Yale alumnus donates ‘treasure chest’ of rare ancient objects to Yale

When Kenneth Ott ’66 returned to Yale last May for his 50th reunion, one of his first stops was at the Yale Babylonian Collection in Sterling Memorial Library.

When Dr. Kenneth Ott ’66 returned to Yale last May for his 50th reunion, one of his first stops was at the Yale Babylonian Collection in Sterling Memorial Library.

There, he met with associate curator Agnete Wisti Lassen to discuss donating his father’s collection of Mesopotamian artifacts. Lawrence Ott ’37 first became interested in collecting Near Eastern objects after taking classes in 1934 with Ferris Stephens, who was the curator of the Babylonian Collection at the time. Over the years, the elder Ott amassed a large array of Babylonian clay tablets, cylinder seals, stamp seals, and scarabs.

“It was my father’s desire to donate his collection to Yale,” says Ott. “Professor Stephens introduced my father to the history and culture of the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, and it was because of him that my father became very interested in near eastern antiquities.”

“Stephens took Lawrence Ott with him on buying trips to dealers, and initiated him into the mysteries of how to choose excellent tablets and seals from the many then available, for a reasonable price,” says Benjamin Foster, the William M. Laffan Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection.

“Lawrence Ott developed a good connoisseur’s eye and was intellectually and aesthetically interested by what he purchased,” added Foster. “He was a good friend of the Yale Babylonian Collection. We are therefore especially pleased that, owing to his son’s generosity, his tablets and seals have, so to speak, come home again.”

The Yale Babylonian Collection received the donation from Ott in October in commemoration of his 50th reunion, and it was “like opening a treasure chest,” says Lassen.

Lawrence Ott’s collection is already supporting the teaching mission of the Yale Babylonian Collection. Items in the collection are being used to teach Yale students about the history of both education and writing from the old Babylonian period. “These items gives us great insight in the culture of that time,” says Lassen.

“The use of the Lawrence Ott collection objects added an incredible dimension to the class. Every day I knew I would be interacting with pieces of ancient history thousands of years old,” says Emma Hastings ’17. “I touched some of the first pieces of writing, rolled out cylinder seals that humans carried with them 5,000 years ago, examined the clumsy writing of a student who wrote his first tablet 4,000 years ago, and saw letters full of liveliness and personality from people who long ago perished. For every subject we covered — be it accounting, religion, science, or literature — there was always an object to help enhance our understanding of the past.” 

“I’m also excited that we are getting this substantial collection of scarabs [one type of ancient Egyptian amulet] because it is something that is underrepresented here in the Yale Babylonian Collection,” says Lassen. “One of the most important items in the new acquisition is a very rare amulet made of serpentine which we are so excited to add to our collection here.”

The items from the collection of Lawrence Ott will be on display in an exhibition of new acquisitions planned for 2017.

Yale Babylonian Collection

The Yale Babylonian Collection, founded in 1909 by a gift from J. Pierpont Morgan, is one of the world’s most significant collections of ancient Near Eastern artifacts. Its holdings include over 40,000 cuneiform documents, seals, figurines, and other objects. Among its treasures are a tablet of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and the world’s earliest literary work by a named author.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,