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Penn Museum's Middle East Galleries reopen: Behold, the queen's beer straw

The Penn Museum reopens its revamped Middle East Galleries this weekend with a two-day festival. Look for the queen's beer straw and six more ancient objects to understand what the big update is trying to accomplish.

The silver and gold "Ram in Thicket," found by Penn archaeologists at Ur in the 1920s and now widely considered one of the ancient world’s great masterpieces, is well displayed in the Penn Museum’s renovated Middle Eastern Galleries, which reopen Saturday after a five-month closure.
The silver and gold "Ram in Thicket," found by Penn archaeologists at Ur in the 1920s and now widely considered one of the ancient world’s great masterpieces, is well displayed in the Penn Museum’s renovated Middle Eastern Galleries, which reopen Saturday after a five-month closure.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT /Staff Photographer

Back in the day, when people first realized they could grow food and pretty much hang around in the same place together, wine really came into its own. And why not? If you're going to give up the hunting and gathering life and stick around a plot of land to tend animals and plant crops, a gallon or two of retsina might be just the ticket on a lonely winter night.

And so the march toward today's urban, globalized, social world begins in ancient Mesopotamia and environs more than 7,000 years ago, when the good life consisted of wine, barley, goats, and a few neighbors.

The story that the Penn Museum tells in its newly renovated Middle Eastern Galleries begins with people and the things they make and build.  And because the museum has been sending archaeologists into the field for over a century, they've got the goods.

On Saturday and Sunday, the museum reopens the revamped galleries — the first of many renovated and reimagined galleries to come — with two days of entertainment and festivities to mark the occasion.

The new presentation shows that, ancient as they may seem, the people of Mesopotamia are part of a story still unspooling today: the growth of cities and their global interconnections. If you go, look for these seven ancient objects, which tell that story especially well.

The 7,000-year-old wine jar

Of course it begins with a wine vessel — a plain, dun-colored jar capable of holding nearly three gallons of fermented grape harvested in what is now northwestern Iran.

The, jar, dating to 5500-5000 BCE, was excavated by Penn archaeologists working in Hajji Firuz in the 1960s. Until a few months ago, it was the oldest such vessel known to exist. But another, from about 5900 BCE, was recently found to the north, in Georgia.

"It's pretty old," said Stephen J. Tinney, the Penn Museum's deputy director and chief curator. Tinney said that the Penn jar was "one of a number found set into the floor of a Neolithic" house.

"The traces [in the jar] tested for wine, probably a retsina-type wine," he said. "I don't know how palatable it was, but they had quite a lot of it."

Now, a plain jar found embedded in the clay floor of a 7,500-year-old house might seem a thin reed to hang the story of civilization on, but the reed proves pretty sturdy.

"One of the ways it relates to the big story is that when people began to settle, that provided opportunities to store more food, to process it early to keep it, and part of that was to store wine in jars like this," said Tinney. "Because you're not moving around all the time, you can extend the use of your food stocks."

The queen’s golden beer straw

By the time of the great heyday of Ur, the royal city in southern Iraq excavated by numerous Penn archaeologists, the drinking of wine and beer had become fully integrated into Sumerian society, as evidenced by a golden drinking straw, dating from about 2450 B.C.

The gold-foil straw, over a meter long, was found in the tomb of the great Ur queen, Puabi. It was protruding from a large silver pot, which would have been filled with beer the queen could sip before she made her way through the backstreets of the afterlife.

"One of the side effects of settling and living in bigger and bigger settlements, as cities grow and grow, is that social eating – feasting and banqueting – becomes more and more important," said Tinney. "In Mesopotamian texts, when the gods have to make big decisions, they usually drink beer first, and they'd drink it through straws like that."

Located right on the Persian Gulf, Ur was at the nexus of trade routes over land and by sea, which accounts for much of its growth and the increasing wealth of the city's elites.

‘The Ram in a Thicket’

That trade network can be seen clearly in one of the greatest objects found in the region, The Ram in a Thicket.

The Ram was uncovered in Puabi's tomb by Leonard Woolley, leader of joint Penn-British Museum expeditions in the 1920s. The Penn statuette was one of a pair uncovered during the 1928-29 excavation. (The other is in the British Museum.)

Not only does Ram (which is more properly seen as a goat) speak to a highly sophisticated sense of beauty, it is also a signpost on the road to globalization.

