Ennigaldi-Nanna curator of the world’s first museum

(ORDO NEWS) — “This belongs in a museum.” With these words, Indiana Jones, the world’s most famous fictional archaeologist, formulated an association between archaeologists, antiquities, and museums that has a very long history.

Indeed, even Jones himself would probably have marveled at the historic setting of the world’s first “museum” and the remarkable woman believed to be its custodian, the Mesopotamian princess Ennigaldi-Nanna.

Ennigaldi-Nanna was a priestess of the lunar deity Sin and the daughter of the neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur around 530 BC. a small collection of antiquities was collected, and Ennigaldi-Nanna was engaged in arranging and marking various artifacts.

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First known museum label

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

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Leonard Woolley (left) and T. E. Lawrence at an archaeological site in Syria

In 1925, Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur (now in the province of Dhi Qar in southern Iraq). They discovered a curious collection of artifacts among the ruins of a Babylonian palace. What was especially unusual was that although the items belonged to different geographical areas and historical eras, they were neatly collected together.

The dating of the objects varied from 2100 BC to 600 BC. Among them was part of a statue of the famous early king Shulgi of Ur, who ruled around 2058 BC, a ceremonial mace made of stone, and some texts. The statue, according to Woolley, has been painstakingly restored to preserve the inscriptions.

Also found was a Kassite boundary stele (called a “kudurru”), a written document used to mark boundaries and proclamation. This stele dates back to around 1400 BC. and, as noted by Woolley, contains a “terrible curse” for anyone who removes or destroys the record contained on it.

Many of the items were accompanied by labels with detailed information about the artifacts. They were written in three languages, including Sumerian. These labels have been described in modern scholarship as early examples of the “metadata” that is so important to the preservation of antiquities and historical records.

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An example of Sumerian writing on a foundation tablet from 2144-2124. BC

The museum, which is over 2500 years old, was culturally oriented and is thought to have had an educational purpose. Along with her other functions, Ennigaldi-Nanna is believed to have run a scribe school for elite women.

Reviewing the find, Woolley noted that the discovery of a museum associated with the priestess was not unexpected, given the close relationship between religious professionals and education.

He also commented on the “antiquarian piety” of the time the museum was built – an interest in history was a common trait among the monarchs of the neo-Babylonian period.

Family passion for history

Indeed, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s interest in the past seems to have been a family trait. Her father Nabonidus was fond of history, which prompted him to excavate and find lost texts. Many of the items in the collection were discovered by him, and today Nabonidus is sometimes called the world’s first archaeologist.

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Basalt stele of Nabonidus

Nabonidus was the last king of the neo-Babylonian empire and a religious reformer. His eldest son, Belshazzar, ruled as 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 approaching, as it is foretold by the writing of a disembodied hand on the wall.

The interest of King Nabonidus in history was not limited to archeology. He also worked on the revival of ancient cult traditions associated with the moon deity Sin (Sumerian Nanna). His daughter Ennigaldi was an important part of this effort, for her name is an ancient Sumerian, meaning “priestess, desire of the god of the moon.”

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Boundary stele/kudurru depicting King Melishipak I (1186-1172 BC) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun represents Shamash, and the star represents the goddess Ishtar

The appointment of Ennigaldi as high priestess of Ur revived a historical trend made famous by Sargon of Akkad, who appointed his daughter, the poetess Enheduanna, to that role over 1,000 years ago.

By the time of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appointment, the religious role she was to fill had long been vacant, and the rituals associated with that position had been forgotten. However, Nabonides reveals that he found an ancient stele that belonged to Nebuchadnezzar I and used it to guide his actions.

The historical aspects of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appointment were further emphasized by Nabonides when he recounted his research into the requirements for her role. The king describes an appeal to the works of a previous priestess, the sister of the ruler of Rim-Sin named En-ane-du.

Rim-Sin reigned for over 1200 years before Nabonidus came to power. Although some scholars doubt that Nabonidus discovered the stele of Nebuchadnezzar I, his discovery of the writings of the priestess En-Ane-du received greater recognition.

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Ruins in the city of Ur, Southern Iraq, photographed in 2006. Around 530 B.C. a small collection of antiquities was assembled here, and Ennigaldi-Nanna was engaged in organizing and marking various artifacts

Little known today

Ennigaldi is virtually unknown these days. The exception to her modern anonymity can be found in Ennigaldi’s luxury fashion line, which creates pieces inspired by ancient Babylonian architecture.

While relatively little is known about Ennigaldi’s life, there are other notable women in her ancestry. Ennigaldi’s grandmother, Adad-guppy, was also an influential priestess, involved in the political world of her son Nabonidus.

Adad-Guppy is best known today for her “autobiography”, a cuneiform account of her life written in the first person. Adad-Guppy’s autobiography records the blessings she received from the moon deity, such as living to the age of 104 in sound mind and body.

The city of Ur and its museum were abandoned around 500 BC. due to deteriorating environmental conditions. These included severe drought, as well as changes in the structure of rivers and silt. The prevalence of drought has also been cited as a likely cause for the fall of many of the early Bronze Age kingdoms.

The history of the world’s first famous museum, its curator and her family shows the enduring appeal of preserving the treasures of the past.

At the same time, the disappearance of this early educational institution more than two millennia ago demonstrates a significant overlap between important areas of cultural heritage and environmental conservation.


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