I was searching the archives for something entirely unrelated when Irving Finkel playing the Royal Game of Ur against Tom Scott showed up in the results. Of course I had to watch it all over again because that video is pure joy. That drove me to seek out and rewatch his all-too-short video on how to raise the dead the Neo-Babylonian way. It only whetted my appetite, so off I went to the British Museum’s YouTube channel to see if there are any other Finkelgems out there, and there are. And how.
So first, there’s a whole video dedicated to his deciphering of the rules tablet of the Royal Game of Ur. Halfway through he whips out the cutest artifact of childhood history nerdery I’ve ever seen: a copy of the Royal Game of Ur gameboard that he made with his own hands when he was nine. It’s freaking amazing, of course.
Next, in a return to the eternally popular theme of dealings with the dead, is a discussion of ghosts in Mesopotamia culture. Killer pull-out quote: “I would like to see a ghost. I’ve never seen one; it’s very annoying to me.”
Ghosts weren’t the only problem supernatural creatures ancient Mesopotamians had to counter, contain and appease. In this video Irving Finkel talks about one of the gnarliest supernatural beings in ancient Mesopotamia and how one gnarly demon could ward off the depredations of another. I don’t want to include any spoilers for a five minute video, but one of those beasties played a small but key role in a classic Hollywood horror and Finkel at long last redeems his reputation.
It seems that games were Irving Finkel’s first historical loves. In this video he tells an absolutely heart-warming story of how he was so enamored of the Lewis Chessmen when he saw them at the British Museum as a boy that he spent years buying the beautiful artisan crafted replica chess figures that were then available in the museum gift shop. His family was of modest means and he could only afford to get one at a time on special gifting occasions like Christmases and birthdays. There are 32 pieces in the Lewis chess set, so it took a long time to get the set. In fact, he was still out seven pawns when he got his doctorate. His father bought the last seven for him as a present when Dr. Finkel earned his title.
This touching story then takes an unexpected turn that literally made me laugh out loud. Irving Finkel is not just one of the world’s foremost cuneiform experts, the translator of the oldest game instructions in the world, adorned with a razor-sharp wit and epic beard, but he is an absolute master of shade.
Back to his area of curatorial expertise. Here, plucked from the very marrow of my unspoken dreams, is Dr. Finkel giving a lesson in how to write cuneiform to Tom Scott, his cheerfully hapless opponent in the Game of Ur, and Matt Gray on the steps of the British Museum. He shows them how to make the wedge-shaped marks with a simple rectangular stylus on a tablet of wet clay and makes it look easy.
Finkel follow up with another lesson inside the museum to a nice fellow named Nick who played a key cameo role in the Lewis Chessmen video. This one-on-one tutorial can get into more detail and I have to say Nick’s finished “Ashurbanipal” after 25 minutes is downright respectable. I’d be thrilled with that result myself.
That would be a top notch home school project, btw. Print copies of the cuneiform code page from the Cuneiform book by Irving Finkel and clay tablet curator Jonathan Taylor, make some play dough with common pantry ingredients and cuneiform your name or Ashurbanipal’s or the dog’s and then bake the tablets in a 200F oven for half an hour to harden them for display. Embed a magnet in the back and Ashurbanipal could be holding up your kids’ drawings on the fridge.
I’ll close with a lecture Finkel gave to the Royal Institution on the history of cuneiform writing. At almost 40 minutes, it is a deeply satisfying jaunt into the material and delivered with his inimitable panache. This man is an international treasure.