Discovering Hidden Treasures

A professor found ancient tablets and worked with library staff to share these artifacts

Lam in the Fearrington Reading Room with ancient cuneiform tablets.

A professor found ancient tablets and worked with library staff to share these artifacts

In 2019, religious studies professor Joseph Lam remembered reading somewhere that the Rare Book Collection at Wilson Library had a few cuneiform tablets. Similar to hieroglyphs, cuneiform is the writing system used for the ancient languages of Akkadian and Sumerian. Lam worked with librarian Emily Kader to locate the tablets and found more than he expected.

“It was a little bit of a rabbit hole,” he said. “When I got the list of tablets the library had, I found some that had never been published.”

Lam decided to publish the tablets digitally so scholars around the globe could access them. Photography of these tablets was no mean feat, due to the age of the artifacts and the three-dimensional nature of cuneiform. Kader connected Lam with Jay Mangum from University Libraries’ Digital Production Center and Rebecca Smyrl, an assistant conservator at Wilson. Under Lam’s direction, Mangum was able to photograph the tablets using custom supports built by Smyrl.

“We have an amazing library staff,” Lam says. “They’re not only knowledgeable, but they are committed to supporting the work of this university. At any point when I had a question or needed help, they always came through.”

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