2500 years ago to be more or less exact, a Babylonian princess named Ennigaldi lived in the ancient city-state of Ur in what is modern day Iraq. I ran across Ennigaldi in one of those endless meanderings on the internet that lead you further and further astray from where you started out and seems to have no possibility of getting you where you want to go, although the journey turns out to be very interesting. Ennigaldi, by virtue of her station as princess, was the high priestess of the moon god—Nanna— and ran a school to train high priestesses.

The ruins at Ur.

Fast forward to 1921. Leonard Woolley, archeologist of the Ashmolean Museum, was excavating the palace grounds at Ur. All was going as one would expect—until Woolley and his team began turning up startling inconsistencies, uncovering objects that predated the site by many centuries. Among them were a boundary marker, a carefully trimmed fragment of a statue, and a stone mace-head. Woolley was puzzled. Why were there so many of these objects and why did they come from such different geographical origins? In his book, Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation, Woolley wrote, “What were we to think? Here were half a dozen diverse objects found lying on an unbroken payment of the sixth century B.C., yet the newest of them was seven hundred years older that the pavement and the earliest perhaps sixteen hundred.”

Clay drum excavated at Ur, one of the first museum labels.

The mystery was solved when Woolley discovered clay drums with inscriptions describing the objects in three languages. Woolley realized then that the drums were museum labels and that he had just discovered the oldest museum known to man, a museum that it was determined later had been organized by Ennigaldi herself.

That a Babylonian princess and those of her time were even then looking backward over millenia, collecting and studying objects in order to connect with their ancient history suggests that the impulse is deeply rooted in our nature.  Like Ennigaldi and her students, we want to learn where we came from and how we got here. An object from the past helps us do that.  Today some of those objects can be found behind glass in art museums; some can be seen in context in an historic house museum, but perhaps the object that can be found right in our own homes and connects us immediately to our personal history means the most. To be continued