Newswise — Among the oldest items to be found on Creighton University’s campus is a receipt for barley that clocks in at just under four-and-a-half millennia of existence.
The piece is small — about an inch-and-a-half square — and covered, back to front and on its narrow sides, in finely-wrought cuneiform, the lingua franca of the Third Dynasty of Ur during the Neo-Sumerian Empire which occupied portions of modern day Iraq and Syria. Known as an administrative tablet in the study of Assyriology, the piece is one of five similar pieces held in the Venteicher Rare Book Room in the Klutznick Law Library/McGrath North Mullin & Kratz Legal Research Center and which were newly translated in 2016 by a pair of Assyriologists, Changyu Liu, PhD, of Zhejiang Normal University in Jinhua, China, and Kristin Kleber, PhD, of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
The written word was in its infancy when the Creighton tablets were penned — or, more precisely, etched onto wet clay with a reed stylus — and it’s striking that something so ornate could serve such a seemingly mundane purpose as to record a commercial transaction. But as Liu said, such administrative tablets are the legacy of the Sumerians, who used written language for the advancement of record- and bookkeeping.
“The earliest writing in the human history is Sumerian cuneiform invented by Sumerian people dating to approximately 3200 B.C.,” said Liu who, with Kleber, published their translations in Altorientalische Forschungen, a German academic journal of ancient history. “The earliest cuneiform tablets record sales of barley, sheep and so on. I think that probably the Babylonians or ancient Mesopotamian people started the tradition and the business of keeping accounts and recording transactions, much like ancient Greeks and Chinese started the tradition of recording history.”
And despite the seemingly straightforward economics of four of the tablets, Liu said they still have plenty of history to offer and stories to tell, some of which have portentous echoes in our own epoch.
The barley receipt is recorded as having taken place in the year “Huhnuri was destroyed.” Another receipt for baskets was transacted when “Simurum and Lulubum were destroyed.” A messenger text offering a holding of provisions speaks of “good beer,” “high-quality beer,” and “middle-quality beer” and a store of onions and bread, all inventoried in the year “the Amorite wall was built.”
One of the newer pieces in Creighton’s collection is a recapitulation of rations from the year 585 B.C., during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, the Old Testament royal who features centrally in the apocalyptic visions of the prophet Daniel.
Creighton’s lone non-commercial tablet is a votive cone celebrating the prowess of Sin-kasid, King of Uruk (sometimes rendered as Erech in Bible translations). The cone would have been purchased and used as an offering for the king’s health and welfare, extolling him as “mighty man, king of Uruk, King of Amnanum, provider of Eanna.” “These tablets are the cultural heritage of human beings,” Liu said. “We are very proud to keep them and study them, because they perpetuate human civilization and continue to help us understand it. Without these cuneiform tablets, we would not understand the Mesopotamian civilization — the first civilization in human history, which is regarded as the origin of ancient Greek civilization and also as the origin of Western civilization. It is also interesting that modern Iraq and Syria, as the heirs of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, are now, are still, suffering the horrors of wars, panic, and despair. History is interesting, but sometimes it repeats itself in harrowing ways.”
While the tablets have revealed their obscurities to Liu and Kleber, just how Creighton came into possession of this collection remains something of a mystery.
Corinne Jacox, a catalogue/reference librarian at the Klutznick Law Library/McGrath North Mullin & Kratz Legal Research Center, said the tablets may have arrived in the 1920s, along with a shipment of old legal tomes from Great Britain. In 1930, the Omaha World-Herald mentioned the collection — which then numbered six items — in a story about the law library’s holdings.
“So we’ve at least had them since 1930,” Jacox said. “We can’t find any other documentation about them from earlier than that.”
In 1958, the collection was examined and briefly translated by a Creighton Jesuit, the Rev. R. O’Donnell, SJ, who showed the pieces to students and Creighton faculty. Fr. O’Donnell’s translations still reside with the tablets, along with a note to Margaret Gettys Hall, at that time the assistant law librarian.
Liu speculates the tablets were sold to the University by Edgar J. Banks, an American diplomat and antiquarian who served as a consul in Baghdad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On self-financed archaeological projects around Mesopotamian sites, Banks collected hundreds of these tablets and peddled them — sometimes for as little as $1 apiece — to universities and museums around the U.S.
Liu has been tracking down such tablets for a number of years and stumbled upon Creighton’s doing an Internet search. He was able to make contact with Jacox, law library director Kay Andrus and University archivist David Crawford, who helped facilitate the translation by sending digital images of the tablets to Liu and Kleber.
“It was a lucky chance,” he said. “And we felt very fortunate to work with Creighton. It’s still my hope we can find more of these tablets and do further work with them.”
For Creighton, some of the mystery still endures, and Jacox is hopeful the University might be able to confirm the provenance of the tablets someday.
“You’d always like to know where something came from, how it got here,” she said. “But the fact that we have them and we can share them with the world in this way is great, too. These are just more pieces that contribute to our understanding and knowledge of an era long, long ago.”