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Cuneiform clay tablet collection of Lena C. Van Bibber

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: MSS-0016

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of three cuneiform clay tablets from the ancient sites of Drehem and Umma in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), dating to about 2400-2100 BCE. The cuneiform script on the tablets relates to administrative and economic transactions, including the receipt for the delivery of oxen, sheep, and goats to a temple; a sales receipt for the killing of an ox; and records of the temple transactions. Two of the three tablets have been marked by the seller with the numbers one and four. Other materials include a letter from Edgar J. Banks addressed to Lena C. Van Bibber and dated June 2, 1939, which includes a description of each tablet and details of the sale; a letter from Lena C. Van Bibber dated June 16, 1939; and three index cards with descriptions of the clay tablets.


  • circa 2400-2100 BCE
  • 1939


Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on access. This collection is open to the public.

Conditions Governing Use

Towson University Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) is the owner of the original materials and digitized images in our collections; however, the collection may contain materials for which copyright is not held. Patrons are responsible for determining the appropriate use or reuse of materials. Consult with SCUA to determine if we can provide permission for use.

Biographical Note

Lena C. Van Bibber was born circa 1876 in Harford County, Md., and was the daughter of Judge George Van Bibber. She graduated from the State Teachers College at Towson in 1897, and then taught at Bel Air High School until 1915. In 1916, Van Bibber joined the faculty at the State Teachers College at Towson, where she taught history until her retirement in 1940. She earned a bachelor’s degree and diploma in Teaching of History from Columbia University, as well as a master’s degree from John Hopkins University. Van Bibber died in Maryland in 1962.

Historical Note

The cuneiform clay tablets in this collection were probably acquired by Lena C. Van Bibber from Edgar J. Banks sometime in 1939. Banks had been assigned to Baghdad, Iraq in 1898 as the American consul, and while there, he began excavations in ancient Adab, present-day Bismya, Iraq. He was an antiquities enthusiast and went on to purchase many clay tablets in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire, which later were distributed to various universities, museums, and libraries throughout the United States.

It is around 3100 BCE that clay tablets appear in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, with impressed or incised signs in a script know as cuneiform and distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks. The development of these tablets is attributed to the Sumerians, and represents the earliest evidence of a writing system. It is between the thirty-fourth century BCE and the first centuries of the Common Era that cuneiform was used to write texts in a variety of languages. These cuneiform signs are formed with horizontal, vertical, triangular, and oblique marks that are impressed into the mass of the moist clay of the tablet which can be of various sizes.

The invention of a writing system gave rise to a material culture associated with it, and thus the appearance of the clay tablet and the stylus. Most of the earliest texts are written on clay, and information recorded in these early clay tablets is mostly administrative in nature, including government receipts, contracts and trade transactions, but other types of texts include temple activities, stories, myths, medical and school texts, and personal letters. The stylus was the writing instrument used by the scribe to write on the clay tablets. It was a piece of reed with on end in cylindrical shape, and the other cut as a bevel.


.42 Linear Feet

Language of Materials




Lena C. Van Bibber was a graduate of State Teachers College who later taught history at Towson University from 1916 until her retirement in 1940. The collection consists of three cuneiform clay tablets from the ancient sites of Drehem and Umma in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), dating to about 2400-2100 BCE, purchased by Bibber from Edgar J. Banks, an antiquities dealer.


Glassner, Jean-Jacques. The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer. Trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van de Mieroop. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 2000. Print.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. “How Writing Came About.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 47 (1982): 1–5. JSTOR. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

The William R. and Clarice V. Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The Edgar J. Banks Collection of Sumerian and Babylonian Clay Tablets.” Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Towson University. Catalog. Towson, Maryland: Towson University, 1866-1991. Print.
Guide to the Cuneiform clay tablet collection of Lena C. Van Bibber
Armando Suarez. Revised by John Esh
April 2014, 2020
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Towson University Special Collections and University Archives Repository

Albert S. Cook Library
8000 York Rd
Towson MD 21252 United States