The Columns

On the Origin of One of W&L’s Most Valuable Books Washington and Lee University owns a first edition of one of the most important — and controversial — books ever written.

— by on April 7th, 2017

Today, we continue our ongoing series of feature articles about interesting and important items in the university’s Department of Special Collections and Collections of Art and History. To peruse previous articles, click here.

By Tom Camden
Head of Special Collections at W&L

“On the Origin of Species” (or more completely, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” or “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”), by Charles Darwin was published on November 2, 1859. The book was priced at 15 shillings with a first printing of 1,250 copies. After deducting presentation and review copies and the five copies required for Stationers’ Hall copyright (the British equivalent to our Library of Congress), there were only 1,170 copies for sale, and all available copies were sold immediately. During Darwin’s lifetime, the book went through six editions, with cumulative changes and revisions that dealt with counter-arguments raised.

Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” is widely regarded as one of the most important  and controversial  books ever written. Indeed, there is scarcely an area of human endeavor that has not been impacted by Darwin’s theory, the terms “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” now an integral part of the modern lexicon. Because of the importance of the book, a census of the surviving copies of the first edition was begun in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of the publication.

The census project was undertaken by the Huntington Library, in conjunction with Cambridge University and under the auspices of the website Darwin Online. A representative of the project contacted Washington and Lee University’s Special Collections in November 2013, informing me that Washington and Lee owned a “true” first-edition of Darwin’s landmark work, and requesting a full physical description with vital details about Washington and Lee’s copy.

Washington and Lee University’s copy of “On the Origin of Species,” while in excellent condition, nevertheless bears a stamp on the inside front board (across an ownership bookplate) which states “Withdrawn 18 July 1927” from the Ilkley Public Library. It was purchased either that year or in 1928 by a Washington and Lee biology professor and given to the University Library.

Ilkley is an ancient spa town in Yorkshire, England, and it is known that Charles Darwin was undergoing hydropathic treatment at Wells House spa in Ilkley while waiting for his book to come out in 1859. It was thought that he might have presented W&L’s copy to the public library there in person, but further research has proven that story unlikely. Darwin was given only one advance copy, and it is in Cambridge University Library with his annotations. All other presentation copies were sent directly to the recipients from the publisher.

Regardless of the disappointing provenance, Washington and Lee owns a very fine, “true” first edition of a landmark work. It is housed in the Special Collections vault. A similar copy, which had been rediscovered sitting on a bookcase in the guest bathroom of the vendor’s home in London, was sold at Christie’s Auction House in London on Nov. 24, 2009  150 years to the day after the seminal work of scientific literature was first published. That copy fetched $200,000. Of the 1,250 original copies published, fewer than 300 have been located, either in institutions or private hands.

Ancient Tablet is ‘Exquisite in its Simplicity’ In the first installment of this new series, Tom Camden offers the story of a Sumerian clay tablet that is the oldest recorded document in W&L’s Special Collections.

— by on January 27th, 2017

Editor’s Note:

Welcome to “Out of the Vault,” a brand new series in The Columns that will highlight the many fascinating objects in Special Collections at Leyburn Library. Through the ages, Washington and Lee University has been a trusted steward of important documents; today, it is home to many rare books, manuscripts and other intriguing finds.

Some of these items are on display for the campus community and visitors to see, while others are currently housed in the vault. In addition, the university frequently acquires new objects for Special Collections. In monthly installments written by Special Collections staff, “Out of the Vault” will tell the stories of some of these items, from the oldest objects to the most exciting new acquisitions. 

If this subject matter is of interest to you, you may enjoy our other new series, “From the Collections,” about items in the University Collections of Art and History. New installments in these series will appear monthly in The Columns.

At more than 4,000 years old, this Sumerian tablet is the oldest object in W&L’s Special Collections.

Quite plain, yet exquisite in its simplicity, the tiny clay object lies nestled in its recently crafted, elegant custom-made protective enclosure.

This Sumerian clay tablet is one of Washington and Lee University’s most intriguing treasures, and the oldest recorded document in the collection. It dates from 2030 BCE and resides in the vault in Leyburn Library’s Special Collections, where it has been housed since it was given to W&L in 1983 by Jean Knight of Buena Vista. Her husband, Benjamin P. Knight Jr., was a 1929 graduate of the university.

The little clay tablet, which measures 1 ½ inch by 1 3/4 inch, is from the southern Mesopotamian (Iraq) city of Ur (Ur of the Chaldees). Written in Sumerian, it is just over 4,000 years old. The form of writing is known as cuneiform (wedge-shaped), and was, at the time, the only type of writing that was known. Cuneiform was invented in the same area because of the prevalence of clay and reeds, which were used to make the tablet and stylus and form the characters.

The tablet itself is a commercial document and relates to the distribution of wheat to certain individuals. Because it references specific rulers of Ur, we are able to determine its date of origin. From the Sumerian King Lists, it is known who ruled Ur during this last century of the Third Millennium BCE, and two of the five kings of this Ur dynasty are actually mentioned in Washington and Lee’s tablet. The kings who had their capital at Ur, which is well known to biblical scholars as the home of Abraham, had a uniform method of keeping the record, as is evidenced by the tablet. Abraham himself would have been familiar with the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing in which all business and official correspondence was then conducted.

While Washington and Lee’s tablet records the distribution of wheat, many similar tablets recorded the tax on grain and other products, or provided instructions to priests or temple servants. Others were contracts, lists of sacrifices, or records of the payment of salaries from temple stipends. Still others were inventories of sheep and goats, and some were records of payments made to messengers who traveled from city to city.

Sumerian tablets are molded from clay that contains a great deal of marl or chalk and was relatively free from grit. After the cuneiform characters were marked in the damp clay by a scribe, the tablet was then sun-baked or kiln-dried. These tablets would have to be periodically re-fired, or baked even harder, in order to be preserved.

This lends another intriguing and powerful aspect to W&L’s tablet, which was recovered from ancient ruins. About 24 years after the tablet was created, the Sumerian government experienced a rapid collapse, possibly brought on by famine. In 2006 BCE, southern Mesopotamia was invaded by the Elamites from southern Iran, who attacked Ur, took the last king captive and burned the city of Ur to the ground. One side of W&L’s tablet shows the very distinctive scorch marks of that burning.

The Sumerians disappeared forever. However, the tiny clay tablet that remains is a poignant reminder that the fires of destruction that destroyed Ur likely ensured the preservation of Washington and Lee’s oldest document.

Click here to watch a video about this tablet.