Ancient Babylonian Artifacts
The word museum comes from the Greek word, “mouseion,” which translates to “seat of the muses.” In classical Greece and Rome, a museum was not a building, but a meeting place to discuss and share ideas. Contemporary museums are also a place to share ideas, yet by different means. By housing and interpreting material objects, museums preserve cultural heritage.
On this date in 1919, The Devil’s Lake World and Inter-ocean reported that Melvin R. Gilmore, curator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, had returned to Bismarck with a unique and rare collection of artifacts: seven clay cuneiform tablets from ancient Babylonia. Dating from 2350 to 2100 BC, they are mostly business records from the Ur Dynasty, covering the region of present-day Iraq and Syria. Among the tablets was a tax list from the ancient city of Umma, obtained by the University of Chicago’s archeology department between 1903 and 1906. It was purchased by the State Historical Society for the sum of $4 from Edgar J. Banks.
Banks was an American diplomat, traveling archeologist, novelist, professor and antiquarian enthusiast. The fictional character of the dashing archeologist “Indiana Jones” was primarily modeled after Banks. While working at the American consul in Baghdad, Banks traveled extensively to surrounding archeological sites. While there he collected many small cuneiform tablets and brought them back to the US. He then sold them to libraries, universities, theological seminaries, and museums across the county. North Dakota’s State Museum was one of these purchasers.
Ancient cuneiform tablets were a curious choice for the State Museum. Curator Gilmore came to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1916 with a background in ethnobiology. His research specialized in the Native American use of plants, focusing in particular on the tribes of the Upper Missouri River Basin. What motivated Gilmore to collect objects from ancient Babylon is unknown. However, collecting antiquities is from a bygone era of archeological practice. Contemporary museums would not purchase them. Today, the State Historical Society’s mission is “to identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.”
The ancient Babylonian tablets remain within the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s collections and were last displayed there in 2001. They are among thousands of historical objects preserved at the “seat of the muses,” found next to the State Capitol building in Bismarck.
Dakota Datebook written by Maria Witham
“State Museum gets Several Relics.” The Devil’s Lake World and Inter-ocean. Devils Lake, 27 August 1919 p.2