The Pushkin State Museum

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A small but significant collection of cuneiform tablets lies in Moscow, in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. The museum now brings news of many exciting initiatives, including the creation of an online, freely available database of cuneiform texts. High-resolution photography using a new computer technology has allowed for a new level of online access to previously unpublished texts.

By Anastasia Iasenovskaia. Photographs by Olga Melekestseva.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is located in Moscow. It has a small but very diverse cuneiform collection, which includes approximately 1760 cuneiform objects. They relate to the various periods of the history of Ancient Mesopotamia, beginning with the Early Dynastic Period III (the middle of the 3rd millennium BC) and ending with the Persian period (V century BC). Beyond that, the collection of texts is very diverse: it includes administrative documents (the largest share), letters, legal documents and literary texts.1

This variety of genres and periods is due to the personalities of the scholars whose collections forms the core of the Pushkin Museum’s cuneiform collection, Nikolay Likhachev (1862-1936) and Vladimir Golenishchev (1856-1947). The foundation of the Pushkin Museum’s cuneiform collection was laid in 1912, when the collection of V. Golenishchev found its way to the Museum. The presence in the museum of such unique artifacts as three Amarna tablets, fragments of a Gudea statue and the like we owe to this collection.

However, most of the Pushkin Museum’s cuneiform collection consists of 1320 items from the collection of N. Likhachev, mostly Sumerian tablets of the Ur III dynasty. In 1917 it was purchased by the government and divided into two parts, forming the core of two Russian cuneiform collections – the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Probably, the famous tablet containing two Sumerian elegies also derives from this collection.

We can single out several areas of scientific and curatorial work that is currently being carried out in the Museum: the publication of texts, restoration and conservation activities, chemical research, the creation of modern conditions for tablet storage, the digitization of the collection and the creation of a digital archive.

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Texts of the Pushkin museum’s cuneiform collection have been published since the beginning of the 20th century, when a two-volume catalogue by Mikhail Nikolsky with the texts of N. Likhachev’s collection came out. Curator of the Pushkin Museum Vladimir Shileiko published some texts in the 1920s. Almost the entire collection of Old Assyrian texts and texts from Arrapha were published by Ninel Yankovskaya. Many texts of the Old Babylonian period were published by Alexander Riftin in 1937. The edition of the Sumerian elegies by Samuel Noah Kramer, who worked on it at the Pushkin Museum in 1957, is well known.2

Despite this diversity of publications, not all of the collection is published at the moment. In the early 2010’s it was decided to publish the collection in full, in a single series, called “Cuneiform texts in the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts”. The Sumerian tablets are being published under the charge of Boris Perlov, a Sumerologist and the oldest member of the Department of the Ancient Orient. One of the co-authors is Yuri Saveliev, who for many years, until his death in 2008, had been the curator of the Department of the Ancient Orient. Almost all hand copies of the published tablets were made by him personally.

The first volume, Administrative Texts from Tello from the Ur III Period, by B. Perlov and Yu. Saveliev, was published in 2014. The second volume of the texts from Tello is on its way and will be published the next year. Like the first volume, it will be available for purchase in the online shop of the Pushkin Museum. Both volumes combine more than 450 previously unpublished texts from Tello. Afterwards, the volumes with tablets from Umma and Puzrish-Dagan will come out, including both the texts published by M. Nikolsky and previously unedited texts. Subsequently, there is a plan to publish the remainder of the texts, including the tablets in the Akkadian language from the 2. and 1. millennium BC.

The second important field of work with the cuneiform collection of the Pushkin Museum is restoration and conservation. The tablets of the collection were not always kept in ideal conditions, particularly during the difficult times of World War II. In this regard, the collection has some problems with the state of the tablets and their conservation (laminating, formation of salts, black spots on the surface), although at the moment the situation is generally considered to be stable. The search for the optimal substance for consolidation and the painless desalinization of clay tablets remain the main problems of the restoration process. However, operations that strongly affect the chemical structure of the tablets (for example, baking), have not been carried out since the 80’s.

