Mesopotamia, and a taste of Africa

lion weight from mesopotamia exhibit at melbourne museum

The Mesopotamia exhibit at the Melbourne Museum has more cuneiform thank you can point a stick at. Some might say they can see direct links between this first recorded writing and my own scrawl, but given these ancient scribes were using a pointy stick and a wet clay tablet, that’s being unfair to them. What an exotic, precise script it is, evolving from pictographs to poetry. And Gilgamesh, of course. Where would we be without that ancient epic, hey? There’s a piece of it at the exhibit. And I missed it! Skedaddling to cram in as much as I could before closing time, this chink of literary history slipped under my radar. Honestly, you want a good two hours to work through the exhibit, a collaboration with the British Museum.

Gilgamesh, the first comic book hero

As well as the clay tablets, there are figurines and implements, a walk through the region and its history with focus on the main urban centres of the three early empires (Sumer, Assyria and Babylon), stunning relief pictures of battles and — a little sadly — lion hunts, some of which have been given hi-tech interpretations to help understand the wonderfully detailed graphics. There is one brilliant, touching image of a wounded lion on its death bed …

nebuchadnezzar cuneiform tablet, mesopotamia exhibit at melbourne museumThere are cylindrical seals shorter and not much rounder than a pinky finger that make incredibly detailed pictorial seals in clay. Recreations of artifacts. Agatha Christie makes an appearance — cleaning ivory figurines with her face cream! Very cool five-legged lammasu gate guards, five-legged to ensure the legs add up from both front and side views. An intriguing silver goblet found squished ‘hidden’ under a flagstone.

I would’ve liked more direct translations of the cuneiform tablets, just to put the scratchings into better perspective, and to get more of a feel for the language of the day. Still, seeing artifacts that someone made, thousands of years ago, that were used day to day, and here they are, you king whose name still endures, you unknown sculptor who made such beautiful images … it’s quite amazing.

Who couldn’t be entranced by the slow unveiling of this once-mysterious, still somewhat obscured, piece of history with its marvellous pantheon, towering ziggurats … and canals?!

Luckily, the paperweight pictured here wasn’t in the rather limited museum store offerings, although there was a rather cool, spindly Pazuzu figurine …

polly cocktail bar, fitzroyAfterwards we went to Fitzroy to meet friends for dinner, and, as you do when in Brunswick St, killed a very pleasant hour in one of my favourite bars, Polly. Skipped the rather yummy $7 pizzas (though the menu was different to our last visit and rather enticing) but kept the pangs at bay with dips and coffee while slumped in one of the red velvet armchairs. And then that dinner, across the street and down the block and up the stairs at Nyala African Restaurant. So totally yummy and relaxed.

Sometimes, it’s good to have a day like this to remind you why you live in the big smoke, eh.

The Melbourne Museum: now with added Tut

tutankhamun exhibition

So we succumbed, and despite having seen it in San Francisco already, we hit the Tutankhamun exhibit at the Melbourne Museum. And I’m glad we did, because my sieve-like memory had forgotten much of the awesome and remembered only the vague disappointment about there not being that much Tut there (in particular, sarcophagai or the famous death mask), and the information being fairly thin when it came to the details of this slice of Ancient Egyptian history.

The bas relief of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten is damn cool, as is the bust of the infamous monotheist, but it’s the quirky bits I’d somehow let slip that excited me once again: a wee ‘animated’ ankh holding Tut’s staff while he’s out hunting ostrich, and the amazingly different animal art (Bes, apparently, but rendered in ways I just haven’t seen before) on the chair of Sitamun, so fresh you could sit in it today (sadly, I can’t find a decent pic of the animorphs in question). There’s also a delicious statue of Sekhmet, though her eyes have had a rough time of it.

As usual, the colour and the detail of Egyptian art leaves me astounded. To think of the people who lavished so much effort on these works, to have them in such good order thousands of years later…

The Tut ticket gave us entry into the other areas of the museum, which we explored after a tasty lunch at the Middle Eastern-themed Tcheft Restaurant. The museum, and we didn’t have time to see all of it, is astoundingly good. The dinosaur and animal area is chock full of fun and informative interactive displays and is attractively presented, although the stuffed animals filling floor-to-ceiling ledges in one room did make me feel a little like an extra on a weird adaptation of The Birds. My only hope is that young’uns will see the poor glass-eyed critters and resolve to not let them go the way of the thylacine, of which there is a preserved specimen.

A walk-through forest section includes live animals — turtles, lizards, bower birds, tawny frogmouths and finches — and elsewhere there are more live fish and spiders and lots of stick insects.

And yes, race horse Phar Lap is on show, and it’s an awesome taxidermy job.

Also of note is the display outside the Tut exhibit of a replica of his mummy and the efforts made to finally solve the puzzle of his death at age 19 — nope — and, nearby, on a totally unrelated topic, CSIRAC, Australia’s first computer: about as big as your lounge room.

Tips: Tut is open only till December 4. The early bird parking is a good deal: $14 if you’re in before 9.30am and out after 2.30pm. Filling the time at the museum is not a problem, and the Garden View Cafe has great coffee if you want to while away the half hour till the museum opens at 10am. Or the Carlton Gardens are right there for a slow wander — I still am surprised to see massive Moreton Bay figs this far south. Don’t ask me why.