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History of the Berlin Cuneiform Collection

1. Origin of the Berlin Collection
The origin of the Berlin cuneiform collection goes back to the second half of the 19th century. The first chair of Assyriology in Berlin was established in 1875. Since Berlin at the time did not possess an adequate collection of cuneiform texts of its own, however, the students at first had to work with hand copies and casts of cuneiform texts, most of which came from London. This situation changed only with purchases the Berlin museums made in the years 1887 through 1895. Excavations conducted in the Near East, in particular in Mesopotamia, by French and English, but also by official and unofficial local excavators, had by this time provided the European antiquities market with extensive inscribed material, making it possible to acquire texts without having done fieldwork. When the Vorderasiatisches Museum was founded on May 6, 1899, it thus already owned a collection of more than 3000 cuneiform texts acquired in this way. The texts had been handed over to the newly established museum by the Egyptian Department that had previously kept all Western Asiatic artifacts. Even after the Berlin museums had started successful excavations of their own in Babylon (from 1899) and Assur (from 1903), they still endeavored, through more purchases, to develop their existing stock of cuneiform texts into an interesting and balanced collection.

2. Earliest written documents in Berlin
Among the most interesting purchases of that period are cuneiform texts that entered the collection in 1903 and thereafter: the administrative records of the so-called “Household of the Lady”, an agricultural concern of the city-state Lagash in southern Mesopotamia of the 24th century B.C., are accounting and planning documents of nearly all administrative transactions within such an organization, making available a comprehensive overview of the stages in early agrarian production. These texts are part of an archive of more than 1700 records, of which Berlin was able to purchase 406 exemplars. Beyond their importance for contextual research, the records served in the investigation of the Sumerian language.

3. Completing the collection, results of research and text editions
The number of purchased tablets had grown to over 8000 when, in 1911, the museum left its provisional home on the museum island to move to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, where it remained until 1930. Its director Friedrich Delitzsch, who at the same time held the chair of Assyriology at the Berlin University, had thus not only enlarged the museum’s collections but had also provided a solid basis for his students to study original texts. The Berlin cuneiform collection still holds a great attraction for those who come here to work because of its well-known breadth and balance; putting it into a class with other great museums such as the British Museum and the Iraq Museum. Among the texts that have contributed to this reputation are not least those from the early purchases, such as the fragments of the famous Gilgamesh cycle in Sumerian and Akkadian, and the texts of the Amarna archives. By 1903, when the stele with the law code of Hammurapi that so excited historians of law was discovered in Susa, the Berlin collection already contained a very respectable number of law documents, albeit from later periods. Thus the collection was from its inception a place of lively research on contemporary sources, a tradition to which it is still committed today.

4. Publishing activity after World War I
After the end of World War I, when no means were available for further enlarging the collection, and when excavations were out of the question, efforts were concentrated on the publication which had started in 1907 with the series “Vorderasiatische Schriftdenkmäler”. When the texts from Assur arrived in Berlin, a new series with the title “Keilschrifttexte aus Assur” was inaugurated. This series, in particular in the 1920s, published an important corpus of documents from that site, mainly of historical and legal, but also of religious content. In some regards, these works can be seen as standard literature in the field even today. Eminent examples of cuneiform literature in the collection, published in this connection, are the so-called “Mittelassyrisches Rechtsbuch”, the “Götteradressbuch” of Assur (a collection of Old Assyrian royal inscriptions, brought together here for the first time), as well as medical texts, to name but a few.

5. Acquisition of Hittite texts
The collection also distinguished itself in the area of Hittitology, a discipline in whose development Berlin played a decisive role. Texts found in the ancient Hittite capital Hattusha, starting in 1906, together with the ensuing research of the oldest Indo-European language contained in those texts, resulted in a new branch of research in the area of ancient Near Eastern and Indo-European studies. This discipline would be decisively influenced by text material in the museum. The Berlin collection acquired such important Hittite texts as the fragments of a peace treaty between Ramses II and Hattushili III - the first peace treaty known in world history. The Berlin collection facilitated the rapid development of Hittitology, which was carried mainly by experts of the Prussian Academy, later Academy of Science of the German Democratic Republic, not only by acquiring those texts, but also by keeping and caring for thousands of texts and fragments, borrowed from Turkey, until they were returned in 1987.

6. Archaic texts from the Uruk excavations
Excavations in Uruk commenced in 1928, and until the beginning of World War II finds from that city entered the collection. The work proved to be extremely productive, in particular with regard to the oldest writings of Mesopotamia. Not only the so-called archaic texts from the late 4th millennium B.C.--texts that comprehensively document the origins of cuneiform--came to Berlin from this site, but also those initially barely noticed “documents”, the so-called tokens, that were used as mnemonic aids in an even earlier stage of writing that only later would come to represented a particular language.

