Ancient Clay Tablets Recovered from 9/11 Attack Restored and Translated

from Popular Archaeology

Harvard scholar conserves and translates 4,000-year-old clay tablets saved from a modern disaster. It is a record depicting a glimpse of everyday life in Mesopotamia.

They were stored in the basement of the Customs House at 6 World Trade Center in New York City when the building was destroyed by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The ancient, 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets, 302 in all, were looted from a site in southern Iraq sometime before the attacks. They had been confiscated by U.S. customs while they were in the process of being smuggled into Newark, N.J. and then placed temporarily in the basement of the Trade Center.

When officials recovered the cache from the basement beneath the 9/11 wreckage, they transferred them to another storage facility until 2004, when they were taken to Harvard University’s Semitic Museum basement to undergo a special restoration process developed by Dennis and Jane Drake Piechota. The process combines slow baking in a furnace with water baths to extract salts. It results in a ceramic hardness that extends the life and form of the tablets.

Scholars now know that the tablets resided in an archive near the city of Nippur, the religious capital of Sumeria, and 145 of them constitute records of a relatively high-ranking agricultural official named ‘Aradmu’, a fact that came to light when Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, a lecturer on Assyriology in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, dedicated months translating the cuneiform characters on the tablets.

What he discovered was a detailed account of routine operations of an agrarian society, including receipts for agricultural items such as donkeys and oxen and grain loans. At least some of the loans had an interest rate of a whopping 33 percent, apparently a typical standard rate for the time in Mesopotamia.

Working against the clock, Studevent-Hickman was faced with translating the 145 Aradmu tablets before they, by agreement, had to be repatriated to Iraq in 2010. Although the job was not completed before they left, he continues to work with photographs of the tablets, and hopes to develop a monogram of the collection. Although the use of photographs certainly is better than nothing at all, Studevent-Hickman maintains that “nothing beats the tablets themselves. I spent as much time as I could with them, knowing they were going to leave.”

Studevent-Hickman is also researching the details about the investigation that led to the confiscation of the collection, and is studying satellite images up through the year 2001 of the Nippur area to identify signs of looting, indicating where the tablets may have initially been unearthed.

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