Skip to content.
How the Science Museum obtained its cuneiform tablets

How the Science Museum obtained its cuneiform tablets

Around the start of the 20th century, Edgar James Banks, an antiquities enthusiast and archaeologist, bought hundreds of cuneiform tablets in the Ottoman Empire and sold them in small batches to museums, libraries, universities, and seminaries across the United States. These tablets were dug up by locals at the many ruin mounds of Mesopotamia, and the Ottoman government did not assiduously regulate the trade in such antiquities. Edgar Banks led an interesting life – in addition to selling tablets, he excavated the ruins at Bismaya, started a movie company, and searched for Noah's ark. Charles W. Ames, one of the Science Museum's founders, purchased nine tablets from Banks and donated them to the Museum in 1915. These make up most of the collection; two other tablets were added later, although it is not clear when, and one more was donated in 1988. The University of Minnesota also acquired many of its tablets from Edgar Banks, buying several from him in 1913. This 1918 letter is similar to others that Edgar Banks sent to different institutions, offering tablets for sale, but it is unique because he says that the proceeds will go to the American war effort in World War I. The Museum may have purchased the additional two tablets in response to this letter. The latest addition to the Science Museum's cuneiform collection came in March 1988, when Wilfred E. Dugas donated a tablet he had received as a gift from his grandmother. His grandmother, Nettie Louella Dugas, had gotten it from a professor named Dietrich Langes, who bought it from Edgar Banks.

Additional Information on Edgar J. Banks

  • Bismya or The Lost City of Adab by Edgar James Banks
    Digitized version of Banks' 1912 publication about his excavations at Bismya. It contains an entertaining account of his struggles with the Ottoman bureaucracy. Courtesy of the University of Chicago, Electronic Online Stacks.