7. Expansion of the collection with texts from excavations in Assur and Babylon
Besides these oldest witnesses, particularly documents that had arrived in Berlin in 1927 from the excavations in Assur and Babylon required more work. They too were studied and published, and from 1930 to 1936 were partially presented to the public for the first time in the newly opened exhibition in the Pergamon Museum. Among these texts, there is, for example, a report from Babylon about rations, mentioning Jehoiachin of Judah (Babylonian Exile). A piece of an astronomic text from the year7/6 B.C. contains a report of the “Star of Bethlehem”.

8. Fate of the collection after the end of World War II
Excavations and publication efforts were interrupted during the period of National Socialism and the Second World War. After the end of the war, the museum had to be rebuilt before information concerning the interesting material in the Berlin collection could again be publicly presented in exhibitions and publications. The series “Vorderasiatische Schriftdenkmäler” and “Keilschrifturkunden aus Boghazköy” were soon re-established and offered, under particularly difficult political circumstances, a welcome opportunity to resume international collaboration in the research of the linguistic material from the Near East. Despite this renewed collaborative however, an enlargement of the collection was out of the question. On the one hand, there were no funds available to purchase new texts on the (Western) antiquities market; on the other, because of the changed legal situation in the countries of origin of the finds, the collection could not have been legally enlarged, even if excavations had been possible.

Consequently, the emphasis of interest in the collection shifted. For an extended period of time, the study of the collection became one of the main purposes of the museum as an institute for research and teaching. It succeeded in creating and maintaining numerous international contacts between East and West. The collection offered, and still offers, a myriad of study opportunities for students and experts from all over the world, and because of its significance it was included in a number of important research projects like the “Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project” of the University of Toronto (since 1979, now concluded).

More recently, the collection has served once more as the core of a cooperation which, conceived in a long-term research plan, wants definitively to investigate the results of the Assur excavations. Supported by the museum and the “German Oriental Society”, work in Berlin has made of the text material an object of international research and text edition. The cooperation with other institutions and research projects, for instance with the Free University of Berlin (financed by the German Research Association) and with the Cult Topography project of the Leibniz Prize conferee S. Maul of the University of Heidelberg, represents in this regard an important condition for success.

The lack of adequate room for special exhibitions, however, for a long time limited the public presentation of texts to the almost unchanged permanent exhibition of the museum. After the renovation and partial refurbishing of the museum, just concluded in 2000, we took the opportunity to redo the display cases so as to make visible the close relationship between the written documents and the material culture of the ancient Near East. The main focus was the development of the oldest literate culture known, well documented by finds from the Near Eastern region.

9. Enlargement of the Berlin collection with texts from the Erlenmeyer Collection
In December of 1988 the London auction house Christie’s auctioned off as individual pieces the cuneiform texts from the private Erlenmeyer Collection, which for decades had been inaccessible to the public and even to research. On the occasion of its sale, it became known for the first time that this collection contained a sensational find, a complete group of archaic tablets from the earliest phase of the development of writing, some in extraordinarily good condition. The fact that many of the tablets document procedures concerning the same persons indicates that these texts were written at the same time and in the same administrative center, possibly even by the same persons. Following the urgent appeal of scholars at the Free University of Berlin and the Max Planck Society, the Berlin Senate secured the cooperation of several museums in an attempt to save the collection from the fate of being torn apart and disappearing into private collections. The city of Berlin purchased the major part of the collection, and made it available for scholarly study and publication. After the conclusion of these studies and a special exhibition at Charlottenburg Palace the texts were transferred to the Vorderasiatisches Museum as a permanent loan, and have enriched the Berlin collection ever since.

10. Participation in the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI)
The Vorderasiatisches Museum was among the first associate members of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) launched in 1998. This international initiative, currently including numerous museums with significant collections of cuneiform texts, constitutes the ambitious attempt to recreate on the internet the administrative archives of the city-states and great empires of Mesopotamia, whose archaeological finds were dispersed over the museums of the world. Work on primary data-gathering in the Vorderasiatisches Museum , and the development of a preliminary electronic data representation, continues today. The Vorderasiatische Museum is thus the first among the museums included in the initiative to make accessible, over the internet, to a wide array of scholars and interested visitors of museums the cuneiform texts from the third millennium B.C. previously locked away in our depots. Upon conclusion of theongoing efforts, the current preliminary form in these pages will be expandedby the completion of transcriptions and a system providing access to the historical content of the texts.

Joachim Marzahn
Chief Curator, Vorderasiatisches Museum (25 June 2001)