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Cuneiform Tablets in the
Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

By Niek Veldhuis

The collection of cuneiform tablets housed in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley, contains a little over 1,000 texts from nearly all periods of cuneiform. The oldest texts are royal inscriptions by Entemena (Daniel Foxvog, “Royal Inscriptions at Berkeley,” Revue d’Assyriologie 72 [1978] 41). The latest phase is represented by administrative texts from Uruk. Henry F. Lutz, Professor at the Department of Semitic Languages (now the Department of Near Eastern Studies) at Berkeley from 1921-1958, acquired most of these tablets and published a considerable number of them in the series University of California Publications in Semitic Philology (UCP).


Several tablets arrived at the museum as single items or in small lots of two to five. An example of a smaller acquisition is the batch of five tablets that was sold to the Department of Latin at UC Berkeley by Edgar Banks, famous for the trading of cuneiform tablets in the US in the early 20th century (numbers 9-139 to 9-143; the Ur III pieces in this lot were published by Foxvog [ “Ur III Economic Texts at Berkeley,” Acta Sumerologica 18 (1996) 47-92]). However, the great majority of tablets and other ancient Mesopotamian artifacts (1001 individual objects) were accessioned under one single number (649). According to museum records, they were acquired by Lutz in 1930 through a donation by Alfred Kohlberg of Bronxville, New York and arrived in Berkeley in May and June of 1930. Acquisition number 649 includes all the Ur III tablets published by Lutz in UCP 9/2. The background of the Kohlberg-funded collection demonstrates the efforts of Lutz to compete with established East Coast cuneiform collections.

In the academic year 1929-1930, Lutz held the annual American professorship of archaeology at the American School of Archaeology in Baghdad. Several articles in the California Monthly, the journal of the UC Berkeley Alumni Association, report about his plans and activities aimed at establishing a representative collection of Mesopotamian artifacts for the University of California. In November of 1928, the California Monthly ran a three-page article on Lutz’s prospective stay in Baghdad. A number of shorter notes in later issues of the journal report a gift, first of $1,000 (December 1928, 20) later $5,000 from an &“;anonymous donor,” an alumnus of the class of 1908 (September 1929, 29). This anonymous donor is no doubt identical with Alfred Kohlberg, listed as donor in the acquisition records, who studied in Berkeley with the class of 1908 and had become a wealthy textiles merchant in the New York area, where he was secretary of the local chapter of the Alumni Association (California Monthly December 1929, 54). Kohlberg is better known for his role in the McCarthy era anti-communist movement, in particular in the so-called China lobby that targeted as communists those employees of the State Department who had failed to fully support the Chinese Nationalist movement (a biography of Kohlberg by one of his admirers appeared shortly after his death: J.C. Keeley, The China Lobby Man; the Story of Alfred Kohlberg. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House 1969).

While Lutz was in Baghdad, he was offered (or so he claims) the chance to purchase Nuzi tablets from the Harvard expedition at that site. He realized that his funds were not sufficient, so he tried again to interest alumni in his cause. Various appeals in the alumni journal for more contributions demonstrate that the effort was seen in the light of an attempt by the University of California to attain a status in its Assyriological faculties equal to that of the great East Coast universities, in particular Penn, Yale, and Harvard.

Harvard, for example, on hearing of our $5,000, promptly set about raising $30,000 on the assumption that they should be able to do at least six times as well as a so-called western cow-college. (California Monthly September 1929, 30)
It will be unfortunate if the University of California has to bow her head to eastern institutions in this field through lack of funds to take advantage of the opportunity offered her. Professor Lutz estimates that it will take at least $3,000 additional to make the collection that California should have. (California Monthly, December 1929, 36)

Acquisition number 649 is recorded in its entirety as a donation by Kohlberg, so it is unlikely that Lutz succeeded in his attempt to interest other contributors. In a separate article in the December 1929 issue, Lutz reports from Baghdad, saying that he had sent a shipment of Mesopotamian antiquities to Bombay, whence it was to be forwarded to Berkeley.

Immediately upon his return to Berkeley, Lutz started publishing select tablets from the collection he had acquired in Baghdad. In 1930, he published a short article on a legal text (UCP 9/6), briefly explaining how he had obtained the tablet:

The following text is taken from a tablet (ucbC 756) which comes from the site of Tell Seba’. This mound is situated in the Nahrawân region, beyond the Diyâlâ river, which territory contains the tells of Bismaya, Asmar (Ašnunnak), Tshuma, Khafadjy, Ašjaly, and Adjrab. No exhaustive survey of this region has as yet been made by the Government Survey Office in Baghdad. The writer was fortunate in acquiring a goodly number of cuneiform tablets and other archaeological objects from each of the above-mentioned sites. (UCP 9/6, 379).

The museum collection has groups of texts that are indeed said to come from Ishchali (UCP 10/1) and Khafaje (D. Foxvog, “Texts and Fragments 101-106,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 28 [1976] 101-106), no doubt identical with the tablets referred to in this quote from Lutz. A similar remark is found in the publication of two apotropaic figurines, simply saying that they had recently been purchased in Baghdad (UCP 9/7, 383).

The impression that accession no. 649 is basically identical with the shipment sent to Bombay in December 1929 is, however, plainly wrong, since Lutz started publishing tablets from this lot several years before he left for Baghdad. The Neo-Babylonian Uruk tablets (UCP 9/1), the Ur III texts (UCP 9/2) and the Old Babylonian letters (UCP 9/4), all included in this acquisition number, were published in 1927, 1928, and 1929 respectively. The question is whether and how well we can still distinguish between the pre-1929 tablets and the Baghdad purchases, and what is known about the pre-1929 acquisitions.

