Studying cuneiform tablets

The department’s collection of cuneiform tablets is among the most important in the world. It contains approximately 130,000 texts and fragments and is perhaps the largest collection outside of Iraq.

It can be separated into the following main groups (all numbers below are approximate):

  • Early Dynastic (c.3200–2500 BC) - 500 items from Ur, Fara
  • Old Akkadian (c. 2500–2200 BC) 150 items
  • Ur III (c. 2200–2000 BC) - 30,000 items from Lagash, Umma, Ur, Drehem
  • Old Assyrian (c. nineteenth–eighteenth centuries BC) - 700 items from Anatolia
  • Old Babylonian (c. 1900–1650 BC) - 20,000 items from Sippar, Ur, Larsa, Uruk, Kutalla, Kisurra
  • non-Mesopotamian - 400 items including Alalakh in Syria, Amarna in Egypt, Elamite texts from Iran and Hittite texts from Anatolia
  • Neo-Assyrian (first millennium BC) - 25,000 items from Kuyunjik, Nimrud
  • Neo-Babylonian (first millennium BC) - 50,000 items from Sippar, Babylon, Borsippa, Uruk, Larsa, Ur, Kutalla.

The centrepiece of the collection is the Library of Ashurbanipal, comprising many thousands of the most important tablets ever found. The significance of these tablets was immediately realised by the Library’s excavator, Austin Henry Layard, who wrote:

'They furnish us with materials for the complete decipherment of the cuneiform character, for restoring the language and history of Assyria, and for inquiring into the customs, sciences, and … literature, of its people.'

The Library tablets remain among the most commonly requested objects in the collection today.

The department has an open access policy, with all texts being available to all researchers. As a result, many people from across the world depend on the department’s study room (or ‘the tablet room’, as it is affectionately known), making this one of the main international centres for the study of the Middle East.

Guidelines for handling cuneiform tablets in the study room