Arts preview: The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 6:13pm

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia

Hong Kong Museum of History

Mention the word "tablet" today and a sleek portable computer comes to mind. But back in the days when writing had just been invented - around 3,300-3,000BC during the Mesopotamian civilisation - tablets were big slabs of clay on which quantities of goods and products were marked. They are also among history's earliest records on how a society was organised and divided into ranks.

Some of the world's oldest tablets are now on show at the Hong Kong Museum of History as part of its exhibition "The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia", which runs until May. Jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Trustees of the British Museum, the 170-plus artefacts illustrate significant chapters of Mesopotamian history from around 3,500BC to 539BC: the birth of cities in Sumer, the powerful military empire of Assyria, and the development and legacy of Babylon.

According to Sarah Collins, an archaeologist and curator for early Mesopotamia at the British Museum, all the objects chosen for the exhibition come from the "very origin, the heart of Mesopotamia", a region that is known as Iraq today. They range from small seals to large stone sculptures that lined the internal walls of palaces.

The museum's collection is the result of early British excavations in the Middle East, some dating back as far as the mid-19th century. Another edition of this show has already toured to Melbourne, Australia, and will move on to Toronto, Canada, after its Hong Kong stop.

The history of Mesopotamia spans many thousands of years but "Wonders" begins with one of the greatest inventions the civilisation contributed to: writing.

Among the oldest objects in the exhibition is a writing tablet. The writing system that was invented in Mesopotamia is called cuneiform, says Collins, while the "writing" itself was a series of impressions made by a cut reed on the clay.

"Once cuneiform was fully developed, it was almost unrecognisable from its [origin]," the curator says.

"It was developed for administrative purposes to start with, to quantify amounts of animals and food products, which [formed] the basics of the Mesopotamian economy … their agriculture and livestock."

But it soon developed as a script so that it could be used for all kinds of writings and to convey different languages, Collins says. Cuneiform is not a language but a writing system like the alphabet.

One clay tablet, which dates from about 3,300BC, shows a list of large amounts of barley that were given out to high-ranking officials in the order of their importance. "So this tablet is all about quantity, some of the earliest tablets were about rations to workers and amounts of commodities," Collins says.

"The [person recorded on the tablet] was known to be an official working in administration, mostly to do with barley and beer. Beer was another big commodity that was rationed to workers and given out to people. So this tablet in the exhibition is one of the earliest."

Another highlight is a gypsum panel from Nineveh, North Palace, showing King Ashurbanipal hunting lions in his chariot. 

HK Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui. Mon, Wed-Fri, 10am-6pm; Sat, Sun and public holidays, 10am-7pm. Closed Tue. Admission: HK$10. Inquiries: 2724 9042. Ends May 13