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The Cuneiform Tablets of Columbia University Libraries — Rare Books and Manuscripts Library


The collection of 629 cuneiform texts of the Columbia University Libraries in New York is one of the oldest in North America and is made up of an unusual mixture of genres of materials. Yet, except for the tablets from the Ur III period, it remains relatively unstudied. The bulk of the inscriptions, 455, were donated to Columbia in 1896 by supporters of Columbia University who had acquired them in 1895 from the New York antiquities dealer David Z. Noorian. Those of Ur III date—256 tablets and two envelopes—probably all derived from the site of Telloh. Although this site was, at the time, being excavated by Ernest de Sarzec, L. Heuzey reported that local people dug up these and thousands of other tablets in the course of illicit digs when the French interrupted their work in 1894. The other tablets of CUL’s initial collection can, based on internal and paleographic criteria, be dated to periods ranging from the early 2nd millennium Old Babylonian to the late 1st millennium BC Hellenistic phases of Babylonian history, but remain insufficiently studied to determine their places of origin. With this group may belong another donation, by L. A. Bernheimer in 1896, of thirty-two tablets, whose current location is not known. Similarly, the whereabouts of a gift in 1902 of eighteen tablets by John Deneley Prince, who taught Slavic languages at Columbia University and also instructed Sumerian, is unclear. Frederick A. Vanderburgh published three of this group in 1913 (“Three Babylonian Tablets, Prince Collection, Columbia University,” in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 33, pp. 24-32). These messenger texts are very similar in content to a large part of the earliest donation, but they seemingly are not included in any of the later catalogues and publications, and cannot be found.

In 1915, George Arthur Plimpton, an avid collector of mathematical manuscripts and a sponsor of the Columbia University libraries acquired his first cuneiform tablet and he continued to search for additional materials from various dealers, a story reconstructed from his papers by Eleanor Robson (“Guaranteed Genuine Originals: The Plimpton Collection and the Early History of Mathematical Assyriology,” C. Wunsch, ed., Mining the Archives: Festschrift for Christopher Walker, Dresden: ISLET 2002, pp. 231-278). He worked closely with David Eugene Smith, professor of mathematics at Teachers College, Columbia University, who also collected manuscripts, and with whom he had agreed not to duplicate efforts. Both men donated their entire collections to the Columbia Libraries. In 1934 Smith gave sixteen cuneiform tablets, in 1936 Plimpton gave thirty-four, the famous mathematical tablet, Plimpton 322 (CULC 460) among them. When in 1943 Isaac Mendelsohn, Professor of Semitic Languages, published his Catalogue of the Babylonian Tablets in the Libraries of Columbia University: A list of Cuneiform Documents from the Sumerian, Old-Babylonian, Kassite, and Neo-Babylonian Periods, with Photographic Reproductions of Selected Seals, and Clay Objects, (New York: Columbia University Libraries, 1943), he included 380 items whose contents he could read. The collection contained more than 500 tablets at that time, and Mendelsohn excluded a substantial number of items that are still hard to identify.

In 1959, a collection of seventy-five tablets owned by Paul Monroe, Professor at Teachers College, was donated by his children twelve years after his death. Subsequently, three small donations were made: four tablets in 1965 by Harry G. Friedman, two legated by Professor Lynn Thorndike in 1966, and three by Professor Frances Henne in 1973. Several of these probably had been originally acquired from the notorious Edgar J. Banks. Subsequently, two individual tablets entered the collection: an Old Assyrian text as part of the Sackler donation to Columbia’s Art Properties, and a proto-Elamite tablet, found among the materials Professor Edith Porada left Columbia upon her death and whose origins are unknown—this latter text is the oldest in the CUL collection, dating to ca. 3000 BC. In total there are now 629 items, some illegible, housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection at Columbia’s Butler library, excepting the Porada tablet, which remains in Art Properties. It is not always possible to determine when each tablet entered the collection that has undergone several reorganizations, most drastically in 1971 when Robert David Freedman created a full catalogue of the Ur III texts as a Master’s Thesis at Columbia University.

Although the acquisition history parallels that of many other collections in the United States, the Columbia artifacts are quite remarkable in the diversity of their contents. Some half of the tablets are of Ur III date, which is usual, but many, since acquired before the plunder of Drehem and Umma in the first decades of the 20th century, are from Telloh, ancient Girsu. A substantial number of tablets are of Old Babylonian and Late Babylonian date. They include many legal and administrative documents, but also scholarly tablets, such as Old Babylonian lexical (e.g., CULC 390) and personal name (e.g. CULC 347) lists, and Late Babylonian astronomical texts (e.g., CULC 371). There are some striking objects, such as an octagonal prism (CULC 378) and a Kassite ledger with 12 columns on obverse and reverse each (CULC 486). Many of the manuscripts, fragmentary and abraded, were evidently not acquired due to their aesthetic appeal. Plimpton and Smith sought out tablets with specific contents, but their gifts make up a relatively minor part of the entire collection, so some of these special items may have arrived with the first donation to Columbia.

Only the Ur III tablets of the collection have received the scholarly attention they deserve, with a string of publications that started in 1896 and culminated in the 2010 monograph, Ur III Tablets from the Columbia University Libraries, CUSAS 16, by S. Garfinkle, H. Sauren, and M. Van De Mieroop. Other items in the collection have been published in diverse places, but a large number remain unstudied. With the presentation of all tablets on the CDLI website, we hope that specialists will discover materials relevant to their research and publish more of the collection. There is an open door policy that gives access to any accredited scholar.

The collection is located in the Rare Book & 
Manuscript Library, 
Butler Library, 6th floor East, 
535 West 114th St, 
New York, NY 10027. For opening hours and contacts, see our relevant web page. The person in charge is Jane Siegel, Rare Book Librarian (tel. 1-212-854-8482, jrs19@columbia.edu).

Marc Van De Mieroop
Professor of Ancient History
Columbia University