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The oldest item in the Library

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Photograph of clay tablet

A question we’re often asked is ‘What is the oldest item in the Library?’

The answer is a clay tablet. The foundation tablet of Sîn-kašid, king of Uruk, located in the Library’s rare books collection, is almost 4000 years old. The tablet was written in ancient Sumerian cuneiform in the late 19th – early 18th century BCE.

In cuneiform, a carefully cut writing implement known as a stylus is pressed into soft clay to produce wedge-like impressions that represent word-signs (pictographs) and, later, phonograms or 'word-concepts' (closer to a modern day understanding of a 'word').

The Sumerian inscription on this tablet records the king’s name, titles and epithets, stating that he built a royal palace. It is one of many tablets bearing similar inscriptions that have been recovered from the foundations of Sîn-kašid’s palace at Uruk. They were placed in every fourth course of bricks during construction, ensuring that when the mud-brick palace needed future renovation, Sîn-kašid’s name and deeds would be admired by his successors. 

The tablet was originally thought to be a replica, but after being inspected by Dr Noel Weeks in March 1975 and Dr Larry Stillman in August 1983, the tablet has been discovered to be genuine. It was donated in the Library in 1940 by Mr J Yared, a migrant from Syria then residing in Queensland.

The foundation tablet is currently on display in the AMAZE gallery.