The story behind the world’s oldest museum, built by a Babylonian princess 2,500 years ago

     In 1925, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered a curious collection of artifacts while excavating a Babylonian palace. They were from many different times and places, and yet they were neatly organized and even labeled. Woolley had discovered the world's first museum.

It's easy to forget that ancient peoples also studied history - Babylonians who lived 2,500 years ago were able to look back on millennia of previous human experience. That's part of what makes the museum of Princess Ennigaldi so remarkable. Her collection contained wonders and artifacts as ancient to her as the fall of the Roman Empire is to us. But it's also a grim symbol of a dying civilization consumed by its own vast history.

In his book Ur of the Chaldees, Woolley recounts his excavations of a palace complex in Ur. This particular palace dated to the very end of the city-state's long history, right before the absorption of its territories into the Persian Empire and the eventual abandonment of the city around 500 BCE. This was the time of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and while Babylon was (unsurprisingly) the capital of this empire, the now ancient city of Ur was still important both for its strategic location near the Persian Gulf and for its legacy as a once great power.
As Woolley explains in his book, he and his team were quite confident that they were excavating Ur from its latest period, which is why the artifacts they found in one particular chamber (a photo of which is on the left) made so little sense:
Suddenly the workmen brought to light a large oval-topped black stone whose top was covered with carvings in relief and its sides with inscriptions; it was a boundary-stone recording the position and the outlines of a landed property, with a statement as to how it came legally into the owner's hands and a terrific curse on whosoever should remove his neighbor's landmark or deface or destroy the record.
Now, this stone belonged to the Kassite period of about 1400 BC Almost touching it was a fragment of a statue, a bit of the arm of a human figure on which was an inscription, and the fragment had been carefully trimmed so as to make it look neat and to preserve the writing; and the name on the statue was that of Dungi, who was king of Ur in 2058 BC. Then came a clay foundation-cone of a Larsa king of about 1700 BC, then a few clay tablets of about the same date, and a large votive stone mace-head which was uninscribed but may well have been more ancient by five hundred years.
What were we to think? Here were half a dozen diverse objects found lying on an unbroken brick pavement of the sixth century BC, yet the newest of them was seven hundred years older than the pavement and the earliest perhaps sixteen hundred.
In this single room, Woolley had discovered at least 1,500 years of history all jumbled together, a bit like if you randomly found a Roman statue and a piece of medieval masonry while cleaning out your closet. Left to their own devices, these objects would never be found together like this. Somebody had messed around with these artifacts - they just couldn't have guessed how long ago and to what purpose that tampering took place.

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