A Selection of Tablets and Cones from Brown University
Shane M. Thompson
§1.1. Brown University owns a number of cuneiform foundation cones and tablets, which are kept in the John Hay Library as a part of Special Collections. Kept alongside the objects are various archival materials attesting to their previous ownership and acquisition by former prominent members of the Providence, RI community. Primarily, the objects are gifts to Brown from Henry A. Greene, an antiquities collector, Henry Thatcher Fowler, a former Professor of Religious Studies at Brown, and Jesse H. Metcalf, a former United States Senator from Rhode Island. As well, several pieces feature documentation showing that some of these figures came to possess these objects as a result of the object dispersal that has come to characterize Edgar J. Banks. Full records from which this information was gleaned are available in the Appendix.
§1.2. Brown University’s cuneiform objects are representative of a long history of object collecting and connoisseurship that saw many artifacts from ancient Iraq find their way into university collections. Especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, connoisseurship was a symbol of wealth and the idea of western control over the ancient world. Many cuneiform objects left the Middle East under suspicious and outright illegal circumstances. While the donation of these objects to Brown was certainly legal, it cannot be said with certainty that the donors discussed in this article came upon their collection in a legal manner. It is this history and uncertainty in origin that leads us to include in this article not only information on when each object was created and for what purpose, but also to use archival materials to trace to the best of our ability the paths these objects took between leaving Iraq and entering the collection at Brown.
§1.3. What follows is a selection of tablets and cones from the John Hay Library that were not too obscured by time and handling to read. This process was facilitated by the construction of 3D models of each object using photogrammetry. We undertook photography using a Canon EOS 5DS camera and processed each model with Agisoft Metashape 1.5.2 on a 64 GB RAM Mac with an AMD Radeon Pro graphics card. The result was high quality 3D models, allowing for accessibility and reproducibility of this current research. It should be noted that each object in this article was read using the 3D models, making a strong case for their continued use in cuneiform research and publication.It should also be noted that the 3D models allowed for continued work on this project following the closures as a result of COVID-19. Similarly, these closures did not allow us to undertake measurements of each object nor produce photos at the CDLI standard.
§1.4. What follows is a systematic description of a selection of objects from the Brown University collection. The information surrounding each object will include general information about the object as well as its discernible path into the current collection.
§2. Object Biographies, Transcriptions, and Translations
§2.1.2. Museum Object 5 (M5) is a Sumerian foundation cone from the reign of Lipit-Ishtar, a King of Isin. It was donated to Brown University Special Collections by Henry Augustus Greene (1861-1950), a collector of ancient Greek coins and ancient Near Eastern artifacts. Greene’s collecting practices were defined by his connection with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, donating objects to their collection beginning in 1907 and continuing until his death. M5 was donated to Brown University along with another “cuneiform tablet” and “a rare Babylonian cylinder seal of hematite.” It seems that his records indicate donations to the RISD Museum, but at some point they became a part of Brown University’s collections.
§2.1.3. Museum Object 11 (M11) is a Sumerian foundation cone from the reign of Lipit-Ishtar, the fifth king of the First Dynasty of Isin. Accompanying records note that it was a donation from Henry A. Greene of Providence, RI. These materials incorrectly date the object to 2100 BCE, while it is much better placed chronologically at 1870-1860 BCE. Among the archival materials for this object is a handwritten translation with background information on the letterhead from Greene’s office. As is the case with other objects in this collection, we have updated and corrected the translation. The translation itself is attributed, presumably by Greene, to Ferris J. Stephens, the acting curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection in 1933. The background information that follows is also attributed to Stephens with direction to further sources, including a cone with the same description in the Yale Babylonian Collection. It is not clear if Stephens consulted on this object directly or if Greene compiled this information over the course of his own research into his collection.
