Ennigaldi-Nanna, Curator of the World’s First Museum

June 26, 2019 Updated: June 28, 2019

“It belongs in a museum.” With these words, Indiana Jones, the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist, articulated an association between archaeologists, antiquities, and museums that has a very long history. Indeed, even Jones himself would likely marvel at the historic setting of the world’s first “museum,” and the remarkable woman who is believed to have been its curator, the Mesopotamian princess Ennigaldi-Nanna.

Ennigaldi-Nanna was the priestess of the moon deity Sin and the daughter of the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, around 530 B.C., a small collection of antiquities was gathered, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artifacts.

This collection was considered by the British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley to be the earliest known example of a “museum.”

C. Leonard Woolley (L) and T.E. Lawrence at archaeological excavations in Syria, circa 1912–1914. (Public Domain)

In 1925, Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur (now in the Dhi Qar governate of southern Iraq). They discovered a curious collection of artifacts among the ruins of a Babylonian palace. Especially unusual was that while the items were from different geographical areas and historical settings, they were neatly assembled together.

The items ranged in dates from around 2100 B.C. to 600 B.C. They included part of a statue of the famous early king Shulgi of Ur, who ruled around 2058 B.C., a ceremonial mace-head made of stone, and some texts. The statue, Woolley observed, had been carefully restored to preserve the writing.

first museum-tablet
An example of Sumerian script on a foundation tablet, 2144–2124 B.C. (Lagash II; Ur III). The Walters Art Museum. (Public Domain)

There was also a Kassite boundary stele (called a “kudurru”), a written document used to mark boundaries and make proclamations. The stele was dated to around 1400 B.C. and contained, Woolley noted, a “terrific curse” on anyone who removed or destroyed the record it contained.

Many items were accompanied by labels giving details about the artifacts. These were written in three languages, including Sumerian. The labels have been described in modern scholarship as early examples of the “metadata” that is so critical to the preservation of antiquities and the historical record.

first museum-Kudurru_Melishipak_Louvre_
King Nabonidus, who collected many of the museum’s items, was also a religious reformer. This artifact is a boundary stele or “kudurru” showing King Melishipak I (1186–1172 B.C.) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the god Shamash, and the star the goddess Ishtar. Louvre. (Public Domain)

The museum, over 2,500 years old, was centered on cultural heritage, and it is thought to have perhaps had an educational purpose. Along with her other roles, Ennigaldi-Nanna is believed to have run a scribal school for elite women.

When considering the discovery, Woolley noted that the discovery of a museum associated with the priestess was not unexpected, given the close connection between religious specialists and education. He also commented on the “antiquarian piety” of the time of the museum’s construction—an interest in history was a common feature among monarchs from the Neo-Babylonian period.

A Family Fascination With History

Indeed, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appreciation for the past seems to have been a family trait. Her father, Nabonidus, had a fascination with history that led him to conduct excavations and discover lost texts. Many of the items in the collection were discovered by him, with Nabonidus sometimes described in the modern day as the world’s first archaeologist.

Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and a religious reformer. His eldest son, Belshazzar, ruled as his regent for many years but is perhaps best known for his appearance in the biblical Book of Daniel. In a famous scene, the unfortunate regent sees the end of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom coming when it is foretold through the writing of a disembodied hand on a wall.

Belsazar's feast by Rembrandt
“Belshazzar’s Feast,” 1635-1638, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on Canvas, 66 inches by 82 ½ inches. National Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

King Nabonidus’s interest in history didn’t end with archaeology. He also worked to revive ancient cultic traditions relating to the moon deity, Sin (Sumerian Nanna). His daughter Ennigaldi was an important part of these efforts; indeed, her name is an ancient Sumerian one, meaning “the priestess, the desire of the Moon god.”

The appointment of Ennigaldi as high priestess in Ur reinvigorated a historical trend made famous by Sargon of Akkad, who installed his daughter, the poetess Enheduanna, in the role over 1,000 years earlier.

Stele of Nabonidus. Nabonidus is considered the first archaeologist and is here seen praying to the sun, moon, and Venus. A portion of text, on the right side of the stele, is still possible to decipher and recounts how the gods put an end to a drought due to good deeds of a Babylonian king. British Museum. (Public Domain)

By the time of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appointment, the religious role she would inhabit had long been unoccupied, and the rituals associated with the post had been forgotten. Nabonidus, however, describes finding an ancient stele belonging to Nebuchadnezzar I, and using it to guide his actions.

The historic aspects of the appointment of Ennigaldi-Nanna were further emphasized by Nabonidus when noting his research into the requirements of her role. The king describes consulting the writings of a previous priestess, a sister of the ruler Rim-Sin named En-ane-du.

Rim-Sin reigned over 1,200 years before Nabonidus came to power. While some scholars doubt Nabonidus’s discovery of the stele of Nebuchadnezzar I, his recovery of the writings of the priestess En-ane-du has greater acceptance.

Little Known Today

Ennigaldi is largely unknown in the modern day. An exception to her modern anonymity may be found in the luxury fashion line Ennigaldi, which creates pieces inspired by ancient Babylonian architecture.

While relatively little is known of the life of Ennigaldi, there are other well-known women in her family tree. Ennigaldi’s grandmother, Adad-guppi, was also a powerful priestess involved in the political world of her son, Nabonidus. Adad-guppi is best known in the present day from her “autobiography,” a cuneiform account of her life, written in the first person. Adad-guppi’s autobiography records the blessings she received from the moon deity such as living to the age of 104 with a sound mind and body.

The city of Ur and its museum were abandoned around 500 B.C., due to deteriorating environmental conditions. These included a severe drought, along with changing river and silt patterns. The prevalence of drought has also been cited as a likely cause of the falls of many earlier kingdoms from the Bronze Age.

Ruins in the town of Ur, Southern Iraq, photographed in 2006. Around 530 B.C., a small collection of antiquities was gathered here, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artifacts. (CC BY SA 2.0)

The story of the world’s first known museum, its curator, and her family, shows the timeless appeal of conserving the treasures of the past. At the same time, the disappearance of this early institution of learning over two millennia ago demonstrates the significant overlap in the important areas of cultural heritage and environmental conservation.

Louise Pryke is a lecturer in the department of languages and literature of ancient Israel at Macquarie University in Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation.