Documenting the Library

In 19th century very few people in the world were able to read cuneiform at all. The Museum made efforts to make new material available to scholarship. It did this in a variety of ways: through publication of drawings, production of replicas and private circulation of drawings or other materials to the small band of subject experts. It was as part of this process that in 1852 the Museum hired Roger Fenton to produce photographs of tablets. Photography was new, cutting-edge (and expensive) technology. In a specially constructed studio on the Museum roof, Fenton produced photos of almost 300 tablets from Nineveh, before the Crimean War and instructions to photograph other objects stopped the work. Further photos were produced by the Mansell company in 1872, at a time when replication and circulation were somewhat easier. The process continued through the 20th century, with thousands of images produced and made available. In 21st century digital technology has facilitated the production of a complete set of tablet photographs, comprising around a quarter of a million individual images.

K 76 by Roger Fenton

A photo of tablet K 76 by Roger Fenton, taken at the British Museum soon after discovery in 1850's. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 []

A second method to make the Library texts available to scholarship was through print publication of hand drawings. These were not only easier (technologically) to publish, but were also thought to provide added value to the reader. That is, the copyist had inspected the object, and his drawing sought to convey as clearly as possible only the meaningful elements of the inscription, filtering out extraneous features and distortions. Layard's Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Character appeared already in 1851. Then came the series of ground-breaking volumes edited by Rawlinson. A representative selection of the most useful texts was copied and published, with admirable speed. Originally, it had been planned that Rawlinson would include translations of the selected texts. Of the 250 copies produced, half were held back for the time when the translations could be printed and bound with the copies. The plan was abandoned, however, given the still primitive knowledge of cuneiform. It was felt better to make the material available to scholarship in reliable form as quickly as possible. Budge 1922 p. 102 notes the desire to avoid introducing errors, which can be remarkably difficult to correct later. The point is a good one. Erroneous 19th century translations are still popular in the wider world even today. Rawlinson's first volume appeared in 1861. Four more volumes followed in the years up to 1884. These are the earliest systematic publications of large numbers of cuneiform texts in the history of the field.

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson

A portrait of Henry Creswicke Rawlinson at work. Private collection

Rawlinson himself was so busy with his political duties that he was able to give little of his own time to these volumes. The first two volumes are thus largely the work of Edwin Norris, a scholar of Asian and African languages. The process of work on the Rawlinson volumes so injured his eyesight that he was forced to assume other duties. He set to work on a pioneering dictionary of Assyrian. The search for a replacement led briefly to the appointment of William Henry Coxe, a Sanskritist. He soon left, apparently disliking the "chaos of the tablets" and seeking a position that made more direct use of his expertise. Into the vacuum came George Smith, a prodigious scholar who was originally taken on by the Museum as a "repairer" (that is, a tablet joiner). Smith worked on volumes 3 and 4, published in 1870 and 1875. Following Smith's untimely death in 1876, Theophilus Goldridge Pinches took over, producing volume 5 in 1884.

A monumental new series of drawings of tablets, many of them from Nineveh, was launched by Budge in 1896: the Cuneiform Texts on Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum series. 52 volumes were eventually produced, making available about 10,000 tablets, many of them Library texts.

Mention should also be made of the enormous number of hand copies of tablets made by Frederick Geers. Working on behalf of the University of Chicago's Assyrian Dictionary Project, he spent months at the British Museum in 1924, 1929-1939, 1950-54. His copies, identifications and joins greatly facilitated the research of assyriologists throughout the 20th century. Scans of his copies are being made available on CDLI.

Further reading

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor, 'Documenting the Library', Ashurbanipal Library Project, The Ashurbanipal Library Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 []

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Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, 2013.