Clay Tablet in hands

A Unique Document, a Unique Opportunity

The following is a post written by graduate student Kristi Hager, who recently finished her certificate for Book Studies at Center for the Book. As a student in Dr. Jennifer Burke Pierce’s History of Readers and Reading course through the School of Library and Information Science, Hager was given the opportunity to explore and learn more about an unexpected item found in the archives.

 

Imagine how many pieces of paper are used each year to record population changes, business transactions, or taxes.  Even in an era of digital processes and storage, many companies and individuals still rely on paper as a secure version of a document and will print hundreds of pages of records.  Finding secure ways to document business is not a new process. Thousands of years ago, administrative documents were being recorded, and some still are readable today.

On recent visits to the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections, I was drawn repeatedly to a small display box covered with grey buckram holding a single object, an object that seems so out of place among the other books and papers displayed. In an archive full of unique items, it can be tough to stand out, but this clay tablet does.

Labeled simply as “Clay tablet dated to ca. 2050 b.c., from Umma, modern Djoka,” (call number xPJ4054.U55) this lump of dried clay is the oldest item in the archive.  The tablet is small and almost square, only about 1.5 inches per side and no thicker than a slice of bread.  There are black markings now on the tablet, almost reminiscent of small black ink droplets. It is hard to say where these marks came from or what they are.  Even the content is unusual: written in Sumerian cuneiform, the tablet is actually a receipt.

For a sacrificial offering. Of a goat. 

Proof that even 4,000 years ago in the Third Dynasty of Ur in Mesopotamia, in what is today part of Iraq, administrative and bureaucratic paperwork were a common enough occurrence that documentation was necessary.

In the center of the back of the tablet, there is the seal of the scribe who recorded this transaction.  He identifies himself as Akala, a son of the “chief cattle manager.” The seal is a bit difficult to see, as it isn’t as deeply inscribed as the text of the receipt.

This seal and the date next to it are also proof of the importance of administrative documentation.  The name of the scribe and the year the offering was given are evidence of a population large enough that members of the priesthood who received the sacrificial goat may not have known those giving the offering on sight.

This receipt is one of thousands that still exist.  According to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, there are nearly 103,000 administrative texts from the same period as this one in museums and archives around the world.  The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) is a joint project of the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Oxford; and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science that sought out cuneiform manuscripts in institutions and compiled the archival information.  Materials from places such as the Louvre in Paris; the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Iraq Museum in Baghdad; the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; the New York Public Library; National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh; and the Semitic Museum at Harvard reveal a wide range of documents.  Photographs, translations, location information, age, and purpose of the document have allowed scholars access to manuscripts that may have been difficult to access due to travel and budget concerns.

And right alongside the documents from these prestigious museums is xPJ4054.U55, the clay tablet in Special Collections here at Iowa.  Being able to view a document with this sort of history up close is an opportunity a casual or budding scholar may not realize is possible.  But it is here, available for anyone interested in learning more about ancient cuneiform, historic manuscripts, administration records, Sumerian religion, and about any other subject you could think of, ready to be studied.

 

Written by Kristi Hager

For Further Exploration

 Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, 2019.

Archival view of P235777.”  Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, 2019.

Eleanor Robson, “The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia” in A Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Simon Eliot & Jonathan Rose, 2007.

 

Chronicles of a Coleopterists Strikingly Curious Swarm

Olson Graduate Assistant Acquisitions Project

Olson Graduate Assistant Acquisitions Project

Every year, Special Collections hosts two Olson Graduate Assistants who have chosen to specialize in the field of Special Collections Librarianship or Archives for a two-year assistantship. These prestigious positions supplement knowledge gained in the classroom with experience gained from real-world application, balancing theory with practice.

The H. John and Florence Hawkinson Libraries Acquisition Endowment has introduced an exciting new element to this experience: in the second year of their assistantship, the Olson Graduate Assistant can now be given a budget for material acquisitions. The Graduate Assistant chooses a curatorial area of interest in alignment with collection strengths, and works with the Curator in that area to learn about the material selection process. They may attend meetings with book artists and book dealers, peruse catalogs, and search online for the right item(s). They then formally recommend items for purchase and, once the Curator approves of the recommendation, are looped in on the relevant communication. This is a spectacular learning opportunity for them, and a valuable way for Curators to remain in touch with how the next generation of librarians is approaching the work of acquisitions.

