Mysterious Sumerian tablet puzzles UAF librarians

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The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Rasmuson Library has a mystery on its hands. It doesn’t know when or how, but in its collection lies a Bronze Age clay tablet.

(Creative Commons photo by Jimmy Emerson)
(Creative Commons photo by Jimmy Emerson)

Like the Maltese Falcon, the small four thousand-year-old Ancient Sumerian clay tablet is surrounded in mystery. Rasmuson Library’s Curator of Rare Books Katherine Arndt says all they know is it was in their collection in 1982.

“Marvin Falk, who was hired as the first rare book curator at that time; he doesn’t know if it was in the library before then or not,” Ardnt said.

Arndt says the tablet’s storage box is from a New York rare book dealer and probably dates from the early 1940s. She and her colleagues believe it was a donation, but records are missing.

They do know what it says thanks to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. It is a receipt for a barley transaction.

“It was threshed and the mill was evidently giving it back to whoever was getting it,” said Arndt.

Definitely more prosaic than the Maltese Falcon. Yet the Rasmuson Library’s display from the ancient Middle East does call to mind Sam Spade’s observation: “The stuff dreams are made of.”