Rare Book Department Mounts Exhibition of Ancient Cuneiform Tablets

Not Since Nineveh: Artifacts from the Ancient Near East in the Free Library of Philadelphia, 3100-300 B.C.E.

The Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library mounted an exhibition of rare cuneiform tablets on August 23, 2010. Running through January 21, 2011, “Not Since Nineveh: Artifacts from the Ancient Near East in the Free Library of Philadelphia, 3100-300 B.C.E.” featured relics from the Ancient Near East collected by Philadelphia philanthropist John Frederick Lewis in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was curated by librarian Katharine C. Chandler.

The Free Library’s collection contains nearly 3,000 clay tablets and other items dating from the Late Uruk or Jemdet Nasr Period, c. 3100 B.C.E., to the Seleucid Dynasty of Persia, c. 300 B.C.E. Clay and stone tablets of all shapes and sizes will be displayed, along with cylinder seals and their clay impressions. The exhibition will be illustrated with maps and photographs of excavation sites and artifacts. This is the first time the Free Library has mounted an entire exhibition of its cuneiform tablet collection.

“As the Free Library of Hidden Gems, we are proud of the many rare treasures housed in our collections,” said Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “Special exhibitions like ‘Not Since Nineveh’ allow us to share these treasures that aren’t usually on public display with as many Philadelphians as possible. We encourage everyone to visit the Free Library and enjoy these ancient artifacts.”

A kickoff celebration will be held on Saturday, August 28 from 1:00-5:00 p.m. in the Rare Book Department. At 2:30 p.m. that day, Dr. Grant Frame, Associate Professor and Associate Curator of the Babylonian Section of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, will present a lecture in conjunction with “Not Since Ninevah.”
The Rare Book Department is open from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, with tours of the General Collections beginning daily at 11:00 a.m. For more information about “Not Since Nineveh” or the Rare Book Department, please call 215-686-5416 or email erefrbd@freelibrary.org.

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The Free Library of Philadelphia system consists of 49 branches, three regional libraries, the Parkway Central Library, and the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. With more than 6 million visits annually, the Free Library is one of the most widely used educational and cultural institutions in Philadelphia.

The John Frederick Lewis Collection of Cuneiform Tablets

John Frederick Lewis (1860-1932) was a Philadelphia collector of writing examples: he was interested in the history of the written word and amassed some of the most significant collections in the United States. A man of modest means who could not afford to go to college, Lewis became a lawyer (passing the bar was the only requirement at the time) and married into a wealthy family.

In addition to the cuneiform tablets, it should be noted that Lewis also collected “Oriental” manuscripts (manuscripts from the Middle and Near East, as well as from Africa) and European manuscripts, of which he collected over 200 codices and over 2000 leaves and cuttings.  While his widow, Anne Baker Lewis, donated Lewis’s manuscript collections to the Free Library of Philadelphia after his death, Lewis himself gave the cuneiform tablets to the Library: he personally brought groups of tablets to the Library in installments.  At one time, tablets in the Lewis collection were made available for check out by individuals who might be able to translate them.  Of course, the tablets do not circulate now!

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department is very grateful to Grant Frame, Ph.D., and Richard Zettler, Ph.D., both of the University of Pennsylvania, for all their help in identifying and placing many of these pieces. The Department is also grateful to Maria DeJong Ellis, Ph.D., the Cotsen Family Foundation, and Caroline Waerzeggers, Ph.D., for allowing us to use their scholarship and insight.


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