Attention Melbourne writers: if you haven’t yet done so, I urge you to visit the Mesopotamia exhibition at the Melbourne Museum and pay homage to the ancient culture that invented writing.
I spent a wondrous morning wandering around the exhibition with my friend, comic book maker and publisher Bernard Caleo, both of us awestruck by the debt of gratitude we owed these ancients for inventing the artistic forms — writing and comics respectively — that we’ve chosen as our own.
The written language invented by the Mesopotamians evolved from pictograms etched into clay and originally read from top to bottom. As pictograms became abstracted into cuneiform, designed to resemble sounds as much as images, they lent themselves to being mass reproduced using reeds pressed into clay tablets. They also leant literally, being repositioned sideways and read from left to right. Written on lines, no less.
The text featured on the tablet above says: “For the goddess Nimintaba his lady, Shulgi, mighty man, king of Ur, king of the lands of Sumer and Akkad, built her temple for her”.
I can’t remember if this inscription is in Sumerian, the original written language, or Akkadian. What I do recall from the exhibition is that according to the Bible story, there was a time in history when humankind had only one language. When the Babylonians dissed the gods by attempting to build a tower high enough to touch the heavens, the divine punishment — apart from destroying the Tower of Babel — was to create multiple languages so people could no longer understand each other.
Neither plague nor pestilence, war nor famine, the greatest punishment those brilliant ancient minds could concoct was the inability to understand one another.
Ain’t that the truth.
The bas-reliefs in the exhibition were remarkable not only as works of art in their own right but as means of telling stories, using text and illustrations — i.e. proto-comics.
I was also struck in viewing the exhibition by the degree to which imagination is required to conjure Mesopotamia. Unlike ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, few impressions of Mesopotamian cities remain — despite cities being another Mesopotamian invention.
Exquisite artefacts exist: intricately carved cylinder seals, jewels of gold and lapis lazuli, calcite jars and stunning bas-reliefs carved into stone. But the cities themselves have mostly crumbled into dust. All that remains of Babylon, for example, is a mound of broken mudbrick buildings and debris on the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are alone among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in having no sure reference point in the archeological, geological or historical record, leaving their location, appearance, even their very existence to the imagination of literary and visual artists.
At the same time, the Mesopotamian kings had a strong sense of time (did I mention they invented clocks, too?) and their own temporality, inscribing the history of their contributions on clay tablets and bricks embedded in the foundations of the temples they built so as to endure the renovations of their successors.
When I think of my own feeble contribution to the historical record in the context of the Mesopotamia exhibition — blogging into the ether — I wonder if a return to clay tablets and writing reeds might yet catch on. I live in Brunswick, where we have no shortage of clay.
Thank you, Mesopotamia. And thank you Bernard.