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The History of the Hermitage Cuneiform Collection
The Hermitage collection includes documents from almost all periods of Mesopotamian history. They come from state and private archives of the largest ancient administrative centers, such as Uruk (modern Warka), Girsu (modern Tello), Nippur (modern Niffar), Umma (modern Jokha), and others. As a rule, the provenance of tablets can be determined from the texts themselves. Names of officials or toponyms, for example, mentioned in a document, let us determine the city the document was composed in, even if it comes not from regular archeological excavations, but rather from illegal excavations, and ended up in assyriologist’s hand through antiquity dealers.

All texts that are currently stored in the Hermitage, were received from antiquaries or from private collections, sometimes indirectly, via other museums or national foundations. In spite of the lack of archeological data about the location of the items found, most documents can be attributed with a high degree of certainty. The way the clay tablets traveled from Mesopotamia to Russia is a question addressed in the history of collecting and museums in Russia, the domain of the history of science.

The first acquisitions were made by the Imperial Hermitage at the end of the 19th century. The museum’s archive has a report of one Mr. Kizeritsky, then the head curator of the Ancient History Department of the Imperial Hermitage, with a proposal of a Parisian antiquary, Mihran Sivadzhan, to purchase from him “various remarkable antiquities, primarily from Sidon and Babylonia,” including 78 tablets with wedge-shaped writing from Babylonia. The report mentions that “antiquities from Babylonia and Sidon have yet been totally lacking in the Imperial Hermitage.” The report dates back to March 2, 1898, and from the inventory we discover that in the end of April of the same year, the cuneiform tablets were purchased from Sivadzhan, including 55 Sumerian documents of the epoch of the third dynasty of Ur, i.e. the end of third millennium b.c.

The next acquisitions were made after the 1917 October revolution. The first post-revolution acquisition by the State Hermitage consisted of more than 100 clay tablets bought from the private collector O. Ju. Schenfeldt in March-April 1919. Tablets were bought from other private collectors, as well; several of the tablets were given as gifts to the museum or came into the property of the museum after the death of the former owners. Unfortunately, it is now very difficult to determine how the cuneiform texts ended up in the private collections. It is seldom possible to trace their fate from the moment they are uncovered by an archeologist’s or clandestine digger’s shovel, to their final destination within the walls of the museum. At times, however, we still attempt to do so.

Many of the cuneiform texts became part of the Hermitage collection in the 1930s from the collection of the famous Russian collector, the scholar and historian N. Likhachev. More specifically, the texts that had been part of the private holdings of Likhachev before 1917 ended up in various museums around the country after the revolution, and ultimately made their way into the Hermitage holdings.

N. Likhachev was one of the most multi-faceted Russian collectors at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. His interests ranged from Egyptian and Babylonian antiquities to Russian icons. In all these areas he managed to find and acquire outstanding specimens, priceless from the point of view of both scholarship and art. Documents from Likhachev’s private archive related to his cuneiform collection lead us from St. Petersburg to Paris, to the Rue le Peltier, where at the end of the 19th century the aforementioned Sivadzhan, as well as Calebdzhan and Indzhudzhan, had their antique stores. An inventory of the collection made during Likhachev’s lifetime states that the texts from the excavations of the ancient city-state of Lagash were acquired for the most part from Sivadzhan in the last years of the 19th century. “Calligraphic tablets, small, with minute script” (this description refers unmistakably to the “messenger” texts of the third dynasty of Ur) were acquired almost exclusively from Elias Géjou between 1900 and 1914. Around 50 texts were purchased from the London antiquary Naaman in 1912–1913. The provenance of these texts is also indicated in the inventory: the sites of Jokha (ancient Umma) and Drehem (ancient Puzrish-Dagan).

We know that Elias Géjou was one of the main suppliers of monuments of antiquity to the museums of Europe and America. In Likhachev’s archive, letters from Géjou offering the sale of clay tablets, as well as receipts for the purchase and shipment of items, have been preserved. The letters from 1904–1912 refer to a thousand tablets from new excavations in the site of Drehem, not far from the ancient Nippur. It seems that Géjou sent Likhachev specimens from which to choose, and Likhachev chose for his collection texts of various types. His preferences were based on the appearance and the character of the writing, since he did not know cuneiform. The documents suggest that the purchases occurred almost annually. Likhachev’s collection of cuneiform grew along with the collections of the Louvre and the British Museum, which also enjoyed Géjou’s services. Among his clients, Géjou mentions professors Ungnad and Delitzsch from Berlin, well-known Assyriologists from the beginning of the 20th century, and Columbia University in New York. The tablets that ended up in Europe, most likely, from illegal excavations in Jokha and Drehem, were distributed by Géjou’s office throughout various museums and collections all over the world, and Likhachev’s collection was not the least of these.

In the turbulent year of 1917, Likhachev moved with his family to Moscow. Most of his collection and library remained in Petrograd. A part of the collection, however, at that time or later, was also moved to Moscow. In February 1919, 1,310 “cuneiform tablets of the Ancient Near East from the epochs of Agad, Ur, and Babylon, now preserved in Moscow” were sold to the Department of Museums and Preservation of Monuments of Art and Antiquities. A receipt for the sum of 65,000 rubles was signed by Likhachev himself. The receipt also states that out of 1,310 tablets, 790 had not yet been published, and 520 were published by M. Nikolsky, the great Russian Assyriologist from the beginning of the 20th century.

Subsequently, the texts purchased from Likhachev were distributed by the Department of Museums among various museums around the country. Thus, part of Likhachev’s collection (primarily texts published by Nikolsky in 1915) ended up in Moscow, in the A. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Probably around that time, the other part of the collection ended up in the State Academy of the History of Material Culture in Leningrad. When in 1930, the Academy’s holdings were liquidated, the “specimens of the Ancient Near East” that had been preserved there were transferred to the State Hermitage.

The largest part of Likhachev’s collection was transformed into the Museum of Paleography in 1918, becoming one of the departments of the Institute of Books, Documents, and Writing. In 1938, after the Institute was closed down, most of the specimens were given to the Hermitage, including the collection of cuneiform texts. This was the last large acquisition of the collection in question to the museum.


Nikolai P. Likhachev
Picture of 1916



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