In 1879, The Met's first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, bought 51 Ancient Near Eastern cuneiform tablets for the Museum, the first such objects to enter The Met collection. At the time, there were no curatorial departments at the Museum, and the tablets were held in a general pool alongside European paintings and Cypriot sculptures.
The Museum's early interest in these artifacts was part of a broader trend. The hope, in some circles, was that they would lend some historical weight to Biblical claims. But cuneiform tablets and Ancient Near Eastern art also "provide a deep view into the dynamic lives of individual people at the start of the second millennium B.C.," as Nancy Highcock, a former Hagop Kevorkian Fellow in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, writes in a new essay for the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
In the Old Assyrian Period (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.), merchants used tablets to record business transactions, write letters home, and document legal proceedings. Drinking vessels were used in religious rituals. Game boards, like one carved from ivory in the collection, offer "glimpses into the leisure activities of these men, women, and children," Highcock writes. Perhaps most importantly, these artifacts "illustrate the exchange of ideas, materials, and technologies across the eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Bronze Age."
The entirety of Highcock's essay, along with more than 1,000 others spanning the full range of the Museum’s collection, is available on our Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.