This year, Olson Graduate Assistant Micaela Terronez selected four items that will be purchased for the Special Collections department using the Hawkinson Endowment. Working with Head of Special Collections, Margaret Gamm, Micaela located materials that would either develop or fill in gaps within the collections. Below, Micaela has provided a brief description of the selected works and why she was interested in them.

 

Forming Common Threads

By Mari Eckstein Gower

Redmond, Washington: Mari Eckstein Gower, 2018.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the vibrant colors and structure of Mari Eckstein Gower’s Forming Common Threads. The artist’s book features beautiful watercolor paintings by the artist, as well as silk and paper threads attached to a series of words such as “inspire,” “support,” and “heal.” Gower’s work links the many stories of strong women from history in contrast to the toxic and misogynistic rhetoric she grew up with.  From the Japanese Tarasen patterned papers to the modified stitched drumleaf format, I was also interested in this book because of the multitude of materials and techniques utilized in its creation.

Vamp and Tramp description

 

Chronicles of a Coleopterists Strikingly Curious Swarm

Chronicles of a Coleopterists Strikingly Curious Swarm
Images of Gabrielle Cooksey’s book courtesy of Vamp and Tramp website

By Gabrielle Cooksey

Tacoma, Washington: Gabrielle Cooksey, 2018.

Anyone that knows me well knows I absolutely hate bugs. Spiders, flies, beetles – I squirm at the sight of them all. Gabrielle Cooksey’s Chronicles of a Coleopterists Strikingly Curious Swarm has officially changed my mind about the beauty of these tiny creatures. Included in the artist’s book are twelve aluminum beetles with stories from the author, as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Darwin, Hans Christian Anderson, and Aesop. The book, bound in Cave Paper, was meant to mirror a research field guide. Perhaps one day I’ll have the courage to do my own research on insects. Until then, I think I’ll stick to examining and admiring them from afar with the help of Cooksey’s work. The book will certainly be an enchanting addition to the artists’ books collections.

Vamp and Tramp description

 

One Day · Un Día

By Alex Appella
San Antonio de Arredondo, Córdoba, Argentina: Alex Appella, 2018.

I am not a native Spanish speaker, but the language certainly carries an emotional connection to my roots and upbringing. Some of my earliest memories of Spanish, for example, originate from daily experiences with my grandparents. One Day · Un Día by Alex Appella utilizes bilingual text (Spanish, English) and a collage of family photographs to document the last day of her grandfather’s life and the last days of her mother’s life. By interweaving family and language, Alex Apella’s work recalled memories of my childhood with my grandparents – both living and passed. When I first arrived at Iowa, I had a difficult time locating bilingual, visual works in Spanish and English. Now, I hope that this work will supplement research, teachings, and emotional reunions. 

Vamp and Tramp description

 

Enumerations

By Stephanie Gibbs

Los Angeles: Stephanie Gibbs, 2018. 

As a humanities-focused graduate student, I rarely have the opportunity to truly explore the sciences. Mathematics, in particular, has never been my strongest point. Anyone else still count with their hands, or is it just me? Whether you are a science enthusiast or not, Enumerations by Stephanie Gibbs will allow you to consider the interesting intersections between the sciences and humanities. Designed within a clamshell box, the artist’s book includes different forms of memory and computing. A slide rule, memory diagram, diskettes, and Trigonometry screenprints are just a few of the interesting components. Enumerations also includes Ada Lovelace’s description of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. I’m incredibly excited to add another bookwork representing women in science to the collections.

Vamp and Tramp description 

 

Thank you to Margaret Gamm and Micaela Terronez for sharing this experience with us. 

Creating First-hand Experiences with Manuscript Open Houses

Below is a reflection from Micaela Terronez, Olson Graduate Assistant, on the “Manuscripts at Special Collections” open houses.

Can I really touch it?

