History begins in Mesopotamia

The Louvre museum’s latest exhibition is entitled ‘History begins in Mesopotamia’, and it presents a new panoramic of 3000 years of Mesopotamian history. Dr. Ariane Thomas, curator in charge of Mesopotamian collections at the Near Eastern Antiquities department of the Louvre museum, shares the thoughts that went into making the exhibit.

“The exhibition has enabled a different presentation of the Louvre’s collections, with a deliberately evocative and contextualising scenography supported in particular by models and a wide range of audiovisual and multimedia presentations.”

By Ariane Thomas

The exhibition “History begins in Mesopotamia” presents 3000 years of Mesopotamian history, from the appearance of cuneiform writing in the late 4th millennium B.C. until its abandonment in the first years A.D. While avoiding a Mesopo-centric “origin myth”, this exhibition nevertheless reminds us that – according to current knowledge – a number of fundamental innovations appeared for the first time in this territory now designated “Mesopotamian” but characterised by a number of constants over its 3000 years of history.

The history of the area in fact consists of a number of interruptions, while the culture and society of this land of cross-fertilisation located at the crossroads of the Orient have always evolved in a complex manner. The exhibition structure is therefore based on the official conception of an initial divine order which contributed some level of permanence to Mesopotamian culture and traditions over the centuries during which buildings were reconstructed and tablets recopied.

History 2

The exhibition is divided into eight sections on the basis of themes. The first are dedicated to the history of the rediscovery of ancient Mesopotamia and the myths that have developed about the civilisation since Antiquity. Presented next are the foundations of the Mesopotamian economy and the beliefs of this fundamental religious world. The other sections are dedicated to the major milestones characterising ancient Mesopotamia, beginning with the first towns which offer the opportunity to examine not only the appearance of the urban phenomenon but also the main characteristics of the Mesopotamian towns.

The exhibition then discusses writing, which appeared in these first urban centres, presenting in particular the great diversity of facts that we can learn from cuneiform texts about a wide range of areas, from the scholarly to the more mundane. Writing also provided the first names of kings and the first dynastic lists, which leads into the presentation of the royal function in Mesopotamia, ending with a section dedicated to the appearance of the state and of imperial ambitions. In conclusion, this last section is organised in chronological order along a frieze and with maps punctuating the works to better spotlight the great figures of Mesopotamian history depicted by the exhibited objects, up to the gradual disappearance of Ancient Mesopotamia during Late Antiquity.

History 3

Presenting almost 500 works, the majority from the Louvre’s collections, including a large number of works restored and/or re-erected for the occasion (such as a monumental panel more than 5 m high made of bricks from Khorsabad previously conserved in the museum reserve), the exhibition has also benefited from exceptional loans generously granted by the British Museum, the Vorderasiatiches Museum, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the musée de Varzy, the musée d’Orsay, Strasbourg University and other departments of the Louvre Museum. These loans enable the exhibition to be completed but also make it possible to compare very similar works, sometimes resulting from single batches, or to examine both material objects and their representations.

The exhibition has enabled a different presentation of the Louvre’s collections, with a deliberately evocative and contextualising scenography supported in particular by models and a wide range of audiovisual and multimedia presentations, together with a set of photographs from 1850 to the present day collected for the show. Among the tools developed, a unique virtual visit of the Palace of Khorsabad has been created. A simulation of the handling of seal-cylinders has also been put in place, enabling them to be considerably enlarged, while an audio system presents a short extract of the Epic of Gilgamesh read by four assyriologists with different accents – a means of answering without answering the question frequently asked about ancient pronunciation.

History 4

The fruit of a number of collaborations, this exhibition and its catalogue aim to contribute to a better understanding of this field by the public, providing also informations on the perils currently being faced by the sites and objects involved. The exhibition also addresses the scientific community, presenting a number of original works and the result of in-depth studies, including verifications and revisions of dates or materials but also new translations of the tablets presented.

Exhibition from 2 November 2016 to 23 January 2017.

Musée du Louvre-Lens

99 rue Paul Bert, 62300 Lens (France)

T: +33 (0)3 21 18 62 62


All images courtesy by Ariane Thomas.