Apr 282015
 

 

This spring, the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department curated the exhibit “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which highlights some of the Library’s rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years. In celebration of Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2, 2015), the blog will feature daily posts highlighting exhibit objects that posed some of the more complex research questions and interesting treatment decisions.

Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known systems of writing, first developed in Mesopotamia c. 3400 BCE. A blunt reed was used as a stylus to press wedge-shaped marks into clay tablets. The Library’s collection of 17 cuneiform tablets, available in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections is frequently shown to students as examples of early writing technology, but until recently little was known about these particular tablets.

Cuneiform tablets must be viewed in raking light to read the text.

Cuneiform tablets must be viewed in raking light to read the text.

There is little provenance available related to these tablets and at least two different incomplete and overlapping numbering systems were previously used. In order to establish authority over the collection, a new numbering system was developed. The new numbering system needed to be distinct from the old numbers, but without obscuring either the old numbers or any of the cuneiform writing. It needed to be small, legible, easy to apply to a bumpy surface, and not damaging to the tablets.

Two tablets marked “5” in the previous numbering systems.

Two tablets marked “5” in the previous numbering systems.

NUL Special Collections Conservator Susan Russick, while specializing in book and paper conservation, has some experience with archeological materials. As a summer intern, she worked with ceramic materials of a similar age at the Gordion Archeological site in Turkey. After some consideration, each tablet was given a tiny paper label. Labels were laser printed on archival paper and adhered using Acryloid-B72, a method described by Thomas Braun, who was also at Gordion that summer.

Tablets in box

A box with foam sockets and removable trays was constructed, allowing the tablets to be viewed and passed around the classroom without being directly handled.

Tablet in box with label

The individually labeled sockets aid in security of the tablets.

Digital images of the tablets were submitted to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, an international group of Assyriologists, curators, historians, and librarians working to make available online over 500,00 cuneiform tablets. Northwestern’s participation in this effort will allow our collection of tablets to be viewed, studied, and translated by scholars around the world. As an initial result of this collaboration, we have learned that the majority of our tablets are accounts from the 21st century BCE and a few are neo-Babylonian texts.

 

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