§2.1.4. All three of these cones are headless, confidently placing them in the large horde of headless cones found at Isin with this same inscription. This cone type speaks of Lipit-Ishtar’s construction of the “House of Justice,” perhaps connected to his famous law code.For this law-code, see, F.R. Steele, “The Lipit-Ishtar Law Code,” American Journal of Archaeology 51.2 (1947), 158-164; F.R. Steele, “The Code of Lipit-Ishtar,” American Journal of Archaeology 52.3 (1948), 425-450; F.J. Stephens, “Lipit-Ishtar’s Hall of Justice,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 70.3 (1950), 179-181; M.T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, Writings from the Ancient World (Atlanta: SBL, 1995), 23-35. The dates of Lipit-Ishtar’s reign are debated, likely falling between either c. 1944-1934 or c. 1870-1860 BCE.
§2.2.1. Museum Object 8 (M8) is also a Sumerian foundation cone, but from the reign of Entemena, King of Lagash (c. 2400 BCE). This object was a gift of Henry A. Greene to Brown University Special Collections. The archival material accompanying this object identifies it as a foundation cone of Enmetena, incorrectly dating it to 2800-2700 BCE. The material also includes a translation of the text on the object. However, we found the translation to be outdated and, in some cases, incorrect.
§2.2.2. This cone, likely from Tell al-Madain, commemorates Entemena’s construction of the E-muš Temple for Inanna c. 2400 BCE. The concluding lines of the cone reference the brotherhood, or peace, alliance between Entemena and Lugal-kinishe-dudu.For this alliance, see, T. Maeda, “King of Kish in Pre-Sargonic Sumer,” Orient 17 (1981). 1-17. The cone itself is slightly broken, particularly in lns. 15-16.
§2.3.1. Museum Object 9 (M9) is a Sumerian foundation cone from the reign of Gudea (2144-2124 BCE), King of Lagash. It was originally dated by a handwritten translation of the text as being from c. 2450 BCE. The unnamed translator offers the following:
For Ningirsu (the city god of Lagash) the mighty warrior of Enlil (chief of the gods – the king of the lands) Gudea, patesi of Shir-pur-la (Lagash) collected what was appropriate, the E-Ninnu (the great temple of Ningirsu) of his divine bright black stone-bird he built; its place he restored.
§2.3.2. A further iteration of this information was typed up at a later point. It is noteworthy that both of these records attribute this object as being loaned by Henry A. Greene. The most recent iteration of an object label records only basic information about the object, but now notes that object was a gift of Henry A. Greene, suggesting that it officially came into the possession of Brown University between the second iteration and the third. Considering Greene’s primary connection to the RISD Museum over Brown, as discussed above, it is possible that M9 was displayed with Brown Special Collections material before officially becoming a permanent object.
§2.3.3. The inscription on this cone is frequent, also appearing on bricks, limestone blocks, tablets, and door sockets. This object, presumably from Girsu, relates Gudea’s restoration of Ningirsu’s Eninnu.For the Eninnu and its further connection to Gudea, see, W. Heimpel, “The Gates of the Eninnu,” JCS 48 (1996), 17-29.
§2.4.1. Museum Object 12 (M12) is a Sumerian foundation cone attributed to Gudea of Lagash. Its archival material dates it to 2450 BCE, but Gudea’s rule is now understood to be c. 2144-2124 BCE. It is possible that this object is also from the collection of Henry A. Greene, as the handwriting on the one written archival piece is similar to that of the material accompanying M11. Not only does the handwritten material provide a translation, but it also provides the circumstances under which the translation was produced.
Translation as given by Ferris J. Stephens Ph.D. acting curator of the Babylonian Collection at Yale University on reading this cone at Yale on January 22, 1935.
§2.4.2. Before this object reached Brown University, its owner sent it to the Yale Babylonian Collection for translation. It has since returned and now resides in Brown University Special Collections.
§2.4.3. Museum Object 20 (M20) is another Sumerian foundation cone from the collection of Henry A. Greene. Just as with object M19, M20 was translated in a handwritten letter from Leon Legrain of The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. This translation reached Greene prior to the translation of M19, having been dated March 8, 1937. The letter identifies the foundation cone as belonging to the time of Gudea of Lagash, a text for which other examples are known. The sources for these examples are outlined in Legrain’s letter.
