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Collection Overview

Princeton University. Library. Special Collections
Princeton Cuneiform Collection
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
2012 B.C.-1595 B.C.
94 boxes and 115 items
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scahsvm): Box 1-97


Consists of approximately 1,350 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, the bulk dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III).

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

The Manuscripts Division has cuneiform collections containing approximately 1,350 baked and unbaked clay tablets, opened and unopened tablet cases, clay cylinders, nail-shaped cones, pyramid-shaped tags, and other items. Cuneiform writing on clay was in use for approximately three thousand years to record literary texts, school exercises, mathematical computations, and especially documents in Sumerian, Akkadian, and other Mesopotamian languages in what is now Iraq. However, the bulk of the Princeton collection is documentary and archival in nature, chiefly dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur or the Old Babylonian Period (dated 2112–2004 BC and 2004–1595 BC, in accordance with the "Middle Chronology"). Most of Princeton's clay tablets were excavated more than a century ago, beginning in the 1890s and continuing into the early years of the 20th century and are among the earliest acquisitions of the Special Collections. The Princeton Cuneiform Collection is comprised chiefly of temple accounts and other economic and administrative documents from the temples of Telloh, Jokha, and Drehem (modern place names for the ruins of the ancient Girsu, Umma, and Puzrish-Dagan in Southern Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq). The bulk of the collection was the gift of Moses Taylor Pyne (1855–1921), Class of 1877; Professor Rudolph Ernst Brünnow (1858–1917), Department of Near Eastern Studies; and other friends and graduates of Princeton University. On the question of provenance, Henry Bartlett Van Hoesen, Assistant Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts, noted in 1921: "The beginning of the collection of Babylonian cuneiform tablets and seal cylinders was made in 1897, when the late M. Taylor Pyne, of the class of 1877, to whom the University and its Library owes so deep a debt of gratitude, had his attention called to a collection of some 280 tablets and 80 cylinders, offered for sale by Daniel Z. Noorian of New York. This collection was recommended by the late William Hayes Ward....A large part, if not all, of this collection of Noorian's was purchased and presented to the Princeton University Library by Mr. Pyne and Mr. Junius S. Morgan (Class of 1888). A considerable addition (623 tablets) to the collection was made in 1912–1913 by the late Professor Rudolph Ernst Brünnow, Mr. Pyne and other friends and alumni of the University. The complete list of donors is as follows: Rudolph Ernst Brünnow; Sheldon Franklin, Class of 1903; Robert Garrett, Class of 1897; Kenneth Campbell Kirtland, Class of 1893; Cyrus Hall McCormick, Class of 1879; John Leverett Moore, Class of 1881; Russell Wellman Moore, Class of 1883; Charles Allen Munn, Class of 1881; Richard Wayne Parker, Class of 1867; Moses Taylor Pyne, Class of 1877; Simeon H. Rollinson, Class of 1893; Miss Edith Ward; Martin Dasher Wylly, Class of 1875. In the same year another collection consisting of 35 tablets was presented by Wilfred John Punk, Class of 1909, and George William Gilmour, Class of 1883. The latest, as the earliest, gift was from Mr. Pyne—three tablets, presented during the year 1913–14. The cylinder seals are as yet uncatalogued with the exception of 58, of which we have a description in manuscript by Mr. Ward."

Edward Chiera (1885–1933), then a professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania, first learned of the Princeton collection in 1917. He described the main Princeton collection (now designated C0848) in two books: Catalogue of the Babylonian Cuneiform Tablets in the Princeton University Library (Princeton: Princeton University Library, 1921), including Henry Bartlett Van Hoesen's provenance note, quoted above; and Selected Temple Accounts from Telloh, Yokha and Drehem; Cuneiform Tablets in the Library of Princeton University (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1922). The first book is the source of descriptions for nos. Ex136–Ex2381 in the finding aid. Chiera's descriptions have been retained, though at variance with more recent approaches to transliteration and dating. However, Chiera's descriptions have been annotated as necessary in square brackets to indicate tablets that have been removed from their tablet cases since 1922; tablets that do not correspond to their descriptions; and missing tablets, many of which were lent in the 1950s to an American Assyriologist for study and never returned. During the 2009–2010 academic year, the Princeton Cuneiform Collection was rehoused from metal cabinets to boxes by Sylvia Yu, Department of Collections. Box numbers (1–99) have been added to the descriptions to indicate the box in which each item is housed. The descriptions from Chiera catalogue were taken from a digitized version of the catalogue.

In the decades following publication of Chiera's catalogue, several smaller gifts of cuneiform were made to the Princeton University Library. Accordingly, these are briefly listed after Chiera's descriptions. Two Princeton collectors donated their cuneiform as part of their own collections. These cuneiform are housed with the Princeton Cuneiform Collection (C0848). One of the two collectors was Rev. William H. Tower (1871–1950), Class of 1894, whose postal history collection (C0911) includes two tablets now housed with the Princeton Cuneiform Collection). The other was Robert Garrett (1875–1960), Class of 1897, who donated almost all of the extensive Robert Garrett Collection in 1942; his ten clay tablets and nail cones were separately accessioned (AM 14837) and constitute a series within the Robert Garrett Collection (C0744). The Garrett items are housed with the Princeton Cuneiform Collection. Another Princeton collector was Harold E. Walker, Class of 1926, who had acquired his tablets from the American Assyriologist and collector Edward J. Banks (1866-1945), constituting eight tablets designated Walker-Banks (AM 16787) and part of the Princeton Cuneiform Collection. Professor William W. Hallo, Yale University, prepared the descriptions of the Banks-Walker items included in this finding aid. Also listed are four fine items in The Scheide Library, Princeton, privately owned but housed in the Department of Collections. These items are kept in The Scheide Library and are not housed with the Princeton Cuneiform Collection (access is through the Scheide Librarian). The finest of these items is a large clay royal inscription cylinder of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (r. ca. 605–562 BCE), which relates to the Lugal-Marada temple in Marad (near the modern Wannet es-Sa'adun) and closes with a prayer to Lugal-Marada. Another Princeton collector should be mentioned. Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, has assembled a cuneiform collection, including many fine examples of school exercises and mathematical computations. However, this collection has not been transferred to the Cotsen Children's Library, which is a division of the Department of Collections. A significant portion of the Cotsen cuneiform collection has been described and reproduced in Mark Wilson, Education in the Earliest Schools: Cuneiform Manuscripts in the Cotsen Collection (Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press, 2008).

Not listed is the Manuscripts Division's collection of 244 stone seals (C0849) from the collections of Moses Taylor Pyne; Robert Garrett, and Edward D. Balken (1874–1960), Class of 1897. Such seals were used to make impressions in clay tablets and their cases. The Assyriologist Rudi H. Mayr has prepared a partial checklist of the Princeton collections of stone seals, including those in the Princeton University Art Museum, which also has monumental cuneiform inscriptions donated by Robert Garrett. Finally, Special Collections at the Speer Library of the Princeton Theological Seminary, an independent educational institution located in Princeton, has a substantial cuneiform collection, with some three thousand items. These have been cataloged at the University of Pennsylvania and are available at Speer Library. [By Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, May 20, 2010]

Collection History


The tablets were donated by Moses Taylor Pyne (Class of 1877), Professor Ernst Brünnow (Near Eastern Studies), Robert Garrett, (Class of 1897), Cyrus H. McCormick (Class of 1879), Russell W. Moore (Class of 1883), and other friends and alumni of Princeton University.


No appraisal information is available.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Sylvia Yu in April 2010. Finding aid written by Sylvia Yu in May 2010.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Princeton Cuneiform Collection; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scahsvm): Box 1-97