A 19th century BC cuneiform tablet from the city of Sippar in the region of Babylonia had been carefully laid upon an examination table awaiting its turn to be relieved of salt damage. Its dark brown clay was infused with a white mineral in evidence of the saline soil it was made from. It was a priceless treasure left behind by our Bronze Age ancestors as proof that they had created a written language. It became their gift, a seed to bolster civilization, a way to record even the most mundane happenings and now it lay upon this table awaiting desalinization: a process of preservation designed to harden its structure and give it a much-needed bath. Removing the salt would keep it from becoming too brittle to move. And this was just one in a collection of 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia here at the London Metropolitan Museum.
Its cousins and brothers could be found in trays placed in the stainless steel sink across the room with a steady stream of cold water washing over them.
The electric kiln, used to harden these artifacts, was leaking heat again at an alarming rate, causing the air conditioner to run at top speed. This always happens when Dr. Milton Schwab was in the middle of a firing cycle; otherwise the Desalination Lab was stifling hot and this was his home for the next ten hours.
He set a timer then turned an about face to focus on a more pressing problem than the air conditioner. A contaminate had started to appear on the surface of these artifacts and it wasn’t just one; all the Sippar cuneiform tablets were coming down with spots. It’s an epidemic, Dr. Schwab thought as he looked down at a tray of tablets he’d left air drying on the counter. He ran his fingers over the hardening crystals. He was sure it was calcite: a deposit left behind from the tap water. It could disfigure the cuneiform script. The situation was serious.
Artifacts this old were fragile enough. He was going to have to stop desalinizing and make a review of his procedures, so he left the next set of saggars for the kiln empty. At this point, he should’ve filled them, but instead, he sliced off a sample of the white deposit with a scalpel he’d taken from the drawer. He needed a magnified view of this white bloom under the microscope to be sure of his findings.
A deep frown formed on his face.
It was a two day setback at least, he calculated, and he would have to call in the gallery assistants.
He picked up the phone.
Yet it wasn’t until early the next morning that help arrived from Dr. George Larkin’s office, the First Chair Administrator and when Schwab first caught sight of them, it gave him a shock. He needed the help, of course. He was in no position to argue, but now his quiet laboratory wasn’t so quiet anymore. He couldn’t concentrate. They were doing well at removing the calcite from the tablets just as he had shown them and they were being even more delicate and meticulous with the artifacts than even he...