§2.4.4. The inscription on this cone, which also appears on bricks, relates the building of Ningišzida’s temple in Girsu. The cone itself is likely also from Girsu.
§2.6.1. Museum Object 19 (M19) is another foundation cone from the collection of Henry A. Greene. Like others in this collection, it dates from the reign of Gudea of Lagash c. 2144-2124 BCE. The only archival material preserved for M19 is a handwritten letter dated March 19, 1937 on letterhead from The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania from Leon Legrain addressed to Greene. The letter includes a translation as well as bibliographic notes for further reference. Legrain is well-known for his work at the Penn Museum as curator of the Babylonian Section from 1920 until his retirement in 1952. Not only did he translate and publish a vast amount of cuneiform objects, he also served as the epigrapher for the museum’s excavations at Ur. The correspondence between Legrain and Greene provides the basis from which the current translation was updated.
§2.6.2. This frequent inscription also appears on bricks and recounts the building of the Temple of Nindara in Girsu. The cone itself is likely from Girsu or Uruk.
§2.7.1. Museum Object 37 (M37) is a votive tablet from the E-anna precinct in Uruk. It was initially dated to 2200 BCE, a date that was later corrected in a pencil addendum to 1865-1833 BCE. This information comes from the earliest known piece of archival information about M37 which gives a tentative translation along with basic bibliographic information. At the top of the page, prior to the description, the price of $3 is written. It is likely that this tablet was purchased for $3 from Edgar J. Banks because the preceding information was written on the reverse of an order form for Banks’s book, Bismaya; or The Lost City of Adab (1912). Internal records refer to it as a gift of Henry Thatcher Fowler.
§2.7.2. Banks is widely known in the world of Assyriology as the donor and seller of many cuneiform objects that found their way into a number of US university collections. Banks bought and sold hundreds of cuneiform objects in the time of the Ottoman Empire, eventually falling under investigation by said government for illegal activities. Therefore, it should be considered that these objects, including M37, were not properly imported into the United States. Banks later became a professor of ancient languages and archaeology at the University of Toledo. Fowler, on the other hand, was a professor of biblical literature at Brown University beginning in 1901, and chair of that department until 1932 before his retirement in 1934. He traveled and studied extensively in the Levant over the course of his career.
§2.7.3. It appears that M37 was put on display and given a label briefly describing its contents.
A votive tablet from the E-an-na at Warka or Uruk, the Biblical Erech.
§2.7.4. Below this typed information, “About 2200 BC” is written in pencil, which was later crossed out and replaced with “1865-1833.” The pencil appears to be a later update of the information provided on this label.
§2.7.5. The inscription on this votive tablet also appears on cones. Exemplars are numerous but this tablet differs as all other exemplars appear to be 8 lines. Here lines 5-6 are split into two with the inscription totaling nine lines.
§2.8.1. This object (Museum Object 38 or M38) is a small tablet containing economic information with a cylinder seal rolled across its surface. Presumably from the same exhibit as M37, archival material from M38 includes a small museum-like label.
From the temple archives at Jokha. Impression of seal cylinder may be seen over the writing.
§2.8.2. Jokha was at one time thought to be the modern-day name for the ancient site of Umma. Other tablets in this collection are similarly identified with Jokha. This label is paired with M38 via the inclusion of “M38” along the bottom in pencil, presumably from someone who was not responsible for the creation of the label itself. The following transliteration is influenced by the previous work of Slotsky, Kammer, and Rimmer (2002).
§2.9.1. This tablet (Museum Object 39 or M39) was written to record the harvest of dates in two gardeners’ date palm orchards during the reign of Šu-Sin around 2035 BCE. Šu-Sin was the king of southern Mesopotamia and is known as the penultimate king of the Ur III dynasty. The two gardeners are Ur-dIškur and Undaga. The scribe of the tablet is not identified. While they were correct in his calculations for the dates produced by Ur-dIškur, there is a discrepancy in his work for Undaga.
