“Cuneiform writing is probably the most ancient system of writing. The name ‘cuneiform’…comes from the Latin cuneus, ‘wedge,’ and forma, ‘shape’ or ‘form;’ hence the term cuneiform, meaning ‘wedge shape.’ Cuneiform, therefore, has come to be the term assigned to the ancient scripts which are made up of characters formed from a combination of strokes having the shape of a wedge, cone, or nail…[this system of written communication] is believed to have been in existence by about the middle of the fourth millennium B.C….A medium-soft lump of clay was taken and shaped into a flat tablet, prism, or cone, on which the writing was engraved by means of a fine stylus…the tablet was then baked by being left in the sun to dry or by placing it in a kiln.” (Stec, 1979, p. 10-16)

Small collections of cuneiform tablets can be found throughout the United States in museums, libraries, universities and personal collections. Currently, there are twenty-three cuneiform tablets in the Wells College Archives. According to the “Campus History of the Wells College Cuneiform Tablets,” written by Professor Emeritus Arthur Bellinzoni, the tablets have been acquired through two sources. A 1917 letter from a Professor E.J. Banks (University of Chicago) to President Macmillan, of Wells College, implies that he was commissioned by the president to obtain a collection of cuneiform tablets for the college. The second source comes from the President’s Report, 1916-1917, “which states that ‘these [tablets] are a gift of President Zabriskie.'”  (Bellinzoni, 1978, p.1)

Through the years, the collection has been moved from the Cleveland Library, to  the Wells College Museum (Main basement), to the Zabriskie Hall basement, Morgan Hall, and eventually, in 1972, the tablets were moved to Long Library.

Wells students, and faculty, have shown interest in researching and preserving this unique collection. In February of 1973, Molly Rahe ’73 took four of the tablets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be examined and translated. In the fall of 1978, Professor Emeritus Arthur Bellinzoni and his students  rearranged, labeled, and tagged the collection while also compiling a history of the Wells Cuneiform Tablets, including their history at Wells College, a history of Mesopotamia, and a history of cuneiform writing. This compilation, along with letters, translations, and other documents relating to cuneiforms are housed with the collection in the Wells College Archives.

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For more information, or to schedule a visit to the Wells College Archives, contact us at library@wells.edu.

Compiled by Lisa Hoff ’09 Reference, Instruction, and Outreach Librarian, Long Library