Ancient Cuneiform Tablets Spend 100 Years at FSU

The present year of 2022 marks a full century since the acquisition of Special Collections and Archives’ oldest inanimate residents, the cuneiform tablets. Purchased by faculty in 1922, these twenty-five tablets were bought from Edgar J. Banks back when the school was still referred to as the Florida State College for Women. Although they currently reside within Strozier Library, this was not the case in 1922 due to the fact that it would not have been open until 1956. At the time the school’s library was located off campus before being moved to what is now the Westcott building, and then Dodd Hall prior to the construction of Strozier Library (you can learn more about library history at FSU here). Prior to the establishment of Special Collections and Archives in 1956, it is unclear where the cuneiform tablets would have been held, but nonetheless they had found their way to Florida State University.

History of Text Technologies class taught by Dr. Lindsey Eckert visiting the cuneiform tablets

Today, the tablets are available upon request for viewing in the Special Collections and Archives reading room located in Strozier library or digitally via Florida State University’s digitial library, Diginole. They are additionally used as supplemental material to teach classes from various departments such as Archeology, Ancient History, and English where students are able to come face to face with the types of ancient objects they learn about in class. Nothing beats interacting directly with an object, an experience that surpasses a Powerpoint slide by miles (or centuries, in this case). With pieces of ancient history sitting right in from of them, students are often delightfully surprised by the expansiveness of the University Libraries’ collection.

One class in particular that has visited Special Collections to see the Cuneiform Tablet Collection is taught by Dr. Daniel J. Pullen, an archeologist who specializes in Anthropology and Classical Archeology. Reflecting upon their visitation to the archives, Dr. Pullen mentioned that “[his] students gained a new appreciation for the kinds of sources archaeologists and historians use to look at ancient societies.” He also noted the relevance of these objects to his curriculum, stating that “[they] had studied the Ur Dynasty III period and its city-states such as Umma, the source of many of the tablets. To make a direct connection like the tablets coming from that city and time made a big impact on many of the students.” The Special Collections and Archives staff highly encourages visitation and interaction with the collection specifically for these types of valuable experiences that students are able to have.

List of beer rations for high officials and priests, circa 2051 BCE. Cuneiform, 67 x 48 x 24 cm. Tallahassee, Florida State Univeristy Libraries: Special Collections & Archives.

The oldest object in the Cuneiform Tablet Collection is this list of beer rations for high officials and priests from 2051 BCE (pictured at left). Dr. Pullen was able to expand on the context of this unique form of text, commenting that “beer is one of the most common items for rations in the ancient world (such as in Egypt), as ancient beer is nutritious and a way to prolong the life of bread by converting it. So to see the distribution of beer actually written down makes it directly appealing – and FSU students can certainly relate to the consumption of beer!” All jokes aside, this is certainly a fascinating addition to FSU Libraries’ collection that both enhances the collection as an invaluable tool for education and is enhanced by its availability to students and scholars that continuously reimagine and activate their functionality.

Another complementary document to the tablets that has spent as much time at Florida State University as the tablets themselves are the accession records which made their time here possible. Pictured at left is the one-hundred-year-old document offering a collection of ancient tablets to the Florida State College for Women in a letter from Edgar J. Banks to Dr. Edward Conradi. Conradi was the school’s longest standing president and is now the namesake of the biology building and Conradi street. In further corespondance, Banks addresses his letters to J.B. Game who bargains the prices of the tablets and is ultimately responsible for the accession of these ancient objects. Game had been a faculty member at the Florida State College for Women for twenty-one years as a Professor of General Literature and Archeology. Interesting to note are the prices listed by Banks (detailed further in the images below which enumerate each of the twenty-five tablets and their prices) that may appear shockingly low when discovering that the school paid a mere $50 for the entire collection, but taking inflation into account this would be approximately $881 today.

Edgar J. Banks has a multi-layered history himself, being that he studied archeology at Harvard University and is described by Harvard Magazine as an “entrepreneurial archeologist.” In his career he sold around 11,000 cuneiform tablets to various recipients including museums, universities, and private collectors. Harvard Magazine reports that the letters seen above were typical of Banks’ sales strategy, including his decision to send the tablets to potential customers before the sale had been finalized. He was quite the salesman of antiquities and today we can look back and reflect on the success of this particular sale as it continues to benefit the students, faculty, and visiting researchers of Florida State University a century later.

This post was written by Caroline Haight, a senior at Florida State University pursuing a BA in Art History with a minor in Museum Studies. Caroline is currently interning at Special Collections and Archives for the fall of 2022 as an Undergraduate Research Assistant.

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