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Cuneiform Tablets in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
at the University of Michigan

by Nicole Brisch

The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan has a small but important collection of about 600 cuneiform tablets and other objects inscribed with the cuneiform script. The collection spans roughly 2000 years, ranging in date from c. 2300 BC to roughly 240 BC. The bulk of the tablet collection consists of administrative documents from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III, c. 2112-2004 BC). In addition, there are four Old Akkadian documents (c. 2334-2193 BC), three documents dating to the Second Dynasty of Lagash (c. 2200-2100 BC), about seventy-five Old Babylonian texts (c. 2004-1595 BC), three Nuzi tablets (c. 1500-1350 BC), about 150 Neo-Babylonian tablets (c. 1000-600 BC), six Neo-Assyrian tablets (c. 1000-600 BC), and at least seven—if not more—Late Babylonian (c. 600-100 BC) tablets.

The majority of the tablets were collected by Leroy Waterman, who was, from 1917 until 1945, professor at the Department of Oriental Languages and Literature (now the Department of Near Eastern Studies [NES]) at the University of Michigan. Waterman probably donated this tablet collection to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology upon his retirement in 1944.

There is but little information on the sources of Waterman’s acquisitions. He purchased fifty tablets from Edgar Banks, a well-known dealer of cuneiform tablets in the beginning of the 20th century. A document from Banks in the Kelsey Museum files records the provenience of fifty tablets: one very large Neo-Babylonian tablet dating to the time of Nebukadnezzar came from Babylon; eight tablets from Senkereh (the ancient city of Larsa), among them one tablet dating to the Old Babylonian period (to Hammurabi’s time, c. 1792-1750 BC); a “school exercise” (possibly one of the round tablets?); a tablet from the time of “Eri-aku, the Arioch of the Bible”; and a merchant’s tag. Six tablets were found at Tello, ancient Girsu, described by Banks as business documents. Nine of the tablets are said to have come from Drehem (ancient Puzrish-Dagan) and are, according to the document, “the most beautiful of all tablets.” A total of twenty-six tablets came from Jokha (ancient Umma). All of the tablets from Umma seem to be administrative records as well, and Banks listed sixteen of these as having seal impressions. It is very likely that the tablets from Girsu, Puzrish-Dagan, and Umma are all administrative records dating to the Ur III period. Since there are in total about 350 Ur III documents in the Kelsey collection, however, an identification of those which came from Banks is not possible.

The files of the Kelsey Museum also contain a copy of a letter from Banks to Waterman in which he writes that he is sending Waterman two “case tablets” (i.e. tablets with envelopes) that “date from the time of Hammurabi” and were reportedly from Larsa (Senkereh). It is possible that one of these tablets is KM 89541. Another tablet that Banks described as being “divided into small squares containing numerals” is also said to have come from Larsa and could possibly be identified with KM 89540. In this letter, Banks also mentioned sending a large inscribed cone with an inscription of King Lipit-Eshtar of Isin (KM 89532) that is said to have come from Isin.

A search of Waterman’s papers, kept at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan, yielded no further information on the provenience of Waterman’s tablet collection. It seems certain that the majority of the tablets were collected by him before 1939 because in this year one of Waterman’s students published 96 mostly Neo-Babylonian tablets from the collection (Moore 1939). In the foreword to Moore’s publication, Waterman wrote that the tablets published there “form part of a collection which has been gradually accumulated by the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures, largely for illustrative purposes” (Waterman 1939).

A few tablets and several inscribed bricks came from Waterman’s excavation in Tell Umar, ancient Seleucia. The excavation was a joint project of the University of Michigan and the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio (Waterman 1931). Four objects—three fragments of cuneiform tablets, KM 89908a, b, c, and KM 90109—are from the University of Michigan excavations at Sepphoris (for further information see Gazda and Friedland 1997).

Three objects (two inscribed bricks and a fragment of an inscribed vase) were given to the Kelsey Museum by the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR). They derive from post-World-War II excavations in Nippur (modern Nuffar) sponsored jointly by ASOR and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Other tablets were donated to the Kelsey Museum by Dr. Samuel A. Goudsmit, a famous physicist who was also well-known for collecting Egyptian antiquities (Root 1982). A cone and a tablet were donated to the museum by Sara Hallaran Clementine in 1983.

Previous Studies
Sometime around 1950, Albrecht Goetze, professor at Yale University, came to Ann Arbor to go through the collection systematically. He left two notebooks with his identifications of the texts. However, some of the numbers in his catalogue do not conform to the current Kelsey Museum numbers. At some later point, George G. Cameron, founding professor of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan and head of the department from 1949-1969, also went through the entire collection, apparently without knowing that Goetze had already inventoried the tablets. Cameron’s notes on the collection are now lost. Over the years, several scholars have studied and published parts of the collection, but some 425 tablets remain unpublished.

The Kelsey Museum and the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative
In 2003, Piotr Michalowski, NES professor at the University of Michigan, initiated a collaboration with the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) at UCLA with the goal of making the entire cuneiform tablet collection of the Kelsey Museum available online. In this one-year project under the supervision of Professor Michalowski, Nicole Brisch, then a post-doctoral scholar in the Near Eastern Studies Department, performed a digital capture of the Sumerian collection, using analogue photography for those tablets for which scanning was not advisable. Gary Beckman, currently chair of the NES Department, and Nicole Brisch are continuing this digitization with updates to the catalogue to include all texts. CDLI staff in Los Angeles kindly checked the transliterations of the Sumerian texts prepared by Dr. Brisch.

Funding for the project was generously provided by the University of Michigan’s Office of the Provost, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Institute for the Humanities as well as the Kelsey Museum itself. This work would not have been possible without the generous and friendly assistance of Professor Sharon Herbert, Director of the Kelsey Museum, Robin Meador-Woodruff, Associate Curator of Photographs, Sebastián Encina, Coordinator of Museum Collections, and of course Piotr Michalowski in Ann Arbor, and Bob Englund and Madeleine Fitzgerald in Los Angeles.


Gazda, E. K. and Friedland, E.A. (eds)
1997: Leroy Waterman and the Unversity of Michigan Excavations at Sepphoris
1931: “The Scientific Test of the Spade.” Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Moore, E.
1939: Neo-Babylonian Documents in the University of Michigan Collection. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Root, Margaret Cool
1982: The Samuel A. Goudsmit Collection of Egyptian Antiquities: A Scientist Views the Past. Exhibition Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, January 30-May 9, 1983, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Waterman, L.
1931: Preliminary Report upon the Excavation at Tel Umar, Iraq, Conducted by the University of Michigan and the Toledo Museum of Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
1939: Foreword to Moore 1939.