A Special Exhibition at the ISAC Museum
September 21, 2023 – March 24, 2024
In 1740 BCE in Babylonia, students went back to school after a holiday. They gathered from across the neighborhood in a modest house in Nippur, a Mesopotamian city in present-day southern Iraq. Young pupils learned to read and write the complex cuneiform script, while more advanced students studied topics like mathematics, religion, and law. The goal of their education was to gain the knowledge, skills, and character traits necessary to become successful scribes. These skilled professionals worked for the king, temples, and local authorities and were responsible for writing most of the documents that survive from Babylonia.
In 1951–52, the Joint Expedition to Nippur of ISAC and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology discovered the remains of this school. Within its mudbrick walls they excavated texts fundamental to our understanding of Babylonian education and culture, as well as objects that reflect school life. We invite you to enter the Edubba’a, a scribal school, in Nippur: explore the school house and its objects, read the school materials, sit down on a school bench, and listen to the disputes of Babylonian students as you follow them on their journey to become scribes, complete with their struggles and successes.
This special exhibition has been curated by Susanne Paulus, with Marta Díaz Herrera, Jane Gordon, Danielle Levy, Madeline Ouimet, Colton G. Siegmund, and Ryan D. Winters and with support from Pallas Eible Hargro, C Mikhail, Carter Rote, and Sarah M. Ware. It reunites objects excavated at Nippur now held in the ISAC Tablet Collection, the ISAC Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Tablets in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, are represented by plaster casts.
FROM THE EXHIBITION
What is: a house, set upon a foundation like the heavens, a house, covered with a cloth like a treasure chest, a house, set upon a pedestal like a duck shaped weight; one enters into it blind and leaves it seeing?
The answer: the scribal school.
A Sumerian Riddle
Download the Back to School in Babylonia Press Release
- Download and purchase the special exhibit catalog Back to School in Babylonia (ISACMP 1)
- Download the children's activity booklet The Adventures of Inanaka and Tuni: Learning to Write in Ancient Babylonia
- Explore the special exhibit merchandise in the Museum Shop
- Exclusive Exhibition Preview, September 20, 4:00–8:00pm (in-person) — Not yet a member? Become one today!
- ISAC Lecture, "Back to School in Babylonia – The Aims of Babylonian Education," with Susanne Paulus, October 4, 7:00pm CT (in-person and online)
- Family Program, "Come Learn Cuneiform!" October 7, 1:00–3:00pm CT (in-person)
- Online Course, "Discover the Babylonian Curriculum from Lexical Lists to Literature," 5-weeks, Tuesdays, starting October 12
- ISAC Lecture, "What Did You Learn in School Today? A Day in the Life of a Mesopotamian Student," with Paul Delnero, November 1, 7:00pm CT (in-person and online)
- ISAC Lecture, "Law and Morality in Sumerian Satirical Tales," with Jana Matuszak, December 6, 7:00pm CT (in-person and online)
- ISAC Lecture, "Back to House F: Personal Reflections on 25 Years of Research on Old Babylonian Schooling," with Eleanor Robson, January 25, 4:00pm CT (online only, streaming via Zoom)
Visit the Exhibition
- Visit our Visit the Museum webpage for visitor information and museum hours.
- Visit ISAC's Nippur Expedition webpage
- Download the ISAC publications on the Joint Expedition to Nippur: Nippur I (OIP 78, 1967), Nippur II (OIP 97, 1978), Nippur III (OIP 111, 1993), Nippur IV (OIP 114, 1996), Nippur V (OIP 129, 2006)
- Visit the ISAC Tablet Collection webpage
- Watch the ISAC lecture, "Affluent Suburbs or Disenfranchised Banlieue: The Urban Edge at Nippur, Iraq," with Augusta McMahon, ISAC professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology (May 5, 2023)
- Watch the Penn Museum lecture, "The Stuff of Legend: Late 19th century Excavations at Nippur," with Richard Zettler, associate curator-in-charge, Near East section (April 6, 2019)
- UChicago Division of the Humanities News, "Summer Program Expands Humanistic Research" (September 8, 2023)
Check back soon for updates!
This exhibition is supported by Deborah and Philip Halpern, Malda and Aldis Liventals, Catherine A. Novotny, and ISAC Museum Visitors and ISAC Members.
This exhibition has been organized by the ISAC Museum: Susan Allison, Rob Bain, Denise Browning, Laura D’Alessandro, Anne Flannery, Marc Maillot, Helen McDonald, Kiersten Neumann, Josh Tulisiak, and Alison Whyte, with contributions by Erin Bliss and Judy Radovsky.