Ennigaldi-Nanna: The World’s First Museum Curator Was a Woman

Sep 7, 2023 0 comments

In 1925, when British archeologist Leonard Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur, in the modern-day Dhi Qar Governorate of Iraq, they discovered a curious collection of artefacts among the ruins of a Babylonian palace. What made this discovery especially noteworthy was the fact that these items hailed from diverse geographical regions and historical periods, yet they were neatly assembled together. A striking feature was the presence of labels accompanying many of these artifacts, giving details about the objects. These inscriptions were written in three languages, one of which was Sumerian. Woolley determined that these artifacts were, in fact, early examples of museum pieces, thoughtfully collected, preserved, and thoroughly documented. This site marked the inception of the world's first museum, and the remarkable woman who is believed to have been its curator is the Mesopotamian princess, Ennigaldi-Nanna.

The Ziggurat of Ur near which the world’s first museum was founded. Photo credit: Wasfi Akab/Flickr

Ennigaldi inherited a profound appreciation for history and archaeology from her father, King Nabonidus, who ruled over Babylon from 556 to 539 BC. King Nabonidus displayed an exceptional passion for these fields, leading expansive excavations and incorporating references to previous rulers in his writings. He is the earliest known person in history to attempt to chronologically date archaeological artifacts. Indeed, many of the items featured in the collection were originally discovered by him. It is reasonable to infer that Ennigaldi's own fascination with archaeology and history was nurtured by her father's deep interest in these subjects.

In 547 BC, Ennigaldi was appointed high priestess, known as entu, of Ur—a position that had remained unoccupied since the time of Nebuchadnezzar I in the 12th century BC. The entu held a sacred duty to the moon-god Sin (referred to as Nanna in Sumerian antiquity) and held the highest ecclesiastical authority in the land. Supposedly, the entu was chosen by divine intervention, with the god Sin himself making the selection evident through omens. The motivation to reinstate this venerable office was said to have arisen in Nabonidus after he interpreted a partial lunar eclipse in 554 BC as an auspicious omen. Additionally, the discovery of a stele depicting the investiture of Nebuchadnezzar I's daughter as the entu further inspired him to restore the position. According to Nabonidus, his choice of Ennigaldi as entu was made only after a meticulous and extensive process of divination, which confirmed that she was indeed the selected candidate of Sin.

As the entu, Ennigaldi dedicated a significant portion of her religious duties to the worship of Sin, particularly during the evening hours, within a small azure chamber atop the Ziggurat of Ur. Her official residence, known as the giparu, stood adjacent to the ziggurat. Among the entu's most vital religious responsibilities was to assume the role of the human wife of the god Sin and to carry out rituals associated with this sacred union, although the exact details of these rites remain shrouded in mystery.

A clay cylinder inscribed with a description in three languages, as used in Ennigaldi's museum to accompany an ancient artifact; these are the earliest known "museum labels". Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, the entu was tasked with offering prayers for the well-being and longevity of the king, who symbolized the embodiment of Babylonia's prosperity. She also played a role in providing comfort and adornment to Ningal, the divine consort of Sin. Additionally, the entu held the administrative reins of the vast estates and wealth associated with the Ur temple complex.

In addition to these pivotal duties, Ennigaldi also took charge of, and quite possibly taught in a school tailored for young women aspiring to become priestesses, primarily hailing from upper-class Babylonian families.

In 530 BC, Ennigaldi founded a museum containing artifacts from past Mesopotamian civilizations. It was located about five hundred feet southeast of the ziggurat.

Some of the objects on display may have been personally excavated by Ennigaldi and her father. While the majority of these artifacts hailed from the 20th century BC, the collection encompassed a vast timespan, spanning approximately 1,500 years from 2100 BC to 600 BC. Ennigaldi took the initiative to establish a comprehensive research program centered around the museum's assortment of relics, and it is presumed that she herself undertook the responsibility of cataloging and labeling these collections.

Among the items on display were artifacts once in possession of Nebuchadnezzar II, including a ceremonial mace-head, a Kassite boundary stele (kudurru), and a meticulously restored statue of Shulgi, a renowned Sumerian monarch of Ur who reigned from 2094 to 2046 BC, which had been carefully restored to preserve the inscriptions on it. The museum boasted an array of clay tablets and cones, each inscribed with descriptions of the objects in three distinct languages, including Sumerian. Furthermore, the museum featured tablets containing lists detailing the items on display, marking the earliest known instances of museum catalogs.

Ennigaldi’s later life is not known. The museum itself ceased to exist around 500 BC. Deteriorating climate conditions, including a change in the course of the Euphrates river, a drought, and the recession of the Persian Gulf caused Ur to rapidly decline and rendered the city uninhabitable, and was abandoned.


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