Head’s Up: The Ancient of Days

A recent post on a listserv led me to a fascinating article in the Harvard Gazette. The story concerns some 4000 year old cuneiform clay tablets that were looted from Iraq, seized by U.S. Customs from smugglers, and consequently survived the destruction of the World Trade Center, where they were being held, on 9/11. They have since been conserved, translated and repatriated to Iraq.

The article triggered three lines of thought. One concerns the small cache of early writings we have in Special Collections. We hold five cuneiform clay tablets; one is part of a “leaf book” called Pages from the Past that includes samples of many historical formats. We inherited the other four from the former Western College Library, along with some other early artifacts, and there the trail ends so far as I know. If anyone knows more about their provenance I would love to hear from you.

I thought it would be appropriate to share images of these pieces to publicize their existence and to invite scholars to view them (click on the image to enlarge it). We know that most of these tablets documented the mundane minutiae of everyday human life: taxes, business transactions, court documents. And this small handful is unlikely to contain anything earth-shattering.  Then again, it’s the everyday experiences that really define our existence as humans. Perhaps these small pillow-shaped pieces of clay say more about human life in their day than the proclamations of kings.

Secondly, I was struck by the use of the term “tablet” to describe both these clay artifacts and the handheld electronic devices now gaining popularity. It is easy to envision a Mesopotamian scribe holding one of these clay pieces in his left hand and using his stylus with his right to incise the characters; it’s not so different from one of us using a tablet or cell phone.  The constant is the human body, and what was comfortable for a scribe in 2000 B.C.E. is still comfortable for us today.

The third thing that occurred to me, and the point of the original post that started this, was the survival of these early human writings through the millennia, including the devastation in New York. Thanks to the persistence of clay tablets such as these we can gain an understanding of humans living a long time ago, in a kingdom far, far away.  Of course the Mesopotamian scribes weren’t trying to create objects that would survive for millennia, but there seems to be a trend in the opposite direction.

As managers of rare books we are impressed by the survival of 1000 year old parchment or 500 year old books printed on cotton rag paper – particularly given the deterioration of 19th and early 20th century materials printed on acidic wood pulp paper. Many of us are struggling to deal with brittle audio and video tape that is less than 100 or even 50 years old. And what of our current electronic communications, such as this blog itself? I’m using a word processor to write this, and I’ll publish it via the web.  How long will this humble post survive? The rapid evolution of technology and information media requires an ever more frequent migration of content from format to format (remember floppy disks?). “Digital preservation” is all the rage in Library Land as we scramble to create a new expertise, both in the profession and in the commercial arena, to ensure the long-term survival of digital objects such as this text – even as we scramble to digitize the electromagnetic media of the past century before it deteriorates completely.

We have a long way to go in both endeavors.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives

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