This four-inch-long clay cone is actually the 4,000-year-old cuneiform calling card of a Babylonian king named Libit-Ishtar. It was inscribed and then buried with a few backup copies inside the walls of his great temple in Ur in 2060 B.C., to tell future generations of the illustrious king’s pedigree and largesse. For the past year, it’s been housed within the walls of the Denison Museum in Burke Hall along with six smaller inscribed tablets of even greater age, all recent gifts to Denison by Lee Sharp Hart ’50.
Hart inherited the objects from her grandfather, E. R. Johnstone, who acquired his small collection of Babylonian artifacts from the noted archaeologist Edgar J. Banks in the 1930s. Banks, said to be the principal inspiration for cinematic archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones, brought home the spoils of his expeditions to ancient Babylon, now part of Iraq, but waning fortunes in the ’30s forced him to contact friends and colleagues who might be interested in purchasing the objects from his personal collection. Banks’s typewritten letter to Johnstone describes and translates Libit-Ishtar’s cone and notes its value as the most signicant artifact yet found from the era and civilization of the biblical patriarch Abraham, who was born close in both time and place to the cone’s burial in Ur. The smaller clay and stone inscribed tablets from 2350 B.C. (pictured above) were found elsewhere in the region and are pocket-sized cuneiform receipts recording everyday exchanges of goods from dairy products to slaughtered beasts.
References to Babylonian artifacts already in the Denison Museum database intrigued new Curator of Collections Anna Cannizzo, and led her to track down their numbered box in Burke Hall’s storage room. She found more clay tablets, small clay figures, and a very familiar-looking fourinch cuneiform cone. Also inside the box was a yellowed typewritten letter dated November 1937 to Denison librarian Annie Louise Craigie by the same Edgar J. Banks from whom the Johnstone Collection had been acquired. Banks succeeded in selling small shares of his treasury to individuals and institutions across the country during that period, and apparently someone in Doane Library was unable to resist his authoritative and romantic descriptions. Seventy years after its partition and dispersal, coincidence has brought two pieces of the archaeologist’s original collection together again in Granville, Ohio. Even more remarkable, the clay cone in Denison’s 1937 collection is the exact twin of the newly-acquired Johnstone cone—identical time capsules inscribed and buried 4,000 years ago by King Libit-Ishtar in the temple of Ur.