What are the oldest items in the library collection? Cuneiforms!

A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of working with the oldest items in the library’s collection – Babylonian cuneiforms. A cuneiform is a small, clay tablet, etched with Sumerian text that chronicles the business of daily life thousands of years ago. For example, some of the cuneiforms in our collection are receipts for temple animals or are lists of provisions supplied to messengers on temple business.


Cuneiform from Davidson’s collection

Why was I working with these ancient relics? This excerpt from a recent news item, written by Bill Giduz, explains:

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.

Craig Milberg, Jan Blodgett, and Sharon Byrd decided that Davidson should participate in this worldwide effort and so they asked me if I would be willing to scan our cuneiforms and then upload the images for inclusion in the online catalogue.

I was thrilled and terrified to be handling these priceless objects and, as I moved them from their storage container to the scanner, I kept saying to myself, “DO NOT DROP THIS!” Luckily, no cuneiforms were harmed in the scanning process and the images were successfully transferred to the folks at UCLA. Because no one at Davidson can read Sumerian, we learned that some of our scans were upside down, but turning them right-side-up was easily accomplished in Photoshop.