We get this question a lot – and we posed it as a multiple-choice trivia question this week on our Facebook page. Now it’s time to reveal the answer. Which is the oldest item in Special Collections?
And the winner is… The Mesopotamian Clay Tablet
As far as we know, this cuneiform tablet dates to around 2500 B.C.E., making it the oldest item held in Special Collections (it predates the next oldest item, an Egyptian scarab seal, by about 500 years).
This tablet is one of eight held in the Special Collections department. Although the other seven tablets have been translated, this one has never been deciphered. If you read any of the ancient Near Eastern dialects, we’d love to hear from you!
For more information about the cuneiform tablets in Special Collections, see the online exhibit Cuneiform Tablets: Records of Ancient Mesopotamia see the list on our website [digital exhibit retired; link updated 11/10/2014].
What about the other options?
This was a tough question, because all of the items were the oldest in one way or another. More information below.
The Hebrew Scroll
If you guessed that the scroll represents the oldest book form in Special Collections, you were right! The scroll predated the codex (the form we usually associate with a book nowadays) by thousands of years.
In most of the Western world, the codex replaced the scroll gradually, from around 300 to 500 A.D. However, among Jewish communities, the scroll retained its place as the primary form for storing and transmitting information. Jewish congregations still use temple scrolls produced to strict specifications in their rituals of worship.
Although it’s old, this parchment scroll is far from ancient. It dates from the 1600s, contains the Book of Ruth, and was probably not produced for temple reading. It fits conveniently into the hand, the perfect size for personal study.
The Latin Manuscript Codex
This manuscript copy of De Constructione by Priscianus dates to around 1150 A.D. Although Special Collections holds manuscript fragments that are older, this is the oldest complete book in the collection. It is a work on grammar, written in Latin with passages in Greek.
The binding of this manuscript was done later than the text, but it is also interesting because it’s a good example of a fifteenth-century German binding in blind-tooled pigskin. The back board still shows discoloration from the former site of a metal clasp.
The Egyptian Papyrus Fragment
Dating from approximately 1500-1100 B.C.E., this fragment from the Egyptian Book of the Dead isn’t the oldest item in Special Collections – but it is the oldest piece of writing on papyrus in Special Collections.
Papyrus is a plant that grows along the marshy banks of the Nile River, and the ancient Egyptians used it to make a paper-like substance for writing. Papyrus became one of Egypt’s main exports and was used throughout the ancient world, in Greece, modern-day Turkey, and the Middle East.