Collection of Ancient Tablets in Davidson Archives Gets New Life in Cyberspace

View Davidson's collection of cuneiforms in the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

The most frequent question college archivists receive from visitors is to identify the oldest objects in the collection. At 4,000 years old or more, the answer is clear -- the Babylonian cuneiforms. The college has 35 of them. But until recently, while they've been impressive as ancient relics, they haven't had much scholarly value.

"They were basically just sitting in a drawer," explained special collections outreach librarian Sharon Byrd. No one other than the late college librarian Mary Beaty had expressed an interest in studying the collection. For at least several years, Beaty had mounted a display of the cuneiforms in the library in association with the Humanities Program's study of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was originally written in cuneiform (pronounced q-nay-uh-form).

Most of the pieces owned by Davidson are four-inch by three-inch tablets thickly etched with the zig-zag markings of the Sumerian written language, which no current faculty members can translate.

But luckily, when most arrived at the college in the 1930s they were accompanied by at least a partial translation. The subject matter is in most cases mundane -- A list of provisions furnished to a messenger on a journey for a temple. A record of the receipt of one heifer calf. A bill for two sheep delivered on the 26th day of the month. A list of temple animals, apparently gifts of the people, which were delivered to a shepherd for herding.

Last fall Grey Professor of Classics and Professor of History Peter Krentz led his class in "Ethics in Archaeology" to view the cuneiforms. The experience revived his frustration over the fact that they had little scholarly value in their current locale. That prompted him to query his friend Chuck Jones, head librarian at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Jones put Krentz in touch with the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), a joint project between faculty members at UCLA and the Max Planck Institute in Berlin to create an online cuneiform catalogue.

Davidson has now joined the initiative, scanning its cuneiform collection and adding the tablets and translations to the CDLI database. The action has breathed new life into the Davidson collection. "They're now available to anyone anywhere!" said Byrd. "In this case, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of parts."

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History states that as many as half a million cuneiform texts are known today, inscribed in a variety of languages. Davidson's collection is dwarfed by others in the CDLI, which lists more than 20 collections of more than 1,000 texts each, led by Yale University's 25,484.

Still, Professor Krentz is delighted to have the Davidson collection in the CDLI. "Though no one at Davidson studies cuneiform, now that they're available to the whole scholarly world I feel better about our keeping them," said Krentz.

The move to digitize and post the college collection resolves the perennial question of archivists over whether it's best to keep a small collection of material, or donate it to a larger, significant collection elsewhere. The web provides a virtual common ground for all material, so it can be made available worldwide regardless of where it's physically maintained.

That's important because there are advantages to keeping an original item. "There's still great value in something you can physically touch, feel and examine," said Assistant Director for Discovery Systems Craig Milberg. "Students have a visceral reaction when they can actually hold something like a cuneiform tablet. It makes a connection across the ages, and leads to questions about the civilization that employed it. An image doesn't prompt that same strong feeling."

Byrd added, "Ultimately the value of adding our material to aggregated digital collections is that our material become more than just 'stuff.' In its virtual form it can be reviewed in its scholarly context. Plus, you can conduct research without spending time and money traveling to the site of the collection that interests you."

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History states that Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known systems of writing, and flourished in the ancient Near East over a period of more than 3,500 years. Cuneiform documents were written on clay tablets, by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. Tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not needed. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform 'wedge shaped,' from the Latin cuneus "wedge."

Though it was widely used for centuries, cuneiform was largely replaced by alphabetic writing by the second century AD.

The history of Davidson's acquisition of its cuneiforms is uncertain. However, most seem to have come to the college through Edgar J. Banks, American consul to Baghdad in 1898. Wikipedia describes Banks as a colorful antiquities enthusiast and entrepreneurial roving archaeologist in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire.

Banks purchased thousands of cuneiform tablets at a time when governments did not regulate the trade in minor antiquities. He brought them back to American and sold them in small batches to museums, libraries, universities, and theological seminaries -- including Davidson. The archives department has several letters from Banks offering to sell pieces to Davidson. He writes in one letter that his collection "includes a number of scarabs and amulets which would make very fine Christmas presents. The Depression obliges me to break up the collection, and I am offering the scarabs and amulets at very low prices."

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  • July 10, 2013