A few years ago my wife and I took a vacation to visit some friends living in the Seattle area.  On our way up we stopped at various tourist attractions.  In San Jose, we visited the Winchester Mystery House, built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the man who made his fortune selling the firearms that still bear his name.  The story goes that a Boston medium told Sarah Winchester that she had to leave her home in New Haven and travel west, where she must “build a home for yourself and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon, too. You must never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live forever. But if you stop, then you will die.”  So she made it a point to build a house that would never be finished.  Workmen were kept busy making modifications and additions to her home until the day she died in 1922.  At which point, all work on the house ceased.  The house is an enormous, ramshackle affair.  There are stairways and doors that lead nowhere and rooms that serve no purpose. Today it is a tourist attraction and so my wife and I spent an afternoon gawking at its oddities.

            Another place we visited was nearby, also in San Jose: the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium.  I knew very little about the Rosicrucians, outside of what I could discern from their odd advertisements in the back pages of the science fiction and popular science magazines I read.  As a result of their beliefs, they have a fascination for all things Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern.  And so their museum contains one of the largest and best collections of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern artifacts in the world.  It was filled with mummies and artwork, sarcophaguses, funeral urns, and papyrus manuscripts.

            What I was particularly looking forward to seeing, however, was their collection of cuneiform tablets.  I’d known about them long before we arrived at the museum, since the language of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians was one I had studied extensively when I was doing my graduate work in ancient Semitic languages at UCLA.  While there, I’d seen photographs and read copies of some of those tablets housed by the Rosicrucians. 

            The tablets in the Rosicrucian museum were mostly small enough to fit the hand of a child. They were usually gray or tan, and roughly pillow shaped—and covered with the cuneiform writing system that the Babylonians and Assyrians had borrowed from the Sumerians. At UCLA my classmates and I joked that the cuneiform writing system had been developed just to frustrate twentieth century graduate students.  More likely, it survived the advent of the alphabet so that Mesopotamian scribes alone would be able to read it—and thus enjoy permanent job security.  

            So I happily peered into the glass cases in the museum to see if I could read some of the tablets.  I found that I could, but I also found myself startled.  Several of the tablets were upside down!

 That’s right.  In a museum dedicated to Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern artifacts, the curators had not been careful to see to it that the tablets were displayed right side up.

            Admittedly, this probably had never before been a source of embarrassment for the museum. After all, how many visitors would ever realize that they were upside down—or care? 

I did let one of the guides know about the problem, but she didn’t seem particularly interested or concerned.  I don’t know if anything was ever done about the upside down tablets.  I have not been back since.

            Things being upside down is not a problem unique to that museum.  The astronomy magazine Sky and Telescope a few years ago had an article on astronomy in the ancient world. Some cuneiform writing was used as part of the artwork decorating the article.  And—you guessed it—the cuneiform was upside down. 

I wrote a letter.  I suspect my letter was the only one they ever got on the mistake and I doubt that they much cared. They didn’t publish my letter and they never issued a correction.

            While I was at UCLA, my Ugaritic professor brought in a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and pointed out the Ugaritic article in it.  He had us look at it carefully and asked us if we noticed anything amiss. 

There was a picture of an Ugaritic tablet.

It was upside down. 

My professor told us that he had written to them about it, but three more editions of the encyclopedia appeared before Encyclopaedia Britannica got around to turning the picture right side up.

            It’s not just obscure languages in museums and encyclopedias that get turned upside down.  During the opening credits of the 1999 movie, End of Days—which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger—several sections of text in various languages scroll across the screen. The last section of text was in Hebrew. And it was clearly upside down.


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