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URBANA — These priceless objects from the cradle of civilization have survived thousands of years, so maybe it's about time you saw them.

The University of Illinois Spurlock Museum is opening an interactive display that can teach kids what the symbols mean on 2,500-year-old cylinder seals that come from the site of modern-day Iraq and Iran.

The seals were used as an official signature, as well as magic amulets. The characters on them, which can be seen enlarged and enhanced at Spurlock, helped give birth to modern writing.

Wayne T. Pitard, the director of Spurlock Museum and a professor in the religion department at the UI, said the ancient seals still show traces of paint, though we see them now as plain clay or stone.

The museum has more than 40,000 artifacts, including a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, papyrus fragments, rare castings and, more recently, objects from all over the world.

Ancient Mesopotamia is the focus of one of the main exhibits.

A highlight of the collection is an alabaster disk with three goddesses on it. The UI has owned it since 1924, but this is the first time it has been displayed at Spurlock.

New is an exhibit on the remarkably small and detailed Mesopotamian cylinder seals.

Using Spurlock's high-tech photographic systems, and help from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, you can now study the seals up close and learn how to decipher them.

There will be a quiz. But it's fun.

In the interactive exhibit, seals from over a span of centuries show the evolution of standard figures, such as the curly-haired hero, a seated woman with a bowl and lions and heroes fighting over a goat or other animals.

The museum's Leavitt Gallery of Middle Eastern Cultures (second floor) has a digital interactive kiosk with a pair of games that introduce visitors to the major characters found on the scenes carved on the seals. A video shows how much one can learn about Mesopotamian religion and politics just from how scenes are carved on the seals.

The civilization of ancient Mesopotamia grew up along what we now call the Tigris and the Euphrates. "Mesopotamia" means "between the rivers" in Greek.

Despite being a desert country with little natural resources, Mesopotamian empires had the creme de la creme of material goods from other cultures they conquered or traded with, Pitard said.

"There are artifacts that had traveled hundreds of miles from their original source," he said.

The empires of the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Akkadians overpowered other nations, including Israel and Syria. Traces of them are found in modern Turkey.

The redesigned and renovated exhibit will be dedicated Sunday.


If you go

What: The redesigned "The Land between Two Rivers" exhibit and the new exhibit area "First Impressions: Mesopotamian Cylinder Seals," with digital interactive features

When: Rededication ceremony, 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10; after that, regular museum hours (noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday; noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday)

Where: Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., U

Admission: Free

More information: 333-2360;