The cuneiform tablet collection of the Abbey of Montserrat

History of the collection

The Museum of the Montserrat Abbey houses the largest and most complete collection of ancient Mesopotamian artefacts in Spain. These objects come from the holdings of the Museu Bíblic, the original core of the present museum, that was founded at the Benedictine Abbey by Father Bonaventura Ubach (Barcelona 1879 - Montserrat 1960). The Biblical Museum was conceived as a vehicle and tool to understand and illustrate the Bible, the main concern in the life of the Catalan monk. Inaugurated in April 1911, it contained a modest number of archaeological and ethnological artefacts as well as specimens of the natural world acquired during Father Ubach’s first travel to the Holy Land between 1906 and 1910. Two cuneiform tablets were included among these first objects.

The cuneiform collection was increased from 1913 to 1922 after Father Ubach had settled in Rome to join the Benedictine International School of San Anselmo as professor of Oriental languages; there, presumably with the help of Father Anton Deimel and perhaps at the very Biblical Institute, he acquired over 170 tablets for his museum. But the rich collection housed today at the Montserrat Museum basically stems from the important purchase of antiquities made during his visit to Iraq between 1922 and 1923. As he himself would put it in his diary, the main aim of this travel was “to acquire as many ancient, that is archaeological, artefacts as possible in order to open a new room on Assyria and Babylonia in our Biblical Museum in Montserrat”. Father Ubach would reside in Baghdad during seven months and from its bazaars he would acquire most of the cuneiform objects. Nevertheless, he would not miss a single opportunity to enlarge the collection during his visits to Nasiriyah, Basra, Al-Hillah or Mosul. On October 7, 1923, after a short stay in Cairo where he had the chance to purchase a number of ancient Egyptian objects, he boarded a steamship in Port Said bound for Marseille together with eleven boxes full of antiquities and four large suitcases. Nine days later Father Ubach would reach his final destination: Montserrat.

The cuneiform collection in the Montserrat Museum holds today more than 1100 objects. Most of them are clay tablets and fragments. In addition, the museum also keeps fine examples of royal inscriptions on clay bricks, nails and cones as well as a small number of inscribed stone objects. By far the majority of the texts, about three quarters, are administrative records dated to the Ur III period (ca. 2100-2000 BC). Although in more modest numbers, the collection contains texts dating to most of the periods of ancient Mesopotamian history, from Old Akkadian times (ca. 2350-2200 BC) to the Seleucid Era (330-141 BC), including the Babylonian dynasties of Hammurapi (1894-1595 BC) and Nebuchadnezzar II (625-539 BC). Also, in addition to the overwhelming administrative documentation, the museum holds few but outstanding Sumerian and Akkadian manuscripts of literary, scholarly and religious content. Fakes are neither absent in the collection. Their small number, however, together with the completeness and quality of the objects kept at the early Biblical Museum attest to the indefatigable and erudite work carried out by Father Ubach despite the fact that, as he himself admitted, he was a layman in cuneiform studies. As a result of later donations, the museum also includes two Elamite royal inscriptions and two fragments of Hittite tablets.

Scientific works and publications

Upon the request of Father Ubach, Father Deimel was the first Assyriologist to assess the Montserrat collection. Soon convinced about the rich holdings kept at the Catalan abbey, he would encourage his disciple Nikolaus Schneider, who by then had published some works on Ur III texts, to visit the Biblical Museum. Welcomed in the abbey with the traditional hospitality of the Benedictine community, Schneider arrived in September 1930 and spent a fortnight to carry out a first study of the corpus of Neo-Sumerian tablets. Two years later his book Die Drehem- und Djohatexte im Kloster Montserrat (Barcelona) which included the publication of 390 texts, appeared in Rome as volume 7 in the series Analecta Orientalia. As a result of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the subsequent requisition of the abbey, the museum was forced to close down. On the initiative of Professor Pere Bosch Gimpera of the University of Barcelona a considerable number of the collection’s clay tablets and cylinder seals were transferred to the Louvre Museum for the sake of preservation and study. But soon the war would break out in Europe and Professor Louis Delaporte’s aim to examine the collection would vanish. The pieces had been kept untouched in the Paris museum until 1947 when, once re-identified, they were shipped back to Montserrat.

In the 1940s Schneider visited the Abbey of Montserrat again with the purpose of finishing his work on the Ur III tablets. Although his second stay did not give rise to any further publication, it did have the merit of arousing the Assyriological vocation of a young resident student: Miguel Civil. Numerous notes of his ensuing catalogue work on the cuneiform collection are still preserved in the museum, and the whole field would profit from that knowledge. Work on the Montserrat Ur III tablets was not resumed until the 1980s after the Italian project Vocabolario Neosumerico was launched in Rome by Professor Giovanni Pettinato. Professor Luigi Cagni then visited the collection and published a preliminary study, namely a revision of Schneider’s publication in Oriens Antiquus 22 (1983) 73-118. And Manuel Molina was ultimately tasked to complete the work and provide the full edition of 769 texts: Tablillas administrativas neosumerias de la Abadía de Montserrat (Barcelona). Copias cuneiformes (Materiali per il Vocabolario Neosumerico 18), Rome 1993; and Tablillas administrativas neosumerias de la Abadía de Montserrat (Barcelona). Transliteraciones e índices (Aula Orientalis Supplementa 11), Sabadell 1997.

Also in 1997, Manuel Molina and Ignacio Márquez Rowe would collect in volume 15 of Aula Orientalis a series of studies in honor of Father Guiu Camps, disciple and successor of Father Ubach, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. In this volume are published for the first time 194 cuneiform literary, religious, and administrative texts, as well as royal inscriptions from the Montserrat collection. It also includes the catalogue of all hitherto published texts described by Márquez Rowe and Molina, and a detailed report on the history of the collection by Father Ubach’s other disciple and biographer Father Romuald M. Díaz i Carbonell. Other texts from the Montserrat Museum have been published since in separate studies, among which one can mention, on account of the literary and religious importance of the manuscript, Barbara Böck and Ignacio Márquez Rowe, “MM 818: An Unknown LB Fragment of Atra-hasis I”, Aula Orientalis 17-18 (1999-2000) 167-177.

The museum

Since it was founded in 1911, the Museu Bíblic of Father Ubach at Montserrat has gone through a number of transformations and remodels. The museum was firmly established in 1927, after the important acquisitions made by the Catalan monk both in Iraq and Cairo. Three large thematic galleries on Palestine, Mesopotamia and Egypt covered then an exhibition space of over two thousand square meters. At the beginning of the 1960s there was a radical change of perspective in the abbey: it was then decided that not only the biblical collections but also the works of art housed in the monastery should be exhibited. The art collection, formed by gifts and acquisitions, includes sculptures and above all paintings, such as Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome acquired by Father Ubach himself in Rome. To make more room for these collections new spaces had to be opened. In 1962 the collections of the former Biblical Museum merged into the archaeological section of what would become the Museum of Montserrat and were moved to a new building. Many objects, however, found no space and could not be put on display, being then kept in a storeroom. The revival and launch of the Museu Bíblic in 2005, almost 100 years after its inauguration, reflects the most recent impulse on the part of the Benedictine Community to defend the memory of Father Ubach and his lifelong project. Built in a newly restored space, the new galleries display now in a pedagogical fashion the antiquities and the different Near Eastern cultural stages that help understand and illustrate the Bible.

F. Pius-Ramon Tragan
Ignacio Márquez Rowe
March 2013