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From ancient Mesopotamia to a modern basement; on cuneiform tablets and the origins of writing.

Indiana Jones movies have popularized archaeology as a romantic discipline that allows for spectacular discoveries of forgotten civilizations. Many important archaeological discoveries are made not during excavations but in the basements of various institutions or even private homes. There, with the passage of time, the existence of collections often has been forgotten.

Cuneiform tablets, which are the earliest written records, are some of the best examples among thousands of artifacts that, unrecognized, can be stored or disposed of in the most unexpected places. One such place with a "forgotten" collection is the Utah Museum of Natural History. There, in 1995, ninety-nine tablets resurfaced after eighty years of being scattered among artifacts from North and South America.

I will never forget how excited I was when I walked to the small room of the Collection Department to see the tablets for the first time. Only a few hours earlier I had received a phone call from Laurel Casjens at the museum with the news: "Ewa, we found them . . . the tablets."

Although I was extremely happy to be proven right, after twelve years of chasing ghosts of the past I did not have high expectations. After all, the blue piece of paper that I had pulled from a museum garbage can so many years before only mentioned the existence of a collection of Babylonian tablets. It did not specify their location or their number. I expected to find perhaps five or ten tablets, definitely not nearly a hundred.

While it was not difficult to convince the museum's officers that I am not in the habit of going through other people's trash (if we don't count excavating it), it was much more challenging to persuade them that among their treasures of southwestern archaeology, a collection in which the museum takes pride, ancient tablets from Mesopotamia (more or less modern Iraq) might also be found. Indeed, I had to wait eleven years for any "physical evidence" of the forgotten tablets' existence.

This came by way of one of my non traditional students, Peggy Kadir. During a class she mentioned that, in the 1950s, she had donated an inscribed brick from Babylon to the museum.

As luck would have the museum was just starting a major project of all its rooms. It was possible to advise alert eyes to on the lookout. One year later, I had "my" tablets (we are still looking for Kadir's inscribed brick).

What caused me to De so excited after almost twenty years in Middle Eastern archaeology? The answer is simple: mystery. On this beautiful day in May 1995 I was looking at the records of a people who, thousands of years ago, wrote on clay somewhere in southern Iraq. And here I was, in Utah, trying to retrieve these messages. The distance, both in terms of miles and years, was simply overwhelming.

Reading Sumerian records

The majority of tablets in the collection were written by the Sumerians, the mysterious people of southern Mesopotamia whose origin and language still baffle modern scholars. While there is no doubt that the Sumerians culturally dominated the Middle East--from the fourth millennium B.C. to the end of the third millennium B.C.--and contributed so many "firsts" to the development of civilization, we still do not know whether they were natives of this area or newcomers from an unknown place. Although both the language and the cuneiform script they invented now can be read and more or less understood, there is no other language, ancient or modern, which can be unequivocally considered a cognate of Sumerian.

So how can modern scholars read Sumerian records? It is quite simple: The Sumerian vocabulary has been translated with the help of ancient "dictionaries," bilingual, trilingual, and sometimes even quadrilingual lists of various objects and activities. These lists were necessary because many languages of different linguistic groups (among them Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian [all Semitic], Hittite [IndoEuropean], and Hurrian [isolate]) were recorded with a modified cuneiform script based on that of the Sumerians.

Sometimes the "borrowers" of this writing system did not even bother to write their own words phonetically. Instead they used a "Sumerogram" standing for the same word, which they pronounced very differently. For example, a picture of a star--which later became recognized as a symbol for "heaven"--was read as AN in Sumerian, shamu in Akkadian, or nepis in Hittite.

Counting and tokens. As of today, the cuneiform script is the only one in the world whose development can be traced back to counting devices. These were labeled by their discoverer, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, as "tokens." After years of scrupulous research she was able to demonstrate (although some scholars still have reservations) that long before writing was invented--in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C. in Sumer--Middle Easterners had been using clay tokens of various shapes and markings to keep records of their commodities.

For example, a round token with a cross painted on it represented a sheep, while the same token with a small additional marking in the right corner stood for a ewe. And just as we keep our tax records today in special folders or envelopes, the "token" people secured them on strings and/or stashed them in clay envelopes.