One curious visitor asked this question in amazement as they gazed at one of the twenty-one visiting manuscripts from Les Enluminures, a gallery of unique text manuscripts with locations in New York, Paris, and Chicago. As a part of the program, “Manuscripts in the Curriculum,” Les Enluminures temporarily loans a select group of unique manuscripts to educational institutions. Fortunately, The University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections was able to host the manuscripts, covering various contexts and locations from the 13th to the 19th century. In addition to classroom integration, Special Collections planned a series of open houses for the University and broader community to have hands-on experience engaging with these one-of-a-kind pieces. From August to November, around 200 visitors viewed the visiting manuscripts—along with a couple favorites from our own collections.

Logistically speaking, each open house exhibited 10 to 12 manuscripts aligned with a pre-decided theme. The themes included: Signs of Production, Decoration and Illumination, Script and Scribe, Manuscripts Outside Latin West, Medieval Society, Vernacular Texts, Music, Medieval Authors, and Bestsellers. This diverse set of themes allowed us to highlight certain texts each week without exhausting the materials or the visitors. The open houses were marketed through classroom instructions, social media, departmental networking, events, newsletters, and blogs. These efforts garnered an audience of students, scholars, and outside community members of various ages and backgrounds.

At the open houses, guests were given brief guidelines to handling the manuscripts and were encouraged to turn the leaves by the margins. Like the curious visitor above, many could not believe that they could touch, let alone, move through the leaves of a codex to see every script and image. However, in cases with a large number of visitors, guests were advised to admire the manuscripts without touching as to protect the longevity and structure of the manuscript. During these events, special precautions were taken to make sure the manuscripts were handled carefully, while also allowing the viewer to engage and ask questions. Non-flash photographs were highly encouraged, and many patrons took away some amazing captures to keep and share with friends and family. We also offered an interactive matching game of medieval authors, temporary tattoos, buttons, and bookmarks for visitors to take home.

Because of an increase in public visitors, the fall semester was a whirlwind of planning, marketing, curation, learning, and teaching. For example, Elizabeth Riordan (Outreach and Engagement Librarian) and I created specially made description cards for each manuscript on display—that’s a lot of writing and research! The description cards served two purposes. First, it was the perfect way for us to learn more about the visiting manuscripts, along with the interesting details and histories. This knowledge proved highly valuable during open houses and classes. Secondly, visitors were able to easily understand the terminology, history, production, and uses of the items exhibited. These descriptions also helped to spur questions and discussions throughout the weeks. Riordan and I also enjoyed choosing manuscripts from our own collections to feature alongside the visiting manuscripts. In this way, we were both able to think more contextually about the manuscripts from Iowa and what themes can be highlighted throughout them. In addition to our visitors, we both walked away from the open houses more knowledgeable about medieval manuscripts, their features, and histories.

There were several other benefits and take-aways from these open houses. Perhaps most importantly, we learned a great deal about the value of increasing access and visibility of the manuscripts through hands-on exploration. Patrons made incredible observations about the texts, while also initiating fruitful discussions amongst themselves and with staff.  They also inquired about the contexts, materiality, users, producers, and authors. More so, visitors were able to actually feel the hair of the parchment, translate scripts, study the bindings, and so much more! With calm medieval chants playing in the background, many also took the events as an opportunity to relax and purely admire the artistry behind the texts. I would say friendships and interactions were created among these beautiful works, an effect that perhaps wouldn’t have happened without the hands-on experience with the manuscripts.

The open house series ended with one last exhibit, as well as a visit and talk titled “People and the Book: the Voices of Manuscripts from the Middle Ages” from Laura Light of Les Enluminures. These final events allowed visitors to ask intriguing questions about the visiting manuscripts from Light, an expert historian on medieval works. As November comes to a close, it is now time to say goodbye to these works. I, for one, am going to miss the manuscripts very much. Here are a couple of photographs from my favorite visiting manuscript, a “Roll of Arms” created during the Elizabethan period in England. The manuscript features stunningly detailed shields, illustrated crowns, and stylized arms shaking hands to signify marriage. Like myself, I am sure many visitors appreciated the work and talent that went into these lovely pieces.

The successful planning and implementation of the open houses was a team effort of the library and conservation staff, and we were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to engage with the community, students, and faculty during these open houses. Thank you to all that visited Special Collections, asked questions, and made us ponder the creation and use of these manuscripts. We hope you continue to visit us in the future, whether it is for research, exploration, or just admiring a cool book or leaf.

