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How can you rescue clay tablets from the war in Syria?

On 7 June, the National Museum of Antiquities opened a mini exhibition 'Scanning for Syria'. The exhibition shows how Leiden archaeologists and Delft technical specialists make reconstructions of 3000-year-old Assyrian clay tablets. The originals, stored in museum depots in Raqqa (Syria), have been lost in the recent civil war.

Between 1986 and 2010, Dutch archaeologists at the National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, RMO) and Leiden University conducted research at Tell Sabi Abyad, an important excavation site in Northern Syria. During the excavations of an Assyrian fort, the researchers discovered hundreds of valuable clay tablets bearing texts in cuneiform script. These give a varied impression of events in the region in around 1200 BC. Many of the texts are about administrative matters, but you can also read that a particular individual was put in prison for wizardry, that death threats were not uncommon in trade negotiations and that 40 litres of beer were needed for a party given by the Grand Vizier.  

Originals have been lost

Moulds (prints) were made of a number of these clay tablets; the original tablets went to various museums and their depots in Raqqa. Many of the tablets - along with other museum pieces - have been lost in the  Syrian civil war: they were stolen for the black market, or destroyed in the bombing. Now that there are no longer any originals, the moulds held by RMO have become highly valuable. 

Digital 3D-reconstruction of clay tablet number T98-34, made by scanning the moulds of the original items. (Photo: Scanning for Syria)

Scanning and 3D printing

Researchers in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus ‘Scanning for Syria’ project are looking for ways of conserving damaged or lost heritage pieces. The archaeologists and technical specialists have developed a technique for scanning the Tell Sabi Abyad moulds in order to reconstruct the lost clay tablets. The researchers' biggest problem was that the scanning methods are based on a spherical object, while a mould is negative (hollow). Fortunately, it has now become possible to make the translation from hollow to spherical.  The colourful result - pink, blue and green clay tablets - can be used by researchers to gain an impression of life in the fort three thousand years ago.

Top photo: The reconstruction of the clay tablets, made using a 3D printer. (Photo: RMO)

Scanning for Syria

The mini-exhibition on ‘Scanning for Syria’ in the RMO shows original artefacts from the excavation, moulds and prints of lost clay tablets and a 2D/3D scanner. The exhibition shows the importance of new techniques for preserving antiquities for eternity.  The exhibition is open from 7 June to 28 October in the National Museum of Antiquities.

Looking through clay tablets

The new method can also be used for other, original clay tablets, to look through them. This is important because the tablet is aurrounded by an 'envelope' of clay. With this method, the original clay tablet can be read without damaging the envelope which can also contain information. 

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