Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cyrus Cylinder mystery

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS: Who broke the Cyrus Cylinder? (A. J. Cave, Payvand News of Iran). Key excerpt:
On 28 August, 2013, Dr. Jon Taylor, Assistant Keeper of Cuneiform Collections at the British Museum gave a talk: “Hormuzd Rassam and the Discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder” to a packed audience at Cal (UC Berkeley). The talk was presented by the Assyrian Heritage Fund and co-sponsored by the Center for the Middle Eastern Studies and the Townsend Center for Humanities. Among the attendees was the elderly great, great, great grandson of one of the brothers of Rassam who had traveled just for the occasion.

To prepare for the talk, Dr. Taylor had resorted to archival research in the vast acquisition registers of the British Museum. Thumbing through old records at the museum, he found out (rather unexpectedly) that the cylinder (identified later as the “Cyrus Cylinder” by the Assyriologists the British Museum) was listed as “unbroken” in boring bureaucratic documents, leading him to speculate that the cylinder was most likely broken (perhaps intentionally) before it was shipped to London.


Intense western interest in eastern biblical lands and peoples in the 19th century did not just lead to spectacular discoveries of ancient civilizations, it sparked a lively global trade in ancient artifacts procured in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” manner. Since 1850s illicit diggings for antiquities that institutions and individuals are willing to pay good money for have progressed in the Middle East without any sign of decline. Local laborers usually got paid literally pennies for each inscribed tablet they dug up, so it was not unusual for them or actually anyone in the antiquities supply-chain to break clay tablets they found into pieces to increase their meager pay and sell the “surplus” to Baghdad dealers.

Dr. Taylor prepared a list of the usual suspects who had access and motive to break the unbroken cylinder, and like a clever crime novel detective eliminated all but two, one of them Daud (Fat) Toma, one of overseers Rassam had hired—not deemed trustworthy even by Rassam himself.

We would never know without a shadow of a doubt, but we can safely say that the real culprit was the insatiable black market for antiquities.
For much more on the Cyrus Cylinder, see here and links.