures, such as the tughra of an Ottoman sultan. However, there are also more personal communications, such as the delicate letters written on thin slivers of wood from the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall. Unfortunately, much of the world's writing has been on perishable materials such as paper, papyrus, silk, bamboo, clay and wood, so little has survived. At Vindolanda, however, due to a rare combination of factors, a mass of letters have been preserved, among them school exercises and even an invitation to a birthday party that took place almost 2000 years ago.

8 The Word




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