[Various images and their captions included on the back and interior of the brochure are not transcribed on this page because they are the same artifacts and information which can be found on the Collections page.]


Reading the Past

Ancient Mesopotamian Objects in the Violette Historical Museum

Truman State University
Violette Museum
Kirksville, Missouri
Fall 1999


Violette Historical Museum

The history of any group of artifacts should always be considered within the history of the entire collection. The group of ancient Mesopotamian objects at the center of this study has been in the collection of Truman State University’s E.M. Violette Historical Museum since 1914. Professor E.M. Violette, who taught history at this university, began this historical collection in 1900. The collection grew, and was moved from old Baldwin Hall just before fire destroyed that building in 1924.

Over a decade later, the president of the university, Walter H. Ryle, took steps to revitalize the museum collection and set aside a space for it in the new John R. Kirk Memorial Building. In 1940, the collection was officially named the E.M. Violette Museum and opened at its present location in 1943. The entire collection was recatalogued in 1945, a system which the museum still uses today.

In 1923, the museum contained several hundred items collected by professor Violette, including a group of twelve ancient Mesopotamian objects purchased in 1914 from Dr. Edgar J. Banks. Until this study, little research has been on these unique objects in the Violette Museum collection.

Cuneiform Tablets

Ancient Mesopotamian writing was named “cuneiform” (Latin for “wedge-shaped”) after the triangular shape of the strokes of which the signs were composed. The earliest writing on clay tablets was found at Warka (Uruk).

The ancient Mesopotamian script was developed from writing on soft damp clay, which was easy to find and prepare (in comparison to papyrus or leather). A reed stylus was used to make marks in the clay tablets, which were then dried by the sun or baked. These hardened tablets survived to provide archaeologists with a substantial record of this early civilization.

The first writing devices in Mesopotamia were very basic, such as a series of marks on a clay ball (evident around 3350 BCE). After 3000 BCE, clay tablets began to record lines of marks representing signs or numerals, showing a more complex method of writing. After 2800 BCE, these symbols began to represent sounds, making it a full-fledged writing system.

Since the hardened clay inscriptions could not be altered, seals could be used to authenticate the inscriptions without worry of tampering. Cylinder seals, such as object 46.070, were rolled into the damp clay tablets, leaving the “signature” of the seal owner.

Most early tablets, as well as most of the tablets in the Violette collection, recorded administrative or temple records. Later tablets also recorded legal documents, business records, and even literary texts.

The ancient script was first deciphered in the nineteenth century by Henry Rawlinson, who began to transcribe cuneiform in the 1830s. Rawlinson contributed greatly to the decipherment of the cuneiform language, allowing tablets such as those in the Violette Museum to be translated into English.

Ancient Objects in Violette Museum’s Collection

The collection of ancient Mesopotamian objects was purchased in 1914 by Edgar J. Banks, archaeologist and author of several books including The Bible and the Spade (1913). The objects purchased from Banks included ten cuneiform tablets, one cylinder seal, and one votive cone, all dating between 2400 and 2100 BCE. These items were uncovered from several sites in Iraq, including Warka, Drehem, Jokha, and Babylon, all shown by dark triangles in the detail map of Mesopotamia on the left.

[The map on the left displays the location of the ancient cities in modern Asia near Africa, all four situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.]

All of the objects remain in fair condition except for two unbaked Babylonian tablets, which unfortunately have deteriorated significantly over the years and cannot be conserved. Translations of the inscriptions on seven of the tablets remain in Bank’s notes. Most of the tablets record lists of objects used in temple offerings, although one records a royal name (46.063) and another depicts Gilgamesh fighting a lion (46.070).

Student Research Project

During the summer of 1999, an attempt was made to research the history of these objects and also to learn about the possibility of conserving these ancient tablets. Michael Murawski, a senior history and art history double-major at Truman State University, received an Undergraduate Research Stipend to work on this project. The goals of this project were to make a more complete record of these objects, gather information about possible conservation, develop an exhibit for Violette Museum, and increase the general awareness of these objects in the museum.

This work was able to be completed thanks to the help and guidance of Elaine Doak (acting curator of the E.M. Violette Museum), Dr. Patricia Podzorski (assistant director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia), and Dr. Martha Edwards (assistant professor of history, Truman State University).

Photographs by Bryna Campbell and Michael Murawksi, with info from http://www2.truman.edu/pickler/vm.html and J.N. Postgate’s Early Mesopotamia (1992). Layout done on Adobe FrameMaker 5.5, photographs formatted on Adobe Photoshop 5.0.2. For more information, e-mail Michael Murawski at mikegm@cableone.net or visit the museum’s web site listed above.


List of Objects in Anciet Mesopotamian Collection

46.063—Votive offering cone from Warka. c. 2100 BCE. Inscription reads, “For Sig-ya-shid, the mighty hero, the King of Erech, King of Anmon, who cares for the temple Ea-an-na which built in the palace of his kingdom.”

46.064—Clay tablet of temple record from Jokha. c. 2300 BCE. The seal impression bears the names its scribe and his titles, and a picture of the sealed sun god.

46.065—Clay tablet of temple record from Drehem. c. 2200 BCE. Inscription record a list of animals for a temple sacrifice.

46.066—Clay tablet of a Babylonian letter from Warka. Dated to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (c. 604-562 BCE). Unbaked and in very poor, unrecognizable condition.

46.067—Clay tablet of temple record from Jokha. c. 2300 BCE. Inscription records a list of objects which were used in connection with temple offerings.

46.068—Clay tablet of temple record from Jokha. c. 2300 BCE. A messenger tablet containing a list of provisions which supplied the messenger during his journey.

46.069—Clay tablet from Sinkereb (unknown location). Dated to before 2400 BCE. Unbaked and in very poor condition, although still slightly readable in areas.

46.070—Cylinder seal of hematite stone from Babylon. Dated from c. 2400–2100 BCE. Engraved with the image of Gilgamesh fighting a lion. Broken.

46.071—Clay tablet of temple record from Jokha. c. 2300 BCE.

46.072—Clay tablet of temple record from Drehem. c. 2250 BCE. Inscription records cattle for temple offering.

46.073—Clay tablet of temple record from Drehem. c. 2350 BCE. Inscription records sheep and other animals employed in the sacrifice at the temple in Drehem.

46.074—Clay tablet of temple record from Drehem. c. 2250 BCE.

For information concerning this exhibit contact: speccoll@truman.edu