Look inside a cuneiform tablet

The Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO) at the University of Leiden has the largest collection of cuneiform tablets in the Netherlands, upwards of 3,000 tablets ranging in date from 2,500 to 4,000 years ago. Some of the tablets are still enveloped in the original clay covers which served as a means of data protection. The majority of cuneiform tablets document financial transactions, inventory, a wide assortment of business, religious and government records. If the inscription was exposed, figures could be easily be changed by simply dunking the tablet in water to soften it a little. Such records would be under constant threat of fraud and forgery. The outer clay layer made it impossible to alter the document without breaking the envelope and making the interference unmistakably clear.

When the study of cuneiform tablets began in earnest the 19th century, archaeologists had no qualms about breaking the hard candy shell to get to the chocolaty text within. These days destruction in the name of knowledge acquisition is no longer an acceptable approach to archaeological materials. Technology has made non-invasive methods of investigation not only possible, but exponentially superior to the crude bull-in-a-china-shop methods of yore. Synchroton light, lasers and CT scanners can see far better than the human eye.

To that end, NINO researchers have enlisted the aid of the micro-CT-scanner at Delft University of Technology to see into the clay tablets that still retain their envelopes. The micro-CT scan generates a 3D model of the object in sections and in enough detail that the surface of the tablet within the clay cover can be read.