Curators and restorers have also attempted to analyze the chemical composition of the clay tablets to investigate the possibility of determining their geographical origin. We cannot say that the results obtained have given us an unambiguous answer to the question, but the researchers have come to some conclusions. The research results are expected to be published at the end of this year.

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The third field of work is the digitization of the cuneiform collection. A project based on a new method of high-resolution digital photography was developed, in order to address the problem of the current state of the tablets, as well making possible the study of texts without direct contact with the tablets, and the creation of a digital archive in the public domain. Work on the projects began in 2014. At the moment, the entire cuneiform collection has been photographed using technology developed by the EPOS company. The last batch of tablets (about 700 pieces), which was photographed this summer, is now being processed and will be available to the staff of the Pushkin Museum and invited specialists in the autumn of this year.

Since the tablets are three-dimensional objects of irregular shape, it is not possible to take images of them without shadows and glare, which cause loss of information in the analysis of the text, by the classical methods of macro photography. At the same time, taking an image of an object without shadows and glares does not provide a reliable interpretation of the information on the relief surfaces. For this purpose, it is necessary to have images taken in a specified narrowly focused lighting. The EPOS company has developed a technology and a software for processing images taken by means of a multi-positional light source. The overlapping and digital processing of shadow-free and embossed images almost completely prevents the loss of visual information that is important for researchers in the examination of the tablets.

Some of the tablets, those with the most interesting content and those that have a non-standard shape, were shot on a turntable with 360º rotation to create a 3D-effect. A software for viewing digital images of cuneiform tablets has been developed, which reproduces the three-dimensional perception of the object on the screen. Among the software’s functions are 360-degree rotation of the image, zoom at any angle on the selected fragment, and the displacement of objects horizontally and vertically.

It is assumed that the digital archive will exist in two versions: local and public. A special software, “Circular synthesis”, was developed by the EPOS company to view the captured images, for local use by the staff of the Pushkin Museum and invited specialists directly in the Department of Ancient Orient. The software allows the user to view the chosen tablet in different directions of lighting, to scale the image, and to combine one of the variants of lighting with a “flat” image.

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A site was created to view the cuneiform collection by the general public. So far there are 30 tablets with descriptions, hand copies, transliterations and translations on the site. Next year we are planning to add about 100 Old Assyrian tablets that were published by N. Yankovskaya in 1968. A list of already published tablets can be found here. When selecting a tablet from the list, it is possible to apply different filters (selection of tablets by period, genre, language, dating, place of origin, type of object, presence of seals). The tablet view page allows the user to view an object from 16 angles with 16 variants of lighting from all sides, as well as viewing a flat (shadow-free) image.

So far, there is only a version of the site in Russian, but in the near future an English version will be added. The site will be attached to the official site of the Museum (or it will be incorporated into it). Also, we hope to link it to the CDLI, in order to provide all specialist in the field of Assyriology and Sumerology with convenient access to it.


1 – A detailed description of the history and origin of the collection can be found in Perlov B., Saveliev Yu. Administrative texts from Tello from the Ur III Period. CTPSM I. Moscow, 2014.

2- See, respectively:
Nikol’skij M.V. Drevnosti Vostochnyia, vol. III/2. Dokumenty khoziaistvennoi otchetnosti drevnei Khaldei iz sobraniia N.P. Likhacheva. St. Petersburg, 1908
Drevnosti Vostocnyja, vol. V. Dokumenty khoziaistvennoi otchetnosti drevnei Khaldei iz sobraniia N.P. Likhacheva. Chast’ II. Moscow, 1915.
Yankovskaya N.B. Klinopisnye teksty iz Kiul’-tepe v sobraniiakh SSSR. Moscow, 1968.
Yankovskaya N.B. Iuridicheskie dokumenty iz Arrapkhi v sobraniiakh SSSR // Peredneaziatskii sbornik. Voprosy khettologii i khurritologii. Moscow, 1961.
Riftin A.P. Staro-vavilonskie iuridicheskie i administrativnye dokumenty v sobraniiakh SSSR. Moscow, 1937.
Kramer S.N. Two Elegies on a Pushkin Museum Tablet: A New Sumerian Literary Genre. Moscow: Oriental Literature Publishing House, 1960.

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