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Conserving a cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis Epic

Because they are routinely handled and studied by scholars, curators and museum assistants, cuneiform tablets need to be robust and stable.

Cuneiform tablets are often excavated in fragments. It is not until scholars examine the text that new pieces are frequently discovered which belong to the original tablets.

Fragments of cuneiform tablets come to the Department of Conservation to be joined. A reversible adhesive is used, and the tablet is made safe for further handling and study. A gap-fill may be needed to give support to the existing fragments, as seen on this cuneiform tablet. The gap-fill is made of plaster of Paris, painted with acrylic paints and, where possible, is detachable.

The plaster is cast into the required position with a separating layer of aluminium foil or thin plastic sheet to protect the edges of the tablet from the wet plaster. Once set, the gap-fill may be removed from the tablet and then shaped with abrasive papers. The gap-fill is joined to the tablet using a reversible adhesive.

If the tablet is on public display the gap-fill is painted with acrylic paints to tone in with the original clay. The fill acts like another fragment of the tablet but can be easily removed in future if more pieces of the original tablet are found.