Scanning cuneiform tablets

Update! The CDLI has uploaded our tablets to their database, and translated the first two. See:

We are often asked about the oldest books in our collection. While the earliest printed book dates to 1471, and our manuscripts date back to the 5th century, our Babylonian cuneiform tablets can be considered the oldest “books” in the collection.

We’ve just scanned all three of them, for the first time, in order to contribute complete images of them to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative at UCLA, a collaborative project to document all the surviving tablets in the world. All three were acquired in the 1960s as part of a suite of early examples of writing put together as a teaching collection by The Foliophiles. These groups of tablets and manuscript fragments were primarily sold to colleges and universities to round out their teaching collections in book and manuscript history.

We have two tablets and one cone. The tablets are generally recognized to have recorded the records of business transactions, debts, or contracts. The cone, which has been shorn off and is only partially intact, generally recorded a prayer. The cone was then added to a temple wall, preserving the prayer within the walls of a sacred space.

The CDLI require images of all sides of the object so an accurate reconstruction, including transcription and translation, can eventually take place. How does one scan an oblong or oddly-shaped 3000+ year old object? Carefully, and using foam supports! As you can see above, the resulting images came out quite well.



About Jeffrey Makala

The Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections is located in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. The department preserves and makes accessible rare materials and special research collections supporting teaching and research across a wide range of disciplines.
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