Migraine demons and the first ever caricature

4 May
Irving Finkel

Festival Director, Matt Holland with Irving Finkel (right) ©Calyx Picture Agency

Dr Irving Finkel doesn’t like to say he works in a museum. Not because he hates his job, on the contrary, Irving believes he works in the ‘best museum in the world, in the best job in the museum.’ The museum being the British Museum and the job being the cuneiform tablet curator. So why the reticence? Because people then expect him to be ‘dusty and boring’.

I’m pretty sure that anyone who meets Irving would have their expectations adjusted within 30 seconds. He is more one man show than monotone lecturer, adopting different accents in a talk punctuated by finger jabbing, foot stamping and casual swearing. He speaks many languages and exclamation marks feature in all of all of them.

His talk was a romp. I may not have followed all of it but I loved all of it. Here’s a few tit bits I picked up. (If you want to check my facts, go read his book entitled simply, Cuneiform.)

He was keen to impress on us that the Egyptians would claim they invented writing. Wrong!!! It was the Babylonians.

The people who invented writing were the ancestors of the inland revenue!!! People first and foremost needed to record how much stuff or money they owned, not a beautiful poem or philosophy idea – a ‘sad reflection of the human mind’ said Irving, and ‘a disease that appeared at the onset of learning!!!’

There were a number of ancient languages but Sumerian is the last remaining, however, because they wrote on hardy clay tablets. Clay – as any sculptor or ceramist knows – hardens in heat or fire. So unlike the parchment manuscripts of the Greeks, a Babylonian clay tablet will bask in a library fire, and age won’t wither them.

The British Museum has over 130,000 of these clay cuneiform tablets over three millennia of writing. One of these is the first ever recorded caricature by a student (he thinks) of a teacher (no doubt) with ‘a wesley little mouth’.

Another is the oldest medical treaty from 2,200 BC. Its ‘orderly manner’ suggests the knowledge recorded stretches back many centuries.

There were examples of tablets by exorcists; one for a demon of migraines, some for ghosts. The demons were banished but Sumerians were sympathetic to ghosts – they gave them gifts to pass over.

He showed us two tablets from the court of Nebuchadnezzar. Yes, that king from the Old Testament/Torah. One inscription began with the monarch’s long-winded title (as was the norm) – next to it the words, ‘so what?’ I wonder if the bored scribe ended up in the lions’ den.

In the couple of minutes left after Irving finished his spirited performance, an audience member asked about the Flood tablet. In 2014, at a British Museum open day, a member of the public, Douglas Simmons, handed Irving the tablet. As Irving read it, he realised he had on his hands a unique description of how the Ark was or could be built. It was a few centuries younger than other ‘flood’ tablets, but still older than the Hebrew story of Noah’s Ark. ‘I nearly had heart failure!!!’ he said. When he turned over the tablet and read the phrase, ‘two-by-two’ – the same phrase used in the Bible – it was ‘unbelievably exciting!!!’

Although the big discovers are thrilling, it’s the interpretation of little details that give us the richness of history. Irving calls this ‘unravelling the ball of wool back to the start!’ I call it a realisation that humans from thousands of years ago had the same delights and frustrations that humans today have, such as problems with their teachers and bosses who gave them headaches.

How brilliant that we have scholars like Irving with the skill and imagination to interpret them so!

Irving Finkle spoke at Swindon Arts Centre at Swindon Festival of Literature, 3 May 2017, with his book, Cuneiform.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison


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