It pays to save your shopping receipts.
In 1969, as a new cataloger for the Black Hills State University library, Dora Jones' work of organizing archives took her past the same library stacks.
“There was a large picture frame sitting on top of the stack,” she said. “I couldn’t stand not knowing why the picture frame was up there. I’m a curious person.”
Inside the box-like frame she discovered 15 small pieces of clay covered with markings. Jones suspected that it was a collection of cuneiforms, like ones she had observed while studying at the National Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Cuneiform and pictograms are civilization’s earliest written scripts, dating from the Sumerian region in about the 31st century B.C. According to the British Museum, “pictures or signs drawn on clay tablets” using stylus-like reeds were then fired in kilns, which made the clay virtually indestructible. Many tablets recorded details of business transactions.
“I thought, 'They have to be real,'” Jones recalled.
She continued to search archive records until she discovered the collection’s origin.
At the turn of the 20th century, Middle Eastern culture was a popular dinner-party subject. Anything related to ancient times was en vogue.
Edgar J. Banks was an archaeologist-turned-politician, who established himself in the Middle East in the early 1900s, first as an American consul, then as professor of oriental languages and archaeology.
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Banks was a dashing, adventurous figure — he was rumored to have provided inspiration for the fictional Indiana Jones movie character — being the first American to scale Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s ark, crossing deserts from Turkey to Yemen in one year, and serving as the consultant for Cecil B. DeMille’s epic biblical films.
As an “entrepreneurial roving archaeologist,” he obtained examples of cuneiforms and brought them back to the United States to sell.
In 1924, the secretary of the Spearfish Normal School answered Banks’s advertisement offering authentic relics. Fifteen of the tablets were mailed “for your examination” to A.H. Humbert, along with a letter of authenticity and tablet translations.
The sands of time have sifted over the details, but the set was given to or purchased by the school.
And then along came Jones, who in the mid-1970s, sent the collection to the Oriental Institute of Chicago for authentication. The institute returned the set with a verified age range from 3,500 B.C. to 585 B.C., along with two plaster casts of additional cuneiforms.
Edgar Banks’ little anthologies are dotted all across the United States in colleges and private collections. The BHSU set is said to be mostly receipts: for grain, distribution of beer and bread, a real estate contract, for sheep and goats, and expenditure of flour for food rations.
Black Hills State prepared a display case inside the library. Eventually, the display was again stored away. But Bobbi Sago, current university special collections librarian and archivist, recognized the value of the cuneiforms to the community.
“It’s amazing that a piece of this kind of history is right here at our library,” she said. Sago returned the tablets to a display case, now located inside the BHSU library coffee shop, including documentation obtained by Jones and additional information on the 5,000-year-old pieces.
They are receipts worth keeping, Jones said. “Each one is unique and all were done by hand.”