On Monday, April 14, 2014, the Harvard Semitic Museum will permanently remove its exhibit on the site of Nuzi and its inhabitants, the Hurrians. Installed in 1997, this museum has housed the collection for 17 years. But all good things must come to an end, and to prepare our galleries for an exciting new exhibition on David Gordon Lyon, we are finally retiring this unique collection of artifacts. In honor of this event, we’d like to provide a little backstory - after all, every good archaeologist knows that context is everything.
The term “Hurrians” refers to those civilizations that spoke Hurrian in the Near East during the Bronze Age. During the 15th and 14th centuries BCE, these people inhabited Mittani, a kingdom encompassing much of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Nuzi, a Hurrian city in Mittani, is the ancient name for what is now Yorghan Tepe, Iraq. It was a provincial city with a palace for its governor and administrative officials, a temple, and a largely agricultural domestic town in the surroundings. Its excavation, carried out from 1925-1926 by Edward Chiera and sponsored by the Harvard Semitic and Fogg Art Museums, unveiled a rich collection of artifacts, including some of the earliest glassware vessels, gorgeous jewelry, and intricately decorated pottery. Yet Nuzi is probably most famous for the discovery of thousands of clay tablets with inscribed texts.
Pictured: Dr. Adam Aja, Assistant Curator of the HSM, with the Nuzi tablets. Photo by Justin Ide, courtesy of the Harvard Gazette.
Over 5,000 tablets in total were uncovered, in various stages of preservation. These texts were predominantly written in cuneiform, the script of the ancient Babylonian language. In general, the documents focused on aspects of economics: trade agreements, legal decisions, and administrative records. Many of these tablets are housed in our collections spaces, where ongoing restoration projects are in effect. Trained interns and graduate students spend hours cleaning, documenting, and preserving these tablets to prevent their further decay. Though the exhibit is coming down, this particular work shall continue for years - for a better sketch of this project, read this article!
Evidence of a thriving religion was also revealed by the excavation. In the domestic sphere, small figurines alluded to votive worship and an emphasis on prayers for fertility. In the public sphere, the temple was determined to have two distinct sanctuaries. The discovery of fragmentary ceramic lions within close proximity to one of the shrines allowed scholars to identify worship of Ishtar-Shawushka, the Akkadian-Hurrian goddess of war and sex. Last spring, the Semitic Museum made headlines by using 3D scanning technology of these fragments to reconstruct a complete version of one of these lions. For more information, see this article in Time magazine.
Pictured: the reconstructed Nuzi lion
For 17 years, this collection has provided the public a window into a civilization easily lost in the sands of time. As we exit one chapter of this museum’s history and move on to a new, fresh exhibition, we would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to visit our collections and admire this rich, fascinating culture. And while it is sad to see such a long-standing showcase leave, we can guarantee that its replacement will be equally (if not more!) intruiguing.