Posted by: Ann Myers | October 23, 2009

What does Indiana Jones have to do with SIU? Morris Library’s Cuneiform tablet

Morris Library's cuneiform tablet has cracked in several places over the years.

Morris Library's cuneiform tablet has cracked in several places over the years.

The oldest book in our collections isn’t a book by the present-day definition, it’s a clay tablet estimated to be from 2400-2200 B.C. We don’t have a lot of expertise in this time period, but from some research and documentation that came with the tablet, we’ve learned that it came from Senkereh, also known as Larsa (modern day Tell as-Senkereh in Iraq). The city-state of Larsa dates back at least to Babylonian times, 2800 or 2700 BC, and was the site of worship of a sun-god (named Utu in Sumerian, and Shamash in Akkadian). The name Senkereh appears to refer to an ancient mound that may have been the site of the sun-god’s temple. At the time this tablet was carved, Larsa was between periods of dynastic greatness, an apparently quiet time, at least historically.

The writing on the tablet is cuneiform script, the earliest known writing system in the world.  The wedge-shaped pictograms were formed by pressing a reed stylus into the wet clay. If the information recorded was needed on a long-term basis, the clay tablet could be fired in a kiln to dry and harden it. Cuneiform writing was used for over 3000 years and could represent a number of different languages, gradually developing from a pictographic writing system to a phonetic one. The writing on this tablet is unusual in that the symbols are packed tightly together, and the lines along the bottom are curved to fit the contour of the tablet.

Detail from Morris Library's cuneiform tablet.

Detail from Morris Library's cuneiform tablet.

According to documentation that came with the tablet, it was found in the temple archives (presumably the temple of the sun-god) and it relates to sacrifices. Shamash was the god of justice, and the sick would appeal to him for relief from unjust suffering at the hands of demons. The sacrifices recorded on the tablet  could be food or other offerings to the god.

But how did SIU come to own such an ancient artifact? And what does this have to do with Indiana Jones?

Senkereh was first excavated in 1850, and efforts to recover the ancient city continued into the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, the antiquities market was relatively unregulated, and in 1898 the American consul in Baghdad, Edgar J. Banks, bought hundreds of cuneiform tablets, reselling them to libraries and museums around the world. Banks was not just a diplomat but also a roving archaeologist, and he has been pointed to as the original inspiration for the Indiana Jones character. It is said that he was the first archaeologist to search for the Ark of the Covenant, and that he climbed Mount Ararat looking for Noah’s ark.

It is unclear whether Morris Library’s tablet came directly from Banks, or if we acquired it through an intermediary dealer. But one piece of documentation that came with our tablet is signed “Guaranteed authentic – Edgar J. Banks.”

This relic, over 4,000 years old, may have come to us circuitously, and its origins have thus been somewhat obscured, but the fact that it has survived this long serves as a reminder of the impermanence of so many other media, as well as a fascinating glimpse into one way information was recorded in the days before paper.


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