Relevant links:

Les Enluminures manuscripts

Manuscripts in the Curriculum program

Dean Sieperda (Delta Tau Delta) dressed as Herky

Reflections of UI’s Furry and Feathery Mascots

As we get ready to celebrate Herky’s 70th birthday, curator of the “Hatching Herky” exhibit, Chloe Waryan, looks back on her experiences and Iowa mascots of old. 

In the summer of 2018, I was fortunate enough to be awarded an internship at the University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives in which I was tasked to design an exhibit celebrating the 70th birthday of Herky the Hawk. I am so touched by the kindness that I received from University Archivist David McCartney, Director of Development Mary Rettig of the Center for Advancement, and donor Jane Roth. I am happy to report that I had a lot of fun learning about the history of the University of Iowa during this internship too!

Press Citizen's picture of Burch the Bear on a chair
Burch the Bear

Though the pre-Herky mascots didn’t make it into the exhibit, their history is fascinating. With the popularity of St. Burch’s Tavern, a new downtown restaurant, many Iowa Citizans may already know that our first mascot was a real live black bear cub named Burch. The significance of a bear as an emblem of UI is unknown, though we do know that the Chicago Cubs also had a black bear sent to them to serve as a mascot around this same time. When Burch became a full-grown bear, he broke out of his cage in the City Park Zoo (yes, City Park once had a zoo), and fled to the riverbank where he was later found dead. On March 10, 1910, the Press Citizen released an article titled “Burch is Found with Taxidermist,” detailing the plans of taxidermist Homer Dill who did work for the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History. However, after talking to Cindy Opitz, current Collections Manager of the UI Museum of Natural History, we learn that if he did indeed drown, Burch’s head was probably bloated and therefore not suitable for taxidermy. According to a Press Citizen article on April 8, 2018, Trina Roberts, Director of UI’s Pentacrest Museums, does not know where Burch’s head or bones may be.

Homecoming button with Rex the Dog on it
Rex (the first) in button form

Almost 20 years later, the University adopted a 200-pound Great Dane named Rex as their next mascot. Lieutenant Colonel Converse K. Lewis, head of the UI Military Department, originally gifted the dog to Alpha Sigma Phi. Rex wore a tailored band uniform at football games and acted as the UI mascot until his death in 1933. Following Rex’s death, the University received another dog (either a Great Dane or St. Bernard) which they cleverly named Rex II. The University also used a real hawk as a mascot before Delta Tau Delta’s own Larry Herb donned the first Herky costume in the late 1950’s. From then on, Herky was always cast as a Delta Tau Delta until the fraternity lost their UI charter in 1998 due to drug and alcohol use. Tryouts for Herky the Hawk opened up to the entire student body of UI. In 1999, Angie Anderson and Carrie MacDonald were the first female students chosen to be the mascot. Anderson was injured while playing Herky when an Ohio State band member wielded a 3-foot foam banana at her head. She filed a lawsuit against Ohio State and in 2002, Anderson was awarded $25,000. Shortly after, Herky’s “human identity” was kept a stricter secret and security members were also hired each year, in order to keep the mascot safe.

Dean Sieperda (Delta Tau Delta) dressed as Herky
Dean Sieperda (Delta Tau Delta) dressed as Herky

As a graduate of the UI School of Library and Information Science program, I learned through this internship many things about collaboration in libraries. I was welcomed onto the Herky Birthday Committee with open arms. I formed a great partnership with the Spirit Coordinator of UI. I learned about the awesome physical education collection at the Iowa Women’s Archives. All in all, I will truly treasure my time at the Special Collections. Even the rainy days were fun!

Join us September 14th, 2018 for a special Open House to celebrate the history of Herky. Event starts at 11AM and runs till 2PM, 3rd Floor of Main Library. Herky will even be joining us for the party starting at 12PM! All are welcomed to join! 

 

Photo Credits: Burch from Press Citizen, Rex from Regalia and Artifacts Collections (RG 31.01.01), and Dean Sieperda as Herky from F.W. Kent Photograph Collection (RG30.0001.001)