Savisylinteri pressikuva Matti Kilponen Museovirasto
This clay cylinder from the Neo-Babylonian period (605-562 BC) belongs to the archaeological collections of the Finnish Heritage Agency. It is from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II. The cuneiform writing on the cylinder tells about the construction of the Lugal-Marad temple in the Babylonian city of Marad. The ancient city of Marad was located in Tell Wannat es-Sadum, in present-day Iraq. Assyriologist and diplomat Harri Holma bought the cylinder from renowned antiques dealer Ibrahim Elias Géjou in Paris in 1913. Its exact origin is unknown. Photo: Matti Kilponen, Finnish Heritage Agency

Following the explorers’ footsteps in the ancient Middle East

Exhibitions, Collections

The area now known as the Middle East was the birthplace of the oldest and largest empires of the past. This summer, the National Museum is hosting the exhibition ‘Exploring the Ancient Middle East’ in cooperation with the University of Helsinki’s Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires and the Museum of Central Finland. The exhibition tells of how, from the 19th century right up to the present day, Finnish explorers have travelled to the Middle East to explore and study these civilisations that existed thousands of years ago.

Over the centuries, many explorers have headed to the Middle East in search of the roots of Western culture. Indeed, the ancient Middle East can be said to be the birthplace of many of the innovations and broad developments that have shaped society.

The new exhibition that opened on 19 May 2022 at the National Museum has, for the first time, brought together the Middle Eastern archaeological artefacts that belong to Finnish museum collections. The original collections were gathered from the perspective of European history, so the artefacts tell not only about the history of their place of origin, but also about how Europe has viewed the Middle East over the centuries.

From the beginnings of Middle East research right up to the present

The exhibition presents Middle East research right from its very beginnings. Such research was particularly prolific in the 19th century, when museum activities were developing, archaeology was becoming an established profession, and Western colonial powers were looking to conquer new regions together with their natural resources and local cultures. French and British explorers dominated the field, but other Europeans – including Finns – followed in their steps.

“Throughout history, the Middle East has been of endless interest to explorers, as we Europeans have sought our own roots from there,” explains Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies Saana Svärd from the University of Helsinki.

The exhibition introduces explorers whose work laid a solid foundation for Finnish research on the ancient Middle East. Georg August Wallin (1811–1852), who lived in the Åland Islands, made a total of three expeditions to Egypt in the 1840s, spurred on by the then widespread enthusiasm for this country now referred to as Egyptomania. A keen interest in Egypt can also be seen in the museum collections in Finland, as there are hundreds of Egyptian artefacts in the collections and museums of the Finnish Heritage Agency located around the country. Karl Fredrik Eneberg (1841–1876), an Ostrobothnian who studied cuneiform writing, journeyed from Finland to the Middle Eastern region of Nineveh – part of present-day Iraq – as early as 1876.

Anthropologist Hilma Granqvist (1890–1972) travelled to Palestine in the 1920s to carry out doctoral research on the lives of the women described in the Bible. After spending some time in the area, she understood that the current inhabitants of the area did not represent those of its biblical past, and that the women’s lives should instead be studied more extensively from their perspective. The method Granqvist developed for exploring a foreign culture by living out its daily life and participating in the lives of the locals later became a core method of anthropological research known as participant observation.

Over the past 50 years, Finnish research on the ancient Middle East has gained a great deal of international scientific recognition in the fields of assyriology, archaeology, papyrology and biblical research. In addition to universities, another source of this research is the Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

The exhibition also explores social developments and innovations that originated in the ancient Middle East, such as the earliest writing systems and monetary systems. Mathematics and astronomy, for example, were being studied in ancient Babylonia thousands of years ago, and from there we have inherited the 60-minute hour and the 360-degree circle.

Our fragile shared cultural heritage

Museum activities and archaeology developed in the 19th century as sciences that operated purely from a Western perspective. European researchers carried out large-scale excavations in Egypt and in the palace sites of present-day Iraqi, including Nineveh and Nimrud, where large archives of cuneiform writing were found.

The ‘Exploring the Ancient Middle East’ exhibition also highlights the ways the region’s cultural heritage has been put at risk. As in other parts of the world, construction and land use have a major impact on the preservation of cultural heritage sites. Wars and conflicts lead to the destruction of cultural heritage sites and cultural artefacts stored in museum collections around the world. Moreover, archaeological discoveries from the Middle East are much sought after in antiques markets. Interest in archaeological artefacts increases the likelihood of illegal excavations and exports, although such exports have been regulated since the 19th century years of Egyptomania.

“Action against crimes related to cultural artefacts is an important form of international cooperation, and it is also connected to the wider fight against crime. UNESCO’s cultural heritage conventions, European Union regulations, local legislation and international cooperation between authorities are key tools for securing the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide,” says Elina Anttila, Director General of the National Museum of Finland.

For the very first time, the exhibition has brought together the Middle Eastern archaeological artefacts that belong to Finnish museum collections from the National Museum of Finland and the archaeological collections of the Finnish Heritage Agency, the Gallen-Kallela Museum, Helsinki University Museum, the National Library, and museums from the cities of Raahe, Lappeenranta and Lahti. Eight of the exhibition’s more than 100 artefacts are on loan from the collections of the Swedish Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities (Medelhavsmuseet).

The public programme for the exhibition has been designed in cooperation with students from the University of Helsinki. In addition to guide-led and self-service materials, it also includes guided walking tours around Helsinki. In these, participants get to explore Helsinki from the perspective of how its architecture has drawn inspiration from sources such as Ancient Egypt. In cooperation with the international Making Home Abroad project, the museum’s second-floor Atelier will host in early August the week-long ‘At Home in Culture’ exhibition, which will make a tour of cultural centres around Finland. Further details of the public programme are available on-line.

The National Museum of Finland has put together the exhibition in cooperation with the University of Helsinki’s Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires and the Museum of Central Finland. It will be on display at the National Museum until 4 September 2022, after which it will relocate to the Museum of Central Finland and be on display there from 15 October 2022 to 1 January 2023.