Three Lives: The Aftermath and Fallout

Tablets and Tabloids: Nippur in the News

 Sarah Peyronnin; Halpern-Rogath Curatorial Seminar

Despite the public’s fascination with Bible study and the Holy Land, Penn’s cuneiform tablets from Nippur started out at a disadvantage in the press. Because of Hilprecht’s stubbornness, it was many years after the expedition’s 1900 return before he made the tablets available for study. Competition among universities was still fierce at the time the tablets were first featured in the New York Times (c. 1913), and Penn’s discoveries were pitted against the fantastically exotic and popular work of Harvard’s Professor of Egyptology, George Andrew Reisner.

A comparison between two newspaper articles—one about a Harvard discovery, the other about a Nippur tablet—illustrates the difference between the visual appeal of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The article about Professor Reisner’s discovery, “Has the Riddle of the Sphinx Been Solved at Last? Professor Reisner of Harvard Just Back from Egypt Believes He Has Answered the Problem that Has Baffled the World,” displays picturesque and exotic images of the famous Sphinx, its nearby pyramid, and regal alabaster statues of the Egyptian pharaoh Reisner had posited as the model for the Sphinx’s head (New York Times, 16 April 1911)  By contrast, a similar article announcing a major discovery about one of the Nippur tablets—“Ancient Nippur Tablet Tells New Story of Deluge: Just Deciphered by Dr. Arnold Poebel at the University of Pennsylvania—This Important Find Must Have Antedated the Bible Account by at Least 1500 Years—A Woman as Creator”—relies on its sensational title to make up for the considerably less-sensational images of pieced-together cuneiform tablets (New York Times, 10 August 1913). There is no denying that Egyptian finds were more visually stunning to the general public than the Nippur tablets; even the well-recognized Egyptian hieroglyphs were more approachable than seemingly repetitive, wedge-shaped cuneiform.

But the Bible and its stories had a strong emotional connection to American readers and the New York Times writers knew just how to pull them in. A sampling of the more sensational headlines gives an idea of their journalistic method:

“Tablet of 2100 B.C. Makes Adam Victim of Jealous Gods” (25 October 1922)

“Says Fair Brunette Created the World” (21 October 1923)

“Noah, Not Adam, Ate the Apple” (15 August 1915)

“Pre-Semitic Story Does Mention Eve” (15 July 1914)

“Creator a Woman, Old Tablet Says” (4 August 1913)

The Flood and Creation tablets clearly ranked at the top of the thrilling archaeological finds, and the shameless titles and subtitles of these stories are truly tabloid-worthy. The content of the articles, however, is carefully considered and informative, despite the flowery prose. The following excerpt from one of the articles addresses both theological and practical issues:

The tablet whose characters have been translated by Dr. Langdon sets forth that it was Noah, the patriarch, who first sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge and whose sin led to the shortening of the days of man and to his condemnation to a life of labor. If, ask students, this revolutionary story which upsets all accepted theories is to be found in one small fragment of the Babylonian tablets, what might all those many others reveal when they are deciphered? And . . . will it be necessary to rewrite the Bible in accordance with the stories told by the tablets, or are these translations to be regarded merely as myths and folklore? (“Remarkable Tablets Throw New Light on Bible,” The New York Times, 5 July 1914)

Clearly aware of the tablet’s potential to worry readers, the unnamed author of the article reassures them that the “scientific world, with the exception of a few radical dissenters, inclines to the latter theory.” Following descriptions of some of the Nippur expedition’s other major finds, the article concludes with a careful explanation of how the tablets were pieced together, cared for, and translated.

In other articles, entire translations of the tablets can be found with interviews of the scholars working on them. Despite the mostly balanced and careful approach of the journalists (titles excluded), questions about religion are always present and usually addressed. In one article, there is even a comparative analysis between the deluge story in the Book of Genesis and the Mesopotamian version (“The Flood Proved by Existing Tablets,” The New York Times, 27 March 1910). This treatment differs dramatically from the staid, scholarly prose of the Penn expedition’s subsequent publications.

Hermann Hilprecht is of particular interest in the history of the Nippur tablets’ reception. Hilprecht performed duel roles as both the editor of The Sunday School Times, a religious newspaper and publisher devoted to “combin[ing] popular and scholarly journalism,” and of a professor of Egyptology and Assyriology. On his return to Philadelphia in 1900, Hilprecht set about researching and publishing the results of his work on the tablets in a series titled, The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. In pages filled more by footnotes than prose, his extensive research into the Nippur version of the deluge story is compared with three other extant cuneiform versions through hand-drawn facsimiles and transliterations of the cuneiform. This is a publication meant for other philologists, and Hilprecht touches on the problematic theological issues only briefly and from an analytical perspective:

I must leave a full discussion of all the problems connected with the treatment of this new witness from the plain of Shinar in behalf of the Old Testament text to theological students, submitting to my readers only the following brief remarks for their consideration from an Assyriological standpoint.  (Hilprecht, Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story, 40-45).

Leaving the theological work to others more qualified, Hilprecht’s strictly-professional work is concise and technical. But Hilprecht and his colleagues were in a complicated position: as scholars in a relatively new field, they needed recognition for their professional work, yet they also needed to appease the wider public. Clearly reluctant to issue an official, quotable opinion on the theological problems presented by some of the tablets, Hilprecht’s more plebeian and non-specialist writings for a larger readership are descriptive travelogues. His recounting of the Nippur expedition in Recent Researches in Bible Lands begins as follows:

The new science of Assyriology sprang into being. Born on the ruins of Nineveh and Khorsabad, and nourished in the quiet studies of European scholars, this youngest daughter of Archaeology and Philology has managed to escape the perils which often threatened her growth, and to attain to full development with surprising swiftness. (Hilprecht, “Explorations in Babylonia,” 45-46).

Hilprecht continued with a travel narrative, describing the challenges of reaching Nippur, the people and diseases the travelers encountered, and other cultural curiosities, in addition to the objects found by the Penn team. The writing in Recent Researches is a far cry from contemporary scholarly publications, but it also is clearly different from the blaring headlines announcing Nippur finds. The intended audience for these writings seems to be an educated readership interested in more than the sensation, but not specifically trained in Assyriology.

National pride and human interest formed a final reaction to the Penn expedition’s finds. Reports of the tablets even appeared in smaller, local newspapers; for example, a Virginia newspaper included a substantial column on the discovery of the temple library at Nippur, with quotes from Hilprecht. The authors of the column seem particularly interested in the tablets with “grammatical sentences written half a dozen times, as by a pupil practicing upon them.” (“Ancient City Exhumed,” Alexandria Gazette, 6 November 1900)  Similarly, in the May 1914 edition of the Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, the report on Nippur read:

We are glad to see the following about the Nippur tablets. Evidently the ancient children learned the four essentials to a good education in a different way from the present one. The parents of the children required them to learn the tablets, and also be respectful and obedient to their teachers. This is changed now; the parents are obedient to the children, and the teacher must in no wise offend them by enforcing discipline or obedience to the rules of the school. (“Oldest of All Schoolbooks,” Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, Vol. 12, no. 35 (May 1914), 55.

The report continues with a description of the subjects: “the children of 5,200 years ago were taught arithmetic, geography, history and grammar just like the children of today.” It is an endearing, simple, and yet thorough explanation of the “first schoolbook” tablet for a broad audience perhaps without easy access to the more sensational updates from The New York Times.