What is the Oldest Item in the Library?

Receipt for a cow, Ur III, 2112–2004 B.C., year two of King Amar-Suen. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Receipt for a cow, Ur III, 2112–2004 B.C., year two of King Amar-Suen. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

This is one of the most common questions asked of the Library staff. The Gutenberg Bible, the Ellesmere Chaucer, and first editions of Shakespeare’s plays come to mind when considering famous older items in the Library’s collections. However, not many are aware that The Huntington holds an object dating to 2112 B.C. that depicts a rather mundane event: the sale of a cow.

This tiny square “receipt” is less than two inches wide and was created in ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq). It demonstrates an early form of writing known as cuneiform, which began as pictographs, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. It later developed into a more abstract form to include wedge-shaped markings such as the ones on this tablet. Cuneiform is depicted in many items from Sumer and includes more than a thousand distinct figures.

The next time you go shopping and are offered a receipt for your groceries, consider that one day your receipt may end up in the vaults of a research library, revered for its age and depiction of life in the early 2010s.

Catherine Wehrey is The Huntington’s reader services assistant for the Dibner collection.

5 thoughts on “What is the Oldest Item in the Library?

  1. Pingback: » What is the Oldest Item in the Library? | Adventures and Musings of a Hedgewitch

  2. Since this is, a so oftened asked question and since this is the oldest object at the Huntington, you’d think that it might displayed, so that all might see it, rather be in some obscure drawer

    • One of the joys of having our blog is being able to share glimpses into collections that aren’t on physical display! Bear in mind that many items are very fragile and can’t be placed on display; in most instances, however, scholars are able to make use of such items in their research.

  3. What items from present-day life will be preserved to become historical relics and research material has been the subject of quite a few speculative and/or satirical articles and possibly whole books. Last year’s concern about the Mayan calendar running out points to the fact that the historical record has lots of gaps–maybe there is another Mayan calendar that continues from the known version, but has never been found. We also have the element of durability–baked clay is very durable, other media less so. Old movie film is notoriously unstable–unless properly stored, and ideally copied onto a more permanent medium, historic films may be remembered only by “publicity stills” and studio paperwork.

    A common sci-fi device is a time travel machine. Whether it’s called a “TARDIS”, an “Atavachron”, or a “Flux Capacitor”, it’s a tantalizing thought. Many railway enthusiasts would want to go back to the days of steam locomotives, passenger trains to just about anywhere, and Pacific Electric cars to all parts of the LA metro area. Historians might want to go back to the Library of Alexandria, with a battery-powered document scanner. All this commentary inspired by a receipt for a cow….

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