On October 20th, the Galileo School paid a visit to one of the United States oldest academic institutions: Yale University. The Sterling Memorial Library has a magnificent special collection of various artifacts from the ancient Near East, called “The Babylonian Collection”. Yale itself is quite a lot to take in, but the treasures in this special collection were beyond what we had originally imagined. Even more amazing was the special access we were given by the staff who engaged us in a lengthy discussion and exhibition of books, artifacts and ancient Mesopotamian rituals.
After gaining entry (which was not easy), Lee (an Associate curator of the collection) brought us down a maze of hallways to the collection itself, which is housed among a set of offices in the library. It was a rather unassuming set of rooms that, from the outside, might not have gained our attention. Inside, from floor to ceiling, were shelves of books in French, German, Aramaic and Akkadian; glass cases filled with ceramic bowls, clay tablets and stone carvings. Most of the artifacts were in good condition, but, with my poor eyesight, almost impossible to make out any of the cuneiform; the subject matter of the writing on the tablets was as mundane as you could imagine: accountant’s books, receipts for goods and services, tax lists, and laws were among the subjects these Babylonians liked to catalog. This wasn’t some musty old library backroom either: our unexpected visit allowed us a glimpse of the office while current research and cataloging was taking place. One of the more interesting pieces that was lying around (and available for hands on investigation) was a great example of early postal work: a clay will or deed, baked inside of another clay envelope; the purpose, as Lee explained, was to provide authenticity and integrity to the deed printed on the outside – the inner clay tablet contained the exact same message; thus if the outside was tampered with and there was a dispute, the arbiters of the dispute would simply crack open the outer clay to reveal the original message on the inner tablet.
It was a great trip: Yale itself is a much more interesting campus than I had assumed it to be; we had a great lunch at Anna Liffey’s and walked the campus admiring the eclectic mix of architectural styles, witnessing the growth of the campus and it’s evolution over 3 centuries. Even better was the connections we made with the subject matter we were learning and the active community researching the past. We are also now happy to include an Assyriologist, Dr. Lee Payne, as a friend of The Galileo School.