Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chief Joseph’s Cuneiform Tablet

The story of Chief Joseph’s tablet isn’t one of the better-known tales of an object-out-of-place, but it is intriguing.
When the Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his band of warriors were captured by the U.S. Cavalry in 1877, the contents of his medicine bag included a cuneiform tablet measuring about one inch square. Said to date from around 2400 B.C., the tablet turned out to be a bill of sale for either a lamb or a calf to be used as a sacrificial offering. The chief said that the tablet had been passed down in his family for many generations, and that they had inherited it from their white ancestors. Chief Joseph said that the white men had come among his ancestors long ago, and had taught his people many things.
There are several interesting things about this story. Cuneiform tablets were still relatively rare in 1877. It is highly unlikely that some acquaintance of the Nez Perce chief would have had such an object to begin with. And Chief Joseph was a man of honor. He would have had nothing to gain by saying that his family had possessed the tablet for many generations.
The mundane nature of the contents of the tablet argues against forgery. Cuneiform had only been deciphered in 1846 and the process was far from complete even in 1877, so a would-be forger would have had to be an extremely well educated individual familiar not only with the language itself, but with the shape of the tablets created by the ancient scribes.
The tablet now resides in the museum at West Point in Virginia.

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