Sitting down with Elizabeth Payne

Elizabeth Payne, conservator of the Yale Babylonian Collection. (Rebecca Wolenski/YH)

Elizabeth Payne, GRD ’07, is conservator of the Yale Babylonian Collection. The collection houses about 45,000 cuneiform tablets and other objects from ancient Mesopotamia, and is the largest of its kind in the United States. Cuneiform refers to the wedge-shaped writing invented by the Sumerians and later used by the Akkadians and the other civilizations that flourished in and around what is now Iraq. (The study of these text and the civilizations they come from is known as Assyriology.) The texts, which were stamped in clay using a stylus, span a vast period from 3200 BCE to 70 CE, and cover a range of topics, from the literary (the Epic of Gilgamesh) to the mathematical (the computation of the square root of two) to the administrative (the number of sheep belonging to such-and-such temple). When I visited Payne, she was busy gluing together a shattered 3,000-year-old tablet. We sat down to talk about her work at the YBC, the looting of antiquities in Iraq, and how she came to study Assyriology.
YH: What’s the story of the Yale Babylonian Collection?
EP: Our collection was founded in 1909. Our first curator was a guy called Albert Tobias Clay—which, with all the clay tablets, is a good name for an Assyriologist. He was good pals with J.P. Morgan, and so that’s where the money for the collection came from. He began purchasing tablets on the antiquities market. About half of the tablets were purchased by Clay. The other half of the collection was assembled by the Reverend James B. Nies. Those together form the collection of tablets we have here.
YH: Were Clay and Nies buying things that had just been excavated, or had the tablets and such already been floating around on the antiquities market?
EP: It was more the latter. We have some that were scientifically excavated, but for the most part these were not scientifically excavated. But it’s also an old collection. We do not collect tablets any more. Antiquities are just dodgy now. It’s like getting into drug money or gun money. There’s a black market, and the money goes to really bad things. So for that reason, and also just for ethical reasons, Yale has not been collecting for decades and decades and decades.
YH: Who is collecting these days?
EP: There’s a lot of stuff coming out [of Iraq]. After the invasion [by the U.S. in 2004], the sites, especially in the south, were just devastated. The Baghdad Museum was also just looted terribly. Where exactly those things ended up, or are ending up, we’re not sure. Some of it has been caught at the border, some of it has been returned, but a lot of it has just sort of disappeared. There are markets all over the place—wherever there’s money. So Saudi princes will collect things, or some of [the looted materials], I’ve heard, are going through Switzerland, or through Israel, or through Japan.
YH: Can you tell me a little about cuneiform and the languages it was used to write?
EP: Akkadian is a Semitic language. Sumerian, we don’t know exactly. The script itself is not alphabetic. There are alphabetic signs, but most of them are either vowel-consonant or consonant-vowel, or consonant-vowel-consonant signs. So it’s syllabic. Then there’s ideograms. So you’ll have a sign that means “house,” a sign that means “man,” a sign that means “king,” a sign that means “to go,” whatever. You have all of these things working together.
YH: That must make it extremely complicated to read.
EP: I have no idea how the brilliant people who deciphered this to begin with did it.
YH: What kind of cuneiform texts survive?
EP: About 20 percent of our texts are scholarly or literary, and so there are things like epics and mathematics, medical texts and astronomical texts. But the other 80 percent are administrative and archival. You have accounts where you have temples taking care of, “How much barley do we have?” and, “Have we properly accounted for the onions we’re paying our workers?” We have letters going back and forth, house sales, and pre-nuptial agreements, and divorce contracts—the recording of daily life.
YH: What do you do as conservator of the collection?
EP: I care for the physical well-being of the tablets. I’ve been in this position for about three and a half years now—and so I’ve done a full inventory to make sure that everything is where it’s supposed to be. And while going through all the drawers doing the inventory, [I have been] figuring out what needs conservation and then providing it. Some of [the tablets] require full conservation, which means I bake them, fire them, and then soak them to get the salts out, because the soils in Iraq are very saline, and so if the salts aren’t leached out with water, they then attack the tablets. Then I glue them back together [when necessary].  Assuming the pieces are there, it’s possible to get them back together quite well.
YH: How did you become interested in this stuff?
EP: I started out in Egyptology, actually.
YH: As an undergrad?
EP: Well, as a four year old. I was obsessed with Egypt at age four. But yeah, as an undergraduate I did Egyptology and archaeology. Then I did a master’s in archaeology, and then more Egyptology. But I decided that archaeology and Egyptology weren’t really what I wanted to do. I was taking a couple of years working at Brown in the Egyptology department and had the opportunity to take a course with a world-class Assyriologist—just for fun, just auditing. I was hooked, and I started learning Akkadian.
YH: Do you have any idea why you were always so drawn to the ancient Near East?
EP: Well, as a kid you like mummies and gold and things. [Laughs.] But the hieroglyphs—they really appealed to me. I became interested about the time I was learning to read, and just learning to read English was sort of mysterious, but hieroglyphics was even cooler because it was, like, falcons and dudes sitting there! And I was like, “Man, I’m going to learn how to read that.” And I just never dropped it.
YP: Do we know more or less what Sumerian and Akkadian sounded like?
EP: We have a pretty good idea. But exactly how things were vocalized, where the accents would go—we know grammatically where they should go, but how would it sound, how would the different dialects sounds… I mean, if we were to go back and read the Code of Hammurabi to Hammurabi, he would be just befuddled. But after a couple of weeks being in the same company, the Assyriologists would learn, and he’d learn, and I think we’d get along. But, uh, maybe not socially.
—This interview was condensed by the author

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