Each time they wanted to check their "cash" value, however, they would have to break open the envelope. So, they started to mark the outside of the envelope with the impressions of what was inside. Eventually someone in southern Mesopotamia realized that one no longer needs tokens if the same information can be obtained from an envelope impression. That was the likely origin of the pictographic script that followed.

Syllabic writing. Since pictographic/ideographic scripts are not phonetic--that is, one does not have to know the language to read the message as long as one is familiar with the system of symbols used--we will never know who first made the transition and invented writing. In the light of existing data, it appears, however, that the Sumerians were the first to make the next step: the transition to phonetics (syllabic writing).

This was a major innovation. The use of syllabic signs allowed people to record not only economic data but also poetry, prose, and many other forms of oral communication.

But why were the Sumerians and not others able to make this transition? Among the factors that possibly led to this invention is the structure of the Sumerian language itself. In contrast, for example, to the Indo-European languages, which are inflective, Sumerian is agglutinative (i.e., the root word does not change but is modified by adding suffixes). Since the Altaic languages, such as Turkish, work the same way, the following example from the Turkish language should make it more clear.

ev = house

ev-im = my house (im--possessive, first person singular)

ev-im-de = in my house (de--locative [in, at, on])

ev-im-de-ki = the thing which is in my house (ki--qualifier for "thing," "person")

ev-im-de-ki-ler = the things which are in my house (ler--plural)

Only the noun ev can be found in a dictionary. The rest are suffixes reflecting grammatical forms. To effectively communicate in such a language, the majority of the vocabulary consists of one- or two-syllable words, which makes it somewhat easier for the transition from a pictographic/ideographic script to a syllabic one.

Pictures and meaning. In a pictographic system of writing, what you see is what you get. Thus, a picture (pictogram) of a house means "house" whether one reads it in English, Turkish, or any other language. An ideographic script extends the meaning of selected pictures (ideograms) to concepts that are either impossible or very difficult to present with the help of a simple drawing. For example, a picture of the sun in an ideographic system might be also read as "heat," "hot," or "white." To read such a system, one does not have to know the language but must be familiar with all symbolic values.

Only with the phonetic (a syllabic or alphabetic) system is knowledge of the language necessary to read the script. While Americans have no problem understanding a sign reading "MORE 4 LESS," the same sign makes little sense to those who do not know English well and translate it word by word (i.e., "MORE number four LESS"). Here, 4 actually stands for a preposition, "for," not for the number, "four." Both words are pronounced the same way, so using 4 on a sign saves space and is visually attractive.

Something similar happened with the Sumerian introduction of syllabic signs to the pictographic/ideographic script. Due to the nature of their language, pictograms and ideograms of many short words were used to form phonetically dissimilar words unrelated to the pictures. To understand this, consider the three illustrations in the diagram below.

The first illustration shows a pictogram for EYE (pronounced "I") added to a pictogram for DOLL to produce a word: IDOL. That is, I plus DOL[L] equals IDOL.

Similar reasoning applies to the second example, a pictogram for CAT added to a pictogram for CHAIR, producing CATCHER.

Some new words can result from a combination of pictograms with ideograms, as in the third example. A pictogram for CAR is combined with an ideogram for MUSICAL NOTES to produce CARTOON. Since a picture for MUSICAL NOTES is an ideogram, it can be read as music, song, and "TUNE," and so forth. Thus, CAR + TUNE = CARTOON.

Once syllabic signs were developed for the purpose of writing, each and every thought could be recorded and transmitted over long distances, both in terms of space and time.

How the tablets came to Utah

Hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets--written between the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and the end of the first millennium B.C. by peoples of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds--have survived. They are found on every continent, in numerous museums and learning institutions, and in hundreds of private collections.

These tablets were discovered during official excavations and through illegal looting of ancient sites. Many were bought from local people in the last hundred years, until laws forbidding their sale were established in the Middle East. Carried by dealers, collectors, and curious tourists, the tablets left their "home" on ships, trains, and planes to reach their destinations in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Among those people who popularized the ancient Middle East in the United States at the fin de siecle through research, lectures, films, and sale of antiquities was Prof. Edgar James Banks (see sidebar on page 204). He alone brought to the United States around 11,000 tablets, although some estimates are as high as 175,000!