"Ur was pulling in material from perhaps as far as western Turkey, certainly the highlands of Iran, down to the gulf, over to the Levant," said Tinney. "I mean, these people were getting stuff from all over the world, and one of the reasons they had to do that is because that area of southern Iraq is basically an alluvial plain, There's lots of mud, but not much else."

The gold, silver, and the lapis lazuli that make up the bulk of the Ram all came to Ur from distant lands. The shell decoration was found in abundance locally.

"The Ram is extremely well made and assembled," said Tinney, noting that specialized crafts had advanced to a remarkable degree and Ur's goldsmiths were clearly highly skilled. "It's a masterpiece," he said.

Puabi’s diadems

When Queen Puabi was entombed, she was laid out with beautifully worked gold jewelry and appointments created by a range of Ur craftsmen. The necklaces, dating from about 2450 B.C., are made of carefully worked gold, silver, lapis, carnelian, and bitumen.

Tinney noted that the people of Ur "had flocks of sheep to make wool to export" but imported virtually everything else.

"They basically brought the world to them and displayed it as a sign of their wealth and then were buried in it as another sign of their wealth," he said.

As with the Ram in a Thicket, Puabi's diadem is made largely from imported gold. Her cloak and headdress also featured huge amounts of  precious and semiprecious stones woven into her garb in Ur's burgeoning workshops.

Ur goldsmiths shaped the pieces by hammering, chiseling, and punching. Sometimes molten gold was poured into casts. Special techniques — such as granulation and filigree — were employed to make the elaborate jewelry of Puabi.

"There is a general trajectory of increasing scope and size and complexity in the cities," said Tinney. Specialization kept increasing as individuals focused more and more on fulfilling the increasingly sophisticated needs of the wealthy.

The ancient Sumerian game board

Not everything in ancient Sumer was dawn-to-dusk work for ordinary people creating wealth for the urban elites. On exhibit is a game board, fashioned from much imported material, found in the 1920s in the tombs at Ur. Penn archaeologists have uncovered several such boards, including some cut into clay tablets and even scratched onto brick surfaces.

"It was a game played with tokens and dice and you move the token and jump your opponents," said Tinney. The elaborate board has carvings of an ibex eating a bush (much like the Ram in a Thicket), a man-headed bull, goats, and mysterious eyes.

This particular board also gives a sense of the luxury of the idle rich whiling away their time. But workers could scratch out a board in the dirt, like tic-tac-toe, and get away with playing anywhere.

A spreadsheet made of clay

Creating the wealth enjoyed by the royalty of Ur and other Sumerian cities was no simple task. It took a vast trading network and the labor of thousands of ordinary people. How to keep track of it all?

Enter the spreadsheet.

The Ledger, dating from about 1400 B.C., one of the thousands of similar clay tablets, is, quite simply, an early version of Microsoft Excel — columns of figures contained in cells, each cell representing a quantity. The Ledger represents mastery over math, the manner of cuneiform writing, and above all the deep bureaucratic need to organize and quantify.

"The Ledger makes a really powerful statement about organization and the logistics needed for larger and larger settlements," said Tinney. "As you get more and more people living together, more and more resources consumed and produced, there's a greater need to manage those resources and writing does that. The spreadsheet tablet is essentially an icon of organization. It's also very familiar. We still use them."

By the time of the use of this ledger, 1400 B.C., Ur had witnessed its last growth and was in decline. While the site of the city remained populated over the centuries, it never again achieved the prominence it had in the Third Millennium B.C.

Why the decline?

"That's much argued about," said Tinney. "Part of it might be over-farming, issues with the supply chain. Population migration is blamed partly. Invading hordes of nomads. The fact is that it collapses completely and Ur is never as great after that again."

By the eighth century A.D., Islam had begun to spread rapidly through the vacuum left by the collapse of earlier civilizations.

The Silk Road's Rayy bowl

Excavating at Rayy, near Tehran, in the 1930s, Penn archaeologists uncovered a 12th- or 13th-century stonepaste bowl featuring crescent moons and a fearsome harpy. Islam was, by this point, pouring itself into the emptiness left by the decline of other cultures.

"Rayy was on the Silk Road," said Tinney. "The bowl certainly speaks to the gradual march to globalization, from little obsidian trading networks through Ur's much larger world to the point where the trade through the Islamic and  [Persian] world, you get China connected to Europe, and ultimately Europe to the United States."