Annexed to the Ian Potter Museum of the University of Melbourne is a first-floor, light-filled room with large Gothic-arched windows visible from Swanston Street. It houses an archaeological display - pots and vases, coins, manuscripts and carvings - that's just a fraction of the 2500 or so pieces in the university's Classics and Archaeology Collection.
And, for a couple of months, it's being supplemented by 18 pieces from the Australian Institute of Archaeology, Melbourne. (The institute has been without a permanent exhibition site since 1999.)
Compiled by its director Christopher Davey, these pieces illustrate different scripts and early uses of writing (the doings of kings, records of produce, official expenditure, names of troops, a land transaction, property titles) in a variety of materials (stone and ceramic tablets, linen, vellum and papyrus fragments).
The story starts at about 3300BC in what is now south-central Iraq. Does it matter to you that the tiny exhibit from the Mesopotamian city-state of Kish with its "still only partially understood" pictogram is, in fact, a plaster replica of a tablet in the Pennsylvania Museum?
The pictogram is said to record "various quantities of produce from land holdings as offerings for the temple". Davey's caption continues: "Whether the land belongs to temple or ruler, or is held privately, is not clear."
In fact, his exposition has the same relationship to the original as does the plaster exhibit: it reproduces it. And even though his scholarly captions are throwaway, presumably to be disposed of once the show is over, they surface in the catalogue. And so does the tablet, in a photographic reproduction of the plaster reproduction.
I enjoyed this show immensely, partly for its mystery, for the requirement that you suspend disbelief in examining, say, a supposedly prosaic property transaction from 800BC that is inscribed in fine Assyrian wedge-shaped cuneiform script. Small enought to fit onto a child's outstretched hand, the tablet bears impressions, in the absence of a seal, of the buyer's and the two sellers' fingernails in the then unfired clay.
Davey tells us that part of the transaction, which was then fired into permanence, fixing it in law (and in time, as it turns out), refers to "a 40 imer plot" and that an "imer" measured the area sown by an "ass-load of seed".
An "ass-load of seed" - call me a throwback, but there's enough here to keep you out of the Nova for more than one blustery afternoon. But waste no time indulging in invectives against your enemies using the sand-coloured ceramic cursing bowl inscribed on its inside surface with brush-drawn Aramaic script (from Jerusalem, second century BC).
Instead, become transported: let a carved, limestone stela transport you to Alexandria. (A stela is a commemorative slab. This one is Egyptian, Ptolemaic period, and shows a man seeking the favour of the god Osiris, in hieroglyphs and in the demotic script then read by Egyptians.)
Alexandria is not only the city of Cleopatra VII, the last of the Egyptian Ptolemies, but also of Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) who lived with one foot in the ancient world and one in that cosmopolitan city.
See, famously, his poem The god abandons Antony, 1911, which pictures Mark Antony at the moment of his losing everything in the city in 30BC. Or, better still, in the context of this exhibition, read In the month of Athyr, 1917, in which Cavafy spells out, in half-lines, a fragment of an ancient epitaph, conveying, as E.M. Forster wrote in the early 1920s, "the obscurity, the poignancy, that sometimes arise together out of the past, entwined into a single ghost".
Visited by too many ghosts, I picture beside the stela in the show a mauve, printed paper place mat souvenired from a restaurant frequented by Cavafy about 70 years ago. Its central motif is also a carved relief and, again, it's in two scripts: in what we now call Roman and in Arabic, the two civilisations that succeeded the Ptolemaic in Alexandria.
Exhibitions of material culture always harbour ghosts that the viewer can choose to welcome or not.
Cavafy in Alexandria may not be one of yours, but there's another reason to invoke his spirit: there's a parallel, in the poet's engagement with both the epic and the incidental, in the curator of the permanent collection Andrew Jamieson's professional pride in the fabulous painted Greek vases on the one hand and his passion for the bronze-age household pots on the other.
But perhaps Davey should have the last words - and they're provocative.
In the caption to a fragment of Greek papyrus (Egypt, 5th-6th centuries), he asserts that this text - a list of four names - illustrates a "form of immortality conferred by writing".
If that's so, it's so for all Greeks with the theological sounding names Phoeb(anmon), Johanus, Philotheos and Theodore.
If you're someone for whom the modern world is not world enough, you'll love this show.
The Classics and Archaeology Collection,
Ian Potter Museum of Art,
University of Melbourne, Swanston Street, Carlton,
Until February 19