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New cuneiform tablet acquired by Special Collections

January 8, 2020
Laura Wilsey
cuneiform tablet

The Stanford Libraries recently acquired its second cuneiform tablet. The acquisition was in response to the high level of use of the first tablet held by the Libraries, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from 2056 B.C.E. which was a gift of David C. Weber in 1990 (https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/4083797). This tablet was studied by internationally renowned Assyriologist Stefan Maul, and more information about the tablet and even its translation can be found here: http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/maul/cuneiform.html.

The newly acquired tablet (https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/13371266was purchased by Rare Books Curator Benjamin Albritton in 2019. This is the first cuneiform tablet that has crossed my desk to be cataloged, and a few things struck me about it. The first was the size. As you can see in the photograph, the tablet is quite small – it can fit easily in the palm of your hand. The second was how little information the dealer was able to provide about this particular item. We do know a few things – the tablet is from Mesopotamia and created in approximately 1900 B.C.E. and we know that it is an administrative document of some sort. This led me down a bit of a rabbit hole as I did some research in order to learn more about these fascinating materials.

So what did I learn?

  • There are far more of these tablets in existence than I could have imagined. In fact, between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets are estimated to have been excavated in modern times, of which only approximately 30,000–100,000 have been read or published.
  • Cuneiform literally means “wedge-shaped” after the shape of the reeds used as a stylus to imprint the marks into the clay.
  • Cuneiform is just the script, not a language.
  • The script was invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia before 3000 B.C.E., even earlier than Egyptian hieroglyphics. It has been surmised that Egyptian writing evolved from cuneiform and that cuneiform is one of the oldest forms of writing in human history.
  • The main languages of ancient Mesopotamia were Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian, so we can surmise that our new tablet is written in one of these languages.
  • A range of texts were documented on cuneiform tablets – very commonly they were records of daily life and administration, but also religious, mathematical, musical, legal, astronomical and even literature that includes the Epic of Gilgamesh. Could our tablet be a record of an exchange of goods? A legal document? What would be its analog today?
  • Just like our new tablet, most cuneiform tablets would fit comfortably in the palm of a hand and were used for only a short time: maybe a few hours or days at school, or a few years for a letter, loan or account. They were ephemeral - many of the tablets have survived purely by accident!

To gather some additional information, I called upon Benjamin Albritton, Rare Books Curator at the Stanford University Libraries to answer some questions about this acquisition:

Q: What do you find most exciting about this tablet?

A: Our collections are always growing in directions that follow both faculty and student research interests, and also what is available on the market. This was a happy find because the one cuneiform tablet we had in our collection previously saw a lot of use. It’s great to be able to add another example, and particularly one that has been understudied to-date.

Q: Why do you think so little information is known about this cuneiform tablet?

A: The tablet was formerly in a private collection - if there was additional information about the piece, it did not make it to us. There are many, many cuneiform pieces out in the world that haven’t been studied in depth - this piece is probably more the rule than the exception. 

Q: How do you foresee this tablet being used in teaching?

A: Much like with the other cuneiform tablet in our collection, this type of object is a key example for any history of writing and communication. It also provides a nice example when we want to give an overview of “book” history, or show visitors some of the interesting objects that make up our special collections. More importantly, it will provide a project for a student or students - transcription, provenance, contextualization. In many ways, the less we know about an object the more opportunities it offers for teaching and research.

 

I want to thank Ben Albritton for taking the time to answer my questions and for acquiring this fascinating item. I also want to thank Astrid Usong for taking and letting me use the photograph of the tablet in this blog post.

The tablet is currently with the Conservation Department for custom housing, but once that process is complete it will be available for use!

References:

https://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/about-us/mesopotamia/mesopotamia-history/mesopotamia-languages

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform

http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/maul/cuneiform.html

https://www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-egypt/cuneiform-6-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-the-worlds-oldest-writing-system/

 

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