Handling the cuneiform collection

Please note: the Middle East Study Room will be closed for the month of July 2019.

Handling always involves a risk that objects may be damaged. These guidelines have been drawn up in order to safeguard the objects for study by future generations. It is the primary responsibility of the Students’ Room Supervisor to ensure the safety of Museum objects. You must follow their guidance at all times.

Cuneiform Tablets

The collection of cuneiform tablets is the most heavily accessed collection in the British Museum. The level of access provided by the Department of the Middle East is almost unparalleled. While we recognise the importance of providing study access to visiting scholars, please remember that access is a privilege and objects must be treated with due care at all times.

  • Natural oils from the skin can damage and discolour tablets. Please wash your hands before handling tablets. Gloves are not usually required, but you may be requested to use them in specific circumstances.
  • Please remove any jewellery that might scratch or catch on the tablet, such as rings or bracelets.
  • Tablets must be handled over the soft-surface mat provided. Please hold tablets from underneath, low over the table, and support their weight. Foam pillows are provided for oversize tablets. Please note that large tablets may break under their own weight if left unsupported. Tablets should not be propped up on other tablets, on the sides of their boxes or on other objects; this includes also pens, pencil sharpeners etc.
  • Please do not pass tablets directly to another student. If you wish to show a tablet to someone else, it should be placed on a mat for the other person then to pick up.
  • ‘Cleaning’ of tablets by students is strictly forbidden under any circumstances. Pens, pencils, toothbrushes or other similar implements should never be brought into contact with tablets. Conservators work in the Students’ Room on a regular basis, and cleaning can be requested from them. When measuring tablets, only plastic callipers may be used, due to the potential for damage by metal versions.
  • Students are not permitted to carry tablets around the room.
  • Please inform the Supervisor or Duty Curator immediately in the event of any damage to a tablet, or if you have any other concerns.

Conservation in the Middle East study room

The physical safety of the tablet collection is taken very seriously. Many visitors use the collection, and their work yields a steady stream of important information that improves our knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures.

Conservation staff visit the study room before opening time each morning to assess every object for its suitability for handling. Occasionally, a tablet may be found to be too fragile to be handled. In these cases, the tablet will not be issued that day, but will instead be taken for conservation.

Remedial work is usually minor and can be carried out at the conservation work station in the study room; the tablet can then be safely issued. In a small number of cases, more complicated treatment is required, and the tablet will then be taken to the dedicated cuneiform conservation laboratory.