Not only did Banks sell large collections to various universities and museums but, while lecturing across America on "the Bible and the spade," he sold small lots to anyone who wanted to buy them. Tablets from his original collection have been found in the most unexpected places, such as a vacant lot in Auburn, New York, garage sales, and the attics and basements of private homes and institutions.

Banks sold a collection to Prof. Byron Cummings (a pioneer of southwestern archaeology) at the University of Utah in 1914, even before the Utah Museum of Natural History was established. Despite my efforts, I was unable to find any information concerning their first meeting and details of the transaction. Newspaper clippings indicate that Banks visited Utah in 1915, delivering a few lectures concerning past and contemporary events in the Middle East. Then he boarded a train to Wyoming to continue his lectures in the West.

Using an old train schedule, I am in the process of reconstructing his lecture tour in the hope of finding more of these "forgotten" collections.

Although much work has been accomplished since the rediscovery of the small Utah collection--including copying, transliterating, and translating the majority of the tablets, done by Prof. David Owen of Cornell University--the mystery of its acquisition and Banks' ventures remains unsolved. With time I hope to put together the pieces of Banks' adventurous life to learn more about him, the Utah collection, and many other forgotten collections throughout the United States.

In closing, I would like to thank Laurel Casjens, Dr. Duncan Metcalfe, and Kathy Kankainen of the Utah Museum of Natural History for their cooperation in my search for the tablets. Research on this collection and the very dedicated involvement in the publication of these tablets by Professor Owen--to whom I offer my deepest gratitude--were only possible thanks to a grant from the Utah Humanities Council and a travel grant from the College of Social Sciences at the University of Utah. Many thanks are directed to my students, who dug through old archives in search of any information relevant to this research. My gratitude also goes to Jennifer Graves, Prof. Laurence Loeb, and Prof. James Kelly, who believed in my crazy ideas and supported my quest for the "ghosts of the past."


The number of ancient people who could read and write was very limited. Those who went through many years of schooling often became scribes working for others in palaces, temples, and businesses, as well as for private individuals. Records that they left behind are nearly as varied as our modern writing. The majority of clay tablets--including those in the Utah collection--whether written in Sumerian, Akkadian, or Hittite, are economic and/or administrative.

These tablets inform us about sacrifices, herding, and so on, as well as about transactions concerning sheep, beer, and any other commodities that were the subjects of ancient sales. There are many contracts for labor, land, loans, as well as for marriage, adoption, and other human activities subject to a contractual agreement.

As we do today, the ancients also wrote about other issues affecting their lives. Many religious texts provide information concerning beliefs, rituals, and magic. They recorded stories about the origins of the universe and humankind, about good and bad deeds of their deities, as well as about our place in the world governed by divine forces. [Editor's note: Many of these stories were retold by this author in the series "Creation Myths of the Middle East" and published in the February, March, April, and May 1994 issues of THE WORLD & I.]

Their heroes, such as Gilgamesh, are still studied in schools around the world, as was done thousands of years ago. And, like today, some ancient students tried to skip school, were lazy, and frequently wrote to their parents for financial help. This we know from various personal letters that were recovered from Mesopotamia.

Human emotions such as love, anger, disappointment, and fear were expressed through personal and diplomatic correspondence as well as through poems, proverbs, and other forms of writing. Personal tragedies and those that affected international politics at the time are also among the topics of cuneiform tablets. For example, two official cuneiform letters from an Egyptian queen, possibly the widow of Tutankhamen, were found in the royal archives of the Hittite kings in their ancient capital, Hattusa (modern Boghazkoy in central Anatolia). They were addressed to the Hittite king, Suppiluliumas I, and asked that one of his sons become her husband since the queen did not want to marry any of her subjects. Unfortunately, the proposed alliance between the Hittites and the Egyptians never took place, since the chosen son was murdered on his way to Egypt.

If writing hadn't been invented, we would never have learned about ancient laws, whether written by the Babylonian Hammurabi or his Sumerian predecessors. Descriptions of great battles and conditions of international treaties signed between important powers at the time would have been lost if not for the fourth-millennium invention of the people in southern Mesopotamia.