Some indirect light is thrown on this point by the November 1928 article in the California Monthly. In discussing Lutz’s work, the article refers to two Old Babylonian letters, as follows:

Among other more rare records of Babylonia which Professor Lutz has managed to acquire by careful use of the small fund allowed him by the University, from Arab collectors, through American importers, are two letters written by King Sin-Mubalit, father of the great King Hammurabi who ruled about 2000 B.C. (California Monthly, November 1928, 13)

These two letters are no doubt identical to those published by Lutz in 1929 as UCP 9/4 29 and 30. In the same article, Lutz’s forthcoming publication of Ur III tablets in UCP 9/2 is briefly referred to, but, in this case, the question of the actual whereabouts and ownership of the tablets is passed over in silence.

In his publications in UCP, Lutz used two distinct numbering systems. Official museum numbers all start with 9-, the number for the Asiatic collection. This system is used in UCP 9/3 (1928), the publication of a Murašu document that was presented to the Museum of Anthropology by Phoebe A. Hearst. Here Lutz remarks that the museum possesses “a small number” of cuneiform tablets (p.269), clearly not counting the Neo-Babylonian and Ur III tablets he had published in UCP 9/1 and 9/2. For these tablets, he used ucbC numbers, a system that was never recognized by the museum. In his publication of Old Babylonian letters (UCP 9/4; 1929), the tablets, all with ucbC numbers, are said to be owned by the Department of Semitic Languages (p.279).

Today all tablets are referred to by an official 9- number. The old numbers, however, may be of some help in reconstructing the history of the collection. The Uruk tablets carry ucbC numbers 100-195; 201-202 (UCP 9/1/1); and 350-409 (UCP 9/1/2). The Ur III tablets are numbered 410-508 (UCP 9/2/1) and 601-724. The Old Babylonian letters continue with 725-754. All these texts were in Lutz’s hands before 1929, and were presumably owned by the Department. Nothing is known about the background of ucbC 755, the Old Babylonian libanomancy (smoke omen) tablet (UCP 9/5). ucbC 756 (UCP 9/6), is the text from Tell Seba’ (Diyala) that Lutz bought in Baghdad. The Ishchali documents (UCP 10/1; 1931), which also belong with the Baghdad purchases, number ucbC 757-866. It is likely, therefore, that all ucbC numbers 756 (or 755) and higher are from the lot purchased by Lutz while he was in Iraq. For unknown reasons, Lutz occasionally used ucbC numbers 1200 and higher. These include the apotropaic figurines (ucbC 1200 and 1201; UCP 9/7) and a tablet from Nuzi (ucbC 1285; UCP 9/11). The figurines are known to belong to the Baghdad lot, while the Nuzi text may well have been bought from the Harvard excavation, which was underway when Lutz was in Baghdad. The ucbC 1200-numbers, therefore, most likely also come from the Baghdad period.

The ownership of the tablets probably remained rather vague for a long period of time. The tablets that Lutz published before 1929 were, by that time, in the possession not of the museum, but rather of the Department of Semitic Languages. No records were found that document the transfer to the museum of ownership of this group, which may well have been larger than the group of tablets published. The tablets purchased in Baghdad were meant for the museum, but they were not all immediately stored and catalogued there. In a letter to Lutz dated 1943, E.W. Gifford, curator of the Museum of Anthropology, inquires about the whereabouts of certain tablets published by Lutz: the Uruk tablets (UCP 9/1); the Old Babylonian letters (UCP 9/4); the Old Babylonian divination text (UCP 9/5); the Ishchali texts (UCP 10/1) and a Sin-Kašid text (UCP 10/2). Gifford could not find these tablets in the museum, and they had not yet been officially catalogued. As it turned out, all these tablets, including pre-1929 exemplars as well as objects bought in Iraq, were still in Lutz’s office 13 years after the date of their official acquisition by the museum.

As we have stated, Kohlberg is mentioned as the sole donor in the records of accession no. 649. Whether, in fact, this is accurate for the pre-1929 tablets remains unclear. The November 1928 California Monthly article mentions “small funds” from the University that enabled Lutz to buy some tablets; it is unlikely that these funds sufficed for all the tablets published in UCP 9/1, 9/2 and 9/4. Lutz had worked at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania before he accepted the position at Berkeley. During that period, he may have developed contacts with the dealers who supplied the universities on the East Coast; his contact with Kohlberg may also date from this time.

The HMA tablets and CDLI

The initiative to publish, beginning with the Ur III-period tablets, the Hearst collection on the CDLI web site was taken by Niek Veldhuis, Professor of Assyriology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. The project was funded by a Junior Faculty Research Grant of the UC Berkeley Committee on Research (2002) and by a generous grant from the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). The tablets were scanned and collated by John Carnahan, research assistant at NES, while Victoria Bradshaw, collections manager of the Hearst Museum, arranged all practical matters in the museum. We have coordinated our work on images, catalogue, and transliteration with R. K. Englund and M. Fitzgerald of the CDLI office at UCLA.

Documentation used

No. 649 accession records at the P.A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology

University of California at Berkeley; Department of Anthropology archives: Lutz

“Babylon as Seen by Professor Henry F. Lutz” The California Monthly, November 1928, 12-14.

“Babylon Brought Closer,” The California Monthly, December 1928, 20.

“Our Babylonian Expedition,” The California Monthly, December 1929, 32.

“Alumni in Babylonia,” The California Monthly, December 1929, 36.

University of California Publications in Semitic Philology (UCP) 9 and 10.

Foxvog, Daniel (1996) “Ur III Economic Texts at Berkeley,” Acta Sumerologica 18: 47-92.

Foxvog, Daniel (1978) “Royal Inscriptions at Berkley,” Revue d’Assyriologie 72: 41-46

Foxvog, Daniel (1976) “Texts and Fragments 101-106,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 28: 101-106.