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Archaeologists Discover Trove of Cuneiform Tablets in Northern Iraq

Many of the 93 artifacts were unbaked and badly worn, making reading and translating the tablets a lengthy task

The cuneiform clay tablets discovered inside a ceramic pot. (Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen)
smithsonian.com

Inside a destroyed building in the northern Iraq region of Kurdistan, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen in Germany recently unearthed 93 cuneiform clay tablets that date to around 1250 BC, the period of the Middle Assyrian Empire.

Sixty of the tablets were discovered inside a ceramic pot, which had been thickly coated with clay—something the researchers speculate was intended to preserve the artifacts.

The vessels may have been hidden this way shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed. Perhaps the information inside it was meant to be protected and preserved for posterity," Peter Pfälzner, director of the Department of Near Eastern Archeology at the University of Tübingen, says in a press release.

The excavation took place in the Bronze Age city of Bassetki, which was itself only discovered in 2013. In archaeological circles, the area is best known as the home of the so-called Bassetki statue, a cast copper statue from the Old Akkadian period (circa 2340-2200 BC), which in its present condition shows a figure’s legs wrapped around what appears to be a gate-post symbol.

That statue, which was discovered accidentally in the course of construction work, was among the works looted from the Iraqi Museum in 2003 during the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, reports the BBC. The statue, which weighs over 300 pounds, was recovered later that same year in a Baghdad suburb. The missing artifact, it turns out, was buried in human feces, but had been coated with grease to protect it from the elements. "I guess some thought process went into it," as U.S. Army Corporal Cory Hassler, who helped recover the statue, put it in an interview with USA Today. When the museum re-opened in 2009, the statue—well cleaned—was once again featured prominently.

The newly discovered tablets will likely have a far less adventurous future. After unearthing the objects, many of which were unbaked and badly worn, researchers used a technique called reflectance transformation imaging, or RTI to take images of the tablets. As Cultural Heritage Imaging explains, this method, first developed in 2001, combines multiple photographs with light at different angles to reveal features undetectable to the naked eye.

Even with this technological aid, reading and translating the tablets promises to be a lengthy task. So far, it’s unclear what kind of records the tablets contain. But the first clue, from a deciphered fragment, suggests the cache may be religious in nature—it contains a mention of Gula, a goddess of fertility and health.

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