Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production: Object Biographies of Inscribed Artefacts from Nimrud for Museums and Mobiles

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: History and Philosophy Of Science


Museum visitors and their online counterparts are often just as curious to explore how an artefact made its way into the museum case or web database as they are to learn about its original uses and meanings in the past. Similarly, historians of science are increasingly interested in the processes by which objects in the natural world become scientific specimens. We propose to tackle these two sets of questions together, by tracing the biographies of cuneiform tablets and other inscribed artefacts from their manufacture and use in the ancient Assyrian city of Kalhu (modern Nimrud) to their current locations in the British Museum, the Ashmolean and other collections, plus their virtual representations on the web. Our technical focus will be on the development of Linked Open Data, especially for handheld devices such as mobile phones and tablet computers, to encourage meaningful connectivity between hitherto isolated resources and to bridge the gap between the museum case and the online world. We thereby aim to develop academics', curators' and museum-users' understanding of the processes by which the ancient past is understood and reconstructed by academic research, and thus to enrich public engagement with one of the most influential and yet largely forgotten civilizations of antiquity.

Kalhu/Nimrud, in modern-day northern Iraq, was the capital of the mighty Assyrian empire in the 9th-8th centuries BC. Even when it was superseded by Nineveh in the early 7th century, it remained an important royal city until Assyria's demise in 612 BC. It has been excavated several times since the 1840s, by both British and Iraqi teams, with a new Italian expedition now planned. The British Museum holds around 3500 Nimrud artefacts, some discovered by Victorian explorers, others formally excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (BSAI, now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, BISI) in the 1950s and 60s. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a further 230, while just over 100 are in six other UK museums. The rest are scattered across another 20 or so museum collections worldwide. Palaces, temples, and other buildings yielded a wealth of archaeological remains, including some 4500 cuneiform tablets, which provide vital insights into the political, economic, social and intellectual life of the city in the early first millennium BC. However, the global distribution of Nimrud artefacts has meant that comprehensive study of the city has been virtually impossible.

Nimrud is one of four focal points of the AHRC-funded research project on the Geography of Knowledge in Assyria and Babylonia, 700-200 BC (GKAB), based at the University of Cambridge. Where GKAB treated it as a central node in a network of royal scholarly knowledge-production spread across the Assyrian heartland, this follow-on project focuses more closely on the city itself, while widening our focus from the production of knowledge in the ancient world to include the modern production of knowledge about it too.

Not only will we trace the lives and journeys of scholarly tablets in the ancient past, from creation to use, travel and abandonment, and their afterlives as archaeological finds, museum artefacts, and online presences. We will also consider the people and professional roles involved in the creation of knowledge about Nimrud, in the field, in the museum and in the university and beyond, over the past two centuries. That also commits us to opening up hitherto arcane knowledge to much larger, non-expert user groups: UK regional museum curators, their visitors, and the worldwide internet readership. Linked Open Data methods will ensure the stability and accessibility of the tools we create, while in-gallery QR codes and stable URIs will provide access to a wealth of existing and bespoke online resources via museum-goers' handhelds. Free public events and a day workshop for regional museums, with twitter feeds, will further facilitate knowledge exchange.

Planned Impact

This project targets four overlapping sets of non-academic beneficiaries, in the UK and beyond:

1. The British Museum, Ashmolean Museum, and regional UK museums
The British Museum and the Ashmolean together house nearly 4000 archaeological artefacts from Nimrud. Although they are the only public museums in the UK with specialist Ancient Middle East curators-two of whom, Taylor and Collins, are on the project-twenty more possess small collections of cuneiform tablets and similar artefacts (from Nimrud and other sites). Not surprisingly, most have little knowledge of their contents, their potential for display and public engagement, or the exciting range of resources that can now aid their interpretation.
The project's website will draw together many existing online museum resources about Nimrud, and give much further explanation and interpretation, bridging the intellectual gap between museums' necessarily often superficial gallery pages and heavily technical research databases.
A day workshop for curators and key IT personnel from UK regional museums, with Twitter and Facebook follow-up, will explore how LOD and mobile technologies can help them make the most of their cuneiform collections.

2. The British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI)
BISI is a registered charity whose aim is to advance research and public education relating to Iraq and neighbouring countries in humanities and social sciences from the earliest times until the present. As BSAI it sponsored excavations at Nimrud in the 1950s and 60s and has published a series of archaeological reports, text editions, and conference proceedings on the site.
The project's website and the study-day in the Ashmolean Museum will showcase, promote and contextualise BISI's past work in Iraq, thus helping it to raise its academic profile with potential funders, benefactors, commercial sponsors, and academic partners for new research projects.