§2.9.2. Sometime before the year 1942, this tablet came into the possession of Jesse H. Metcalf, a former United States Senator from Rhode Island. Upon his death, his wife, only referred to in records as Mrs. Jesse H. Metcalf, donated the tablet, along with others, to Brown University Special Collections, where they now reside. A small piece of paper, possibly a label belonging to the same collection as M37 and M38, describes the tablet as such: “From Jokha. A remarkably perfect tablet.” Beneath this description, someone else, presumably, has written “M39” in pencil, assigning this slip of paper to this particular object. Following an unspecified amount of time in Special Collections, M39 went on display. It was given a new label with substantially more information. The new label includes the following information:
The clay tablet shown above has an inscription in cuneiform containing large numbers of signs indicating sheep and goats. The cuneiform, which is of a very ancient type, is probably a tax list dating from the time of Sargon of Akkad. This was about 2750 years B.C. This tablet was found at Jokha in Central Babylonia.
§2.9.3. Whoever was responsible for this label aimed to update what came before with disappointing results. Due to the inaccuracy of the information, it would be easy to think that this label was erroneously left with the wrong object. However, perhaps the same person as before, has written “M39” in pencil on this paper as well. There is no recorded translation until about 60 years after M39 first entered Special Collections. In 2002, Professor Alice Slotsky, a Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Mathematics, brought two of her students, Nicholas A. Kammer and Virginia Hudson Rimmer of the Brown class of 2002, to the John Hay Library with the goal of translating some of the tablets in Special Collections.
2(diš) geš 1(barig)
1(u) 1(diš) geš 4(ban2)
2(u) 1(diš) geš 3(ban2)
2(u) geš 2(ban2) 5(diš) sila3
2(u) 5(diš) geš 2(ban2)
2(u) 2(diš) geš 1(ban2) 5(diš) sila3
3(u) 6(diš) geš 1(ban2)
3(u) 6(diš) geš 5(diš) sila3
1(u) 4(diš) geš 2(diš) sila3
2(geš2) 1(u) 5(diš) geš ša3-su3
šu-nigin2 1(u) 1(barig) 1(ban2) 8(diš) sila3 zu2-lum gur
1(diš) geš 2(ban2) 14. 2(diš) geš 2(ban2)
7(diš) geš 1(diš) 1(ban2) 5(diš) sila3
9(diš) geš 1(ban2)
1(u) 9(diš) geš 5(diš) sila3
9(diš) geš 2 sila3
2(geš2) 4(u) 6(diš) geš ša3-su3
šu-nigin2 1(aš) 1(barig) 1(ban2) 8(diš) sila3 zu2-lum gur
Frayne, Douglas, 1990, ”Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC)”, University of Toronto Press.
Frayne, Douglas, 1997, ”Ur III Period (2112-2004 BC)”, University of Toronto Press.
Frayne, Douglas, 2008, ”Pre-Sargonic Period (2700-2350 BC)”, University of Toronto Press.
Heimpel, Wolfgang, 1996, ”The Gates of the Eninnu”, pp. 17-29 .
Maeda, Tohru, 1981, ”King of Kish in Pre-Sargonic Sumer”, pp. 1-17 .
Roth, Martha T, 1997, ”Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor”, SBL Press.
Steele, Francis R, 1947, ”The Lipit-Ishtar Law Code”, In: JCS 51(2) , pp. 158-164 .
Steele, Francis R, 1948, ”The Code of Lipit-Ishtar”, In: JCS 52(3) , pp. 425-450 .
Stephens, Ferris J, 1950, ”Lipit-Ishtar’s Hall of Justice”, In: JCS 52(3) , pp. 179-181 .
The authors thank Shashi Mishra, Senior Library Technologist in Digital Production Services at the Brown University Library, and William S. Monroe, Senior Scholarly Resources Librarian at the Brown University Library for facilitating the examination of these artifacts. The 3D work that made this article possible would not have been accomplished without the guidance and mentorship of Lindsay Elgin, Digital Photographer in Digital Production Services at the Brown University Library.