Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Babylonian Cunies from Private Collection in Jerusalem

Luke Baker ('Ancient tablets reveal life of Jews in Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon' Reuters Feb 3, 2015) writes of a new exhibition in Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum which comprises mostly of "ancient clay tablets discovered in modern-day Iraq [...]  shedding light for the first time on the daily life of Jews exiled to Babylon some 2,500 years ago". The tablets date from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, and span a period of around 90 years (572–484 BCE). The exhibit opened Sunday, February 1 and will run for a year. 
The exhibition is based on more than 100 cuneiform tablets, each no bigger than an adult's palm, that detail transactions and contracts between Judeans driven from, or convinced to move from, Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar around 600 BC. Archaeologists got their first chance to see the tablets -- acquired by a wealthy London-based Israeli collector -- barely two years ago. They were blown away.  
It (of course had to be ) called "By the Rivers of Babylon". According to Nir Hasson ('Ancient tablets disclose Jewish exiles’ life in Babylonia' Haaretz Jan. 29, 2015):
Little is known of how the collection was discovered. Archaeologists assume it was dug up in the 1970s in southern Iraq and surfaced in the international antiquities market. It was divided into three parts. Collector David Sofer bought 110 tablets, about half of the collection, which pertains mainly to the Jewish community. Sofer lent the tablets to the Bible Lands Museum. Two books about the collection were recently published – “Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer” by Prof. Laurie Pearce (CDL Press), who also translated the tablets into English, and “By the Rivers of Babylon,” by Horowitz, Yehoshua Greenberg and Peter Zilberg, published by the Bible Lands Museum and the Israel Exploration Society.
In a news report about the exhibition (Ilan Ben Zion, 'By the rivers of Babylon’ exhibit breathes life into Judean exile' The Times of Israel February 1, 2015), we learn a bit more about this collector and the items concerned:
The Al-Yahudu tablets are part of a private collection that has never before gone on public display. Their provenance is unknown; they likely turned up somewhere in southern Iraq, but no one knows when. After decades on the antiquities market they ended up in the hands of a private collector, David Sofer, who offered to loan them to the Bible Lands Museum. After two years of labor, the exhibit is opening to the public on Sunday.
There were apparently approximately 200 tablets written in Akkadian Cuneiform script in the original group which was on the market and became known as 'the Al-Yahudu archive'. One report says it was  "discovered ... possibly during the 1970s" probably not far from  Birs Nimrud (ancient Borsippa)  about 100 km S of Baghdad. Numerous cuneiform tablets from this site have been appearing on the black market in recent years.

Dr. Filip Vukosavović, curator of the exhibit:
compared the experience of the exiled Judeans to that of new immigrants to Israel in the early years of the state. They were settled in a region of southern Babylon that had been ravaged by years of war and forced to rebuilt infrastructure and dig canals — the rivers by which they wept when they remembered Zion. “Once they had built the infrastructure they were allowed to settle and build their lives,”  [...]  Each document catalogs when and where it was written and by whom, providing scholars with an unprecedented view into the day-to-day life of Judean exiles in Babylonia, as well as a geography of where the refugees were resettled. The earliest in the collection, from 572 BCE, mentions the town of Al-Yahudu — “Jerusalem” — a village of transplants from Judea. “Finally through these tablets we get to meet these people, we get to know their names, where they lived and when they lived, what they did,” Vukosavović said. The texts help dispel the misconception that the Judeans in Babylon were second-class citizens of the empire, living in ghettos and pressed into hard labor. While some toiled in base drudgery, others thrived, owned property, plantations and slaves, and became part of the Babylonian bureaucratic hierarchy. “It teaches us that we weren’t slaves, like we were slaves to the Pharaoh,” [sic] Vukosavović said. 
 So, if this group of dugup cunies was on the market for "decades" after the 1970s, there will be some kind of documentation of legal excavation and sale under Iraqi antiquities legislation. Is this in the exhibition?

Borsippa (Google earth)

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