Tablets date back 4,000 years

Rebecca Schultze

Rebecca Schultze

Beneath the lid of a small, dusty old box marked “radioactive material” in the forgotten room of the SDSU archives, former South Dakota State University Archivist Elizabeth B. Scott and Archive Associate Crystal Gamradt let curiosity overcome caution and opened the seemingly harmless box.

Inside lay five Sumerian cuneiform (containing wedge-like impressions) tablets, reportedly dating from 2400 and 2100 B.C., a letter from Edgar J. Banks explaining, describing and translating the tablets and a letter dated Feb. 19, 1987 from Mark J. Halvorson, former Curator of Collections at the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, to Leon Raney, former library director.

“We had no clue what they were,” Gamradt said, as she looked back on the day she and Scott found the relics.

“They were not our top priority at that time,” she said.

Scott and Gamradt were in the process of sorting and organizing hundreds of boxes that contained the university’s archive collection when they first came across the ancient relics.

In 1997 the Archives and Special Collections Department was established in the Hilton M. Briggs Library to bring life back into the records of South Dakota and to preserve the history of South Dakota State University.

Gamradt, a Brookings resident and a history student at SDSU, again came across the tablets last summer, and she decided to display them in the library display case outside the SDSU Archive and Special Collections office.

Now tucked carefully into tissue paper and individual boxes, the tablets are carefully shown off using white gloves and a gentle touch.

The rectangular tablets vary slightly in size, from about 1 inch by 1 inch to 2 inches by 2 inches, although none of them are perfect squares.

All five of the relics are around half an inch thick, with rounded edges and some chips out of the corners and sides.

According to Gamradt, the tablets were made out of moist clay. A stylus, made from a reed, was used to create the cuneiform impressions that resulted in Sumerian text. The tablets were then dried in a kiln.

After talking to her advisor, Dr. Jerry Sweeney, Gamradt decided to research the origin of the tablets, how they came to SDSU, if any other South Dakota institutions have similar cuneiform tablets and, if they have one or more, if the institutions know how they came to possess the tablets and how they care for them.

As a part-time student, Gamradt will get university credit for a paper on her research through a special problems course in history.

Gamradt is also interested in whether or not the clay tablets came directly from Banks to SDSU.

After doing some Internet research on Banks, Gamradt contacted Dr. Ewa Wasilewska of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, who is working on Banks’ biography. Wasilewska refers to Banks as “the forgotten Indiana Jones.”

Gamradt said she has learned that Banks, a renowned anthropologist, would travel to Babylonia (modern day Iraq) in the early 20th Century. He would bring back clay tablets, translate them and sell them — an act that would be illegal today.

Gamradt said Banks became an artifact dealer and sold ancient antiquities to universities, historical societies, seminaries and museums throughout the United States.

“They’ve become lost and forgotten in many universities,” Gamradt said.

But, thanks to the discovery by Scott and Gamradt five years ago, it is not so at SDSU.

The 4,000 year-old tablets within the SDSU archives are similar to receipts, recording temple offerings, such as “seven lambs and four kid goats” and “five oxen.”

According to the translations by Banks found in the box with the tablets, three of the tablets were found at Drehem, a suburb of Nippur, where there was a receiving station for the temple of Bel, one found at Jokha, the ruin of the city of Umma in central Babylonia, and one found at Senkereh, the ruin of the city of Elassar.

According to University Archivist Stephan Van Buren, the head of special collections, the tablets are a significant piece of history because they record the products of farmers 4,000 years ago.

“My feeling is things haven’t changed much in 4,000 years,” Van Buren said. “We aren’t using clay anymore, but we do use silicon and there’s silicon in those tablets.

It just goes to show, the more things change, the more they stay the same.