Cuneiform Tablets in the Ancient Word Catalogue

In this post, Forging Antiquity Team member and Macquarie University PhD Richard Bott examines a catalogue of antiquities recently offered for sale.

In early March, Roberta Mazza shared via her blog and Twitter two brochures, titled The Ancient Word, featuring a collection of manuscripts and inscribed antiquities offered for sale by a Brandon Witt. According to the final page of the larger brochure (and seemingly the first to have been produced) the collection, comprised of 30 antiquities, has an estimated value of $45 million (presumably USD). As will be unsurprising to those familiar with the antiquities trade, the antiquities offered in these two catalogues are largely unprovenanced (lacking prior ownership information) and when provenance is offered it is lacking to say the least.

Screenshot of catalogue entry for cuneiform tablets

When flicking through the larger of the two brochures, my curiosity was captured immediately by two cuneiform tablets, placed under the inviting heading “Artifacts from the Origins of Writing.” Now I would like to preface this piece by noting that I am not an Assyriologist; I do not possess the required expertise to comment on the inscriptions of these tablets (for example, the first of the tablets appears to be orientated incorrectly, but I can’t be certain) nor their authenticity. Instead, I wish here to draw attention to the presentation of these two tablets.

After a few sentences highlighting very briefly the importance of cuneiform inscribed antiquities, the reader is informed that both of these tablets have supposedly been “Examined and Identified by an Acclaimed Scholar.” This reference to the involvement of an “Acclaimed Scholar” is a common trope in market parlance and offers problematic antiquities a façade of legitimacy. The association of an esteemed academic with antiquities offered for sale serves two functions. First, it implies that an object is authentic. Antiquities that have been looted, or otherwise removed from their archaeological context without any record, typically have no clear indicators that they are authentic. Associating such a piece with an academic suggests to a buyer that the antiquity must be authentic—after all, an “Acclaimed Scholar” has examined it. Secondly, the association of an academic with an object suggests it must be morally okay for someone to buy said object. Academics, by virtue of their profession, are viewed as trustworthy people. Thus, the logic suggests, if they were willing to interact with an antiquity, it must also be okay for a collector to purchase it.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the scholar said to have examined these tablets was none other than Wilfred Lambert (1926-2011). Lambert is rather notorious for his engagement with unprovenanced antiquities. Neil Brodie (2011, 129) has reported that almost two-thirds of the antiquities featuring cuneiform inscriptions—many of which were unprovenanced—that were offered for sale online in 2008 had been translated and authenticated by Lambert. Further, in an interview with the New York Times in 2003, Lambert conceded that, when authenticating objects for dealers, he does not “necessarily know where it comes from or how long it’s been coming.” There is, however, no real proof the Lambert ever actually examined these pieces. Within the catalogue the dealer includes a handwritten note, supposedly produced by Lambert, as evidence of Lambert’s involvement. However, there is no name, no signature, nor even a date on this note to support this claim (and establish that these pieces left their country of origin legally). This is not to say that Lambert did not examine these pieces, and his willingness to work with the market and his prolific output certainly make this a possibility, only that it is difficult to confirm the veracity of this claim. I would, however, like to draw attention here to the handwriting of the note. Following his death, eight of Lambert’s notebooks were scanned and made freely available online. The handwriting within these notebooks appears to differ rather significantly from what is found in the note supposedly also produced by Lambert. Perhaps most notably, the handwriting in the notebooks is largely cursive with multiple ligatures, while the handwriting of the note appears printed with very few ligatures or cursive characteristics. There are also serval distinct differences in the letterforms. Finally, and this perhaps may mean nothing, it is noted in the catalogue that the “handwritten notes that were, per his custom, affixed to the objects with rubber bands.” However, in the biography of Lambert, written by Andrew George (2015, 354), it is stated that Lambert’s estate “contained 10,000+ typewritten descriptions for dealers, many kept as very faded carbon copies” (emphasis mine). While I have been unable to investigate this further, this may suggest that when studying an object for someone else, Lambert tended to type, not write, his descriptions of the objects. It is possible that the dealer has confused Lambert’s tendency to produce hand drawn facsimiles of the tablets he worked on, although someone with more familiarity with Lambert’s work will be in a better position to comment here.

Noticeably, although unsurprisingly, absent in the description of the cuneiform tablets is any provenance (ownership history). This, of course, is problematic. Cuneiform objects are typically found in Iraq and following the Gulf War substantial quantities were looted from archaeological sites, or stolen from museums, and smuggled out of Iraq. Without provenance demonstrating these tablets left their country of origin legally, the prevailing assumption (assuming authenticity) must be that they were likely looted.

Finally, it is worth noting here that there are several factual mistakes in the description of these tablets. It is claimed that Lambert dated one tablet to the reign of “Su-Sin” (a variant spelling of Shu-Sin) who was the “king of Sumer and Akkad, and last ruler of the Ur III dynasty” (emphasis mine). This seems odd, here, given that Su-Sin, or Shu-Sin, was actually the penultimate ruler of the Ur III dynasty—a fact unlikely to have been forgotten by Lambert. Witt also claims that Lambert was a “renowned Assyriologist of the British Museum.” Although Lambert was indeed a “renowned Assyriologist,” and his research interests meant he was a frequent visitor of the museum (even contributing to the Museum’s catalogue of Near Eastern seals), he was not an employee of the British Museum as is implied here (the British Museum even features a short bibliography for Lambert, linked to the objects he donated, and there is no mention of him ever being an employee of the Museum. For more information about Lambert, see George’s biography). This reference to a famous institution like the British Museum, like referencing a famous scholar helps to further cement the supposed legitimacy and legality of the featured antiquities in the minds of potential buyers.

These two tablets are conspicuously absent from the second, smaller catalogue—which has been whittled down from 30 objects to seven. While it is unclear why exactly these objects have been removed, it is not unfair to assume they have been sold. After all, Wilfred Lambert is still listed as one of the “Prominent Scholars Who Have Examined and Studied Items in this Collection” on the back page. If these tablets have indeed been purchased, then one hopes their owner did not fall for the clichéd ‘market speak’ found throughout this listing and performed their due diligence. Unfortunately, however, history has shown us that this is unlikely, and until evidence is provided to the contrary these tablets are (to put it lightly) problematic.

Richard Bott