3. The UK museum-going public
By providing QR codes and stable URIs for display next to Nimrud artefacts in public galleries, we will enable museum-goers to engage with ideas about the biographies of ancient artefacts, and the means by which knowledge about them is created, at the same time as learning more about the artefacts themselves.
Free public events at the British Museum, Ashmolean Museum and the Cambridge Festival of Ideas will encourage participants to reflect on the ways in which university- and museum-based research creates new understandings of the ancient past, and how meanings are created from objects and the contexts in which they are created and used. These events will also give attendees the opportunity to explore the draft website, and for them to influence its content, tone and design.

4. Internet users worldwide
Our experience since 2007 with the teaching website Knowledge and Power in the Assyrian Empire (K&P, has shown that there is global interest in ancient Assyria, cuneiform script, and ancient science. The proposed website aims to complement K&P in several significant ways; most importantly it will be much more innovative and risk-taking. While K&P has large and very popular sections on ancient writing media, script systems and languages, and a short section on discovery and decipherment, it was not designed to address the matter of how we come to know about the ancient past. Yet that is clearly of great interest and concern.
By giving both ancient and modern knowledge production equal weight in this proposed project we hope to provide the users of our website some intellectual and practical tools for appreciating how contingent, provisional and even contested professional archaeologists' and historians' views of the ancient past can be, as new data, methodologies and theories challenge the received wisdom. We thereby aim to encourage wider participation in knowledge production.


10 25 50
Description The activities and outputs of the Nimrud project do not fit well into the Researchfish format, so they are described here, along with the project's achievements. The de facto PI throughout the project was Eleanor Robson (author of this piece), who moved from Cambridge to UCL in September 2014. The institutions' research offices were unable to transfer the grant, so Jim Secord became nominal PI at that point. In practice he was not involved in any of the project's work.

The original funding application gave 5 major aims, as detailed below. The project has fulfilled all of them in the ways described underneath.

1) to situate ancient Assyrian courtly scholarship in a larger and more precise material, textual and cultural context, in a form that is as intellectually engaging and practically accessible as possible to museum-goers and internet users.
2) to help museum-goers and internet users to reflect on and explore the means by which university researchers and museum specialists create knowledge about the ancient past, and thus to gain a richer appreciation of such institutions' roles in cultural and intellectual life.
3) to develop methodologies for understanding the way archaeological artefacts, in particular cuneiform tablets, change their functions, meanings and values over time, and the role of particular individuals, institutions and local circumstances in shaping them
4) to assist UK regional museum curators to develop their understanding of their ancient Middle Eastern collections, in particular artefacts inscribed in cuneiform.
5) to further the integration, research utility, and public accessibility of existing online resources on Nimrud and the ancient Middle East more generally.

The open access website at is designed to meet all these aims. It is divided into five main sections.
o gives an accessible historical account of the production of written knowledge in the ancient city (Kalhu), organised around three themes: history and geography, including particular buildings; kings, deities, scholars and administrators; and the main scripts, langagues, and genres of writing (aim 1).
o charts the history of exploration at the archaeological site of Nimrud that overlies ancient Kalhu, contextualising this narrative for the first time in the wider global contexts of imperialism, colonial Mandate Iraq, the Cold War, and contemporary Iraq. It also reveals the work done at museums in creating knowledge, using case studies written in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Birmingham Museum, Bolton Museum, the British Museum, Ipswich Museum and the Iraq Museum (aims 2, 4).
o gives six case studies in the ways that inscribed and uninscribed artefacts used in ancient Kalhu and found on the modern archaeological site of Niimrud have been interpreted and re-interpreted in modernity. We worked closely with the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in writing these pages, and in doing so made significant improvements to the MAA's Nimrud catalogue (aims 3, 4).
o brings together all known online resources--museum catalogues and publications--on the ancient city, as well providing two new ones: the Nimrud Inscribed Objects Database and the Nimrud Virtual Text corpus (aim 5).
o describes the public events for adults and children, the museum stakeholders' focus group, and academic talks that we gave in the process of website creation, feedback & adaptation. Storified livetweets, and re-useable event resources, are also linked here (aims 1-5).
Finally explicitly encourages re-use of materials from the site, and gives suggestions on how to do so. It is still to early to see how this will happen, but we will be monitoring the analytics data closely. The website is already getting 2000 unique pageviews a month.
Exploitation Route We expect museums, especially local UK museums, to take advantage of the re-useability of the online materials we have created. We have encouraged them to incorporate and adapt our materials in various ways into their own in-gallery, online and face-to-face educational resources for adults and children.

Academic ancient historians, archaeologists, and historians of archaeology & museums will exploit the online catalogues of artefacts and publications in their own research and writings.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description None yet: the project finished only a few months ago.
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections