Cuneiform Collections in the Princeton University Library

Ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets with cuneiform writing, dating back over 4,000 years, will on display in the Firestone Library’s Eighteenth-Century Window from October 2 to 8. Cuneiform writing was a method of incising script into wet clay with a wedge-shaped writing implement. For nearly 3,000 years, the scribes of Mesopotamia mastered the vertical, horizontal, and oblique strokes necessary to write words and numbers in Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other languages of the ancient Near East. The Manuscripts Division has a substantial cuneiform collection of approximately 1,350 baked and unbaked clay tablets and tablet cases, as well as some clay cylinders and nail-shaped cones. Most date from the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III) or Neo-Sumerian Empire, chiefly in what is now southern Iraq. The conventional date of Ur III, according to the Middle Chronology, is 2119–2004 BCE.  Cuneiform was used for all sorts of writing, from literature, law codes, and mathematical texts, to accounting records and economic documents in archives. Most of Princeton’s clay tablets are documentary and were excavated over a century ago from Telloh, Jokha, and Drehem (modern place names for the ruins of the ancient Girsu, Uma, and Puzrish-Dagan in Southern Mesopotamia). The principal donors of these were Moses Taylor Pyne, Class of 1877; Professor Rudolph Ernst Brünnow, Department of Near Eastern Studies; and other friends and alumni of Princeton University. In addition, there are 244 stone seals that were used to make impressions in clay tablets and their envelopes, from the collections of Moses Taylor Pyne; Robert Garrett, Class of 1897; and Edward D. Balken, Class of 1897. An online finding aid lists clay tablets and stone seals in the Manuscripts Division and The Scheide Library. Other clay tablets and stone seals are to be found in the Princeton University Art Museum. The Princeton Theological Seminary owns a very substantial tablet collection of clay tablets.

The tablets on display include the following:

No. 136. Baked clay cylinder of King Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 BCE). According to the Old Testament, this Neo-Babylonian king was responsible for the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and for the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem..

No. 555. Nail-shaped cone bearing the inscription of Gudea, the ensi of Lagash, Southern Mesopotamia (r. ca. 2144–2124 BCE).

No. 553. Accounting record listing expenses of women slaves during the reign of King Amar-Suen (r. 2045–2037 BCE). Third Dynasty of Ur.

No. 665. Pay-list of women (2027–2004 BCE). Third Dynasty of Ur.

No. 136. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the Princeton University Library.

No. 665. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the Princeton University Library.