The life of Prof. Edgar James Banks would probably be as interesting as the Indiana Jones movies if all his adventures had been recorded in writing. He was born in Sunderland, Massachusetts, on May 23, 1866, and died in Florida on May 5, 1945. He obtained an education from Amherst and Harvard, finishing with a Ph.D. from the University of Breslau in 1887 (formerly in Germany, now Wroclaw in Poland).

Although his education was in archaeology and ancient Semitic languages, his first "dream job" was to become a U.S. diplomat in the Ottoman Middle East. When his plans to open a U.S. post in Harput, eastern Turkey, did not materialize, he became the consul to Baghdad in 1898 by default.

At the time, American consuls were not paid for their services. Banks quickly realized that being an archaeologist could not pay the bills, so he left his post after only a few months. Although he left unpaid loans behind, it did not stop him from using the title of secretary to the American minister to Turkey in 1903. Then he turned his attention to archaeology.

After a few years of waiting in Constantinople to obtain permission to excavate ancient sites in modern Iraq--years that he did not waste, since he collected thousands of ancient coins and stories about Nasreddin Hoca, a folk hero of the Middle East and Central Asia-Banks was finally able to excavate at Bismya (ancient Adab) in 1903 for the University of Chicago.

His excavations received wonderful publicity because he discovered "several thousands [of] inscribed objects... and the white statue of King David, a pre-Babylonian king," which was marketed at the time as the "oldest statue in the world." His love affair with academia was short lived, however, and, for reasons still shrouded in mystery, he left Chicago in 1906.

He became a free agent, both as a lecturer and as a dealer in antiquities, especially cuneiform tablets. Despite losing some respect from the academic community, Banks was able to make a relatively good living. He sold thousands of tablets, lectured all over the United States, and published hundreds of articles and quite a few books on different subjects relating to the Middle East. In 1912 he climbed Mount Ararat (one of the first Americans, if not the first, to do so) in search of Noah's Ark. He reported no traces of it. That year he also crossed the Arabian Desert by camel.

But this was not enough for Banks. In 1920 he became involved in a brand-new field: filmmaking. He was a director of Sacred Films, Inc. and then president of Seminole Films. Since neither was registered, I have only been able to place the first somewhere in Burbank, California. According to Banks' declaration, this company was established to "film the Bible stories" and, judging from a few surviving photographs, they were beautifully done.

What happened to the films? I do not know. I hope that one day they will be found, but unfortunately the search is difficult. Both companies were kept, in secret, by Banks himself. As he said in one article that I was able to locate:

A word about this company [Sacred Films] may not be amiss, for it is one of

the first to produce a higher type of picture which is meeting the demands

of the severest critic. Its purpose is to elevate the motion picture

world, rather than to reap great financial returns. It is not a

stock-selling proposition; it has no stock for sale. It advertises no

"stars" and yet it employs them. The name of no actor is given to the

public; none can hope for film

fame. The names of presidents

and directors are

known to but few. At the present

moment [January 1923]

every man on its staff is a college

man, and they are all

working together to make

pictures which are technically,

artistically, dramatically,

historically, and archaeologically

correct, pictures so

clean that no parent can

object sending his child to see

them. And the material for

these pictures is taken from

the beautiful old dramatic

stories of the Bible.

Some of Banks' papers are in the possession of Prof. Ronald Herbert Sack, University of North Carolina, who has graciously agreed to work with me in the future. Nevertheless, the mystery of Banks' films cannot be resolved without help from the general public. He must have advertised these films in newspapers, possibly Christian ones, so I hope that sooner or later we can learn more about his activities and, if Lady Luck is willing to help, we may even find the original films.

In the meantime I will keep looking for leads concerning the life of this great and controversial persona, Edgar James Banks, who lived the life of Indiana Jones and died shunned by the academic community.

Ewa Wasilewska is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Utah. She is an anthropologist and archaeologist who specializes in the Middle East and Central Asia. Wasilewska welcomes correspondence on this essay and can be reached through E-mail at
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Author:Wasilewska, Ewa
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Date:Apr 1, 1998
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