The Rare Book Room holds more than books; our collection includes thousands of non-book items such as artwork, photographs, newspapers, maps, posters, and other formats. At over 4,000 years old, the oldest non-book items we hold is our small but notable collection of cuneiform. These were donated in 1935 by a professor from the University of Chicago after he returned from an archaeological expedition.
Cuneiform is one of the earliest forms of writing; a blunt reed or stylus was used to create the wedge-shaped symbols [in Latin, cuneus = wedge]. The symbols were imprinted on soft clay, then dried in the sun or air. For records that were to be kept, the clay would be fired.
The collection is made up of four cones and four tablets. The cones date from about 2150 BCE, and were uncovered in the Mesopotamian cities of Umma and Erech. The tablets date from 2300 BCE, and are from Umma and Nippur. What do these ancient items document? Many are business records, consisting of receipts and bills of sale; others [in particular 3 of the cones,] are temple records.