Tag Archives: Mesopotamia

Idaho iPods: A Tom Trusky legacy

(Note: The following story by Tom Trusky has been preserved on this site. The original is no longer in place at the school site. As a result, a number of the original links for the January 2011 story no longer worked and needed to be updated. It’s still a good story and record and I’m reprinting it here verbatim. A photo gallery has been inserted, which was not in the original story. Tom Trusky coined the word ‘creativity’ and his work will continue to be available on the Internet through sources such as this one.)

Recently, I was thinking of an intriguing project Tom Trusky assigned to his students in 2007. He was my poetry teacher at Boise State University in the early 1980s. Then, from 1984-86, I had the good fortune to be co-editor of cold-drill, an amazing literary magazine Tom founded and for which he was faculty editor. He later founded a poster series, centers and archives for book arts, western writing and rare films. He discovered artists hitherto unknown or long forgotten, wrote and edited books and traveled extensively on speaking tours. Click here to go to a site that has a podcast of an interview with him, just scroll down the page and boot up the Tom Trusky podcast. It’s a wonderful interview. The kingpin of pranks and puckish humor, Tom amused us all with daily e-mails, snail-mail postcards and packages. He was also the king of kitsch and I remember eating Chunky Monkey ice cream and curly hotdogs with him when he visited us in Montana. Some time later, we all met in Seattle to watch Nell Shipman movies and listen to him lecture. A number of years ago, he and his partner, Enver, visited us here in Canada, as they made their way through British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan (if I remember correctly!). The last project I worked on with Tom was a book published in 2007 called Michael b., about a good friend of his who lived in British Columbia. But, now, let’s switch to one of his many adventures. In reprinting his words below and posting links to his photos, I honor my friend and mentor who passed away three Decembers ago.

Tom Trusky next to the sunflowers he grew in his backyard in Boise Idaho in 2008. Photo by Enver Sulejman

Tom Trusky next to the sunflowers he grew in his backyard in Boise, Idaho in 2008. Photo by Enver Sulejman

October 22, 2007


by Tom Trusky

Introduction to Book Arts students are usually assigned to create one pre-book structure such as a scroll; however, fall of 2007 I decided inflict a new plot on students, a plot I had been considering for 25 years: utilizing Idaho clay to make a tablet. I had been galvanized to concoct this assignment by news that the Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS) in Boise had Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets over 4,000 years old-among the oldest examples of writing in the Gem State.

I called this assigned tablet an “Idaho iPod” and defined it as “a real-time, full-text, random-access, read-only information storage and retrieval device.”

The project began with field trip to ISHS where students learned of the tablets’ provenance from Director Linda Morton-Keithley and were allowed to inspect the ancient tablets “gloved-hands-on!” Students visited two pits to obtain clay for their tablets. The first site was on US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property and is located between the small town of Grandview and C. J. Strike Reservoir in SW Idaho. BLM clay is white and very pure.

• BLM clayscape (photo by student Corrine Fuller)
• Instructor, retrieving BLM clay

The second site was located by Geo-Archeologist Jerry Jerrems and is found near Cartwright Road (CR) on soon-to-be developed private property in the northwest Boise foothills. (Both BLM and CR sites required permission from property owners, prior to removal of clay.) CR clay is dark grey and often contains sediments and artifacts.

• Jerry Jerrems, providing historical background about the site.
• Student digs in Cartwright Road pit.

Basic tablet construction advice was provided by Rick Jenkins of the Boise City Arts Center. Student lab fees purchased dowels and rolling pins used in the construction process which concluded with either air or sun-drying or kiln firing.

• iPod construction begins with hydrated, screened and 
kneaded clay, dowels, and rolling pin.

Clays from seven Idaho pits or sites had been obtained over the summer by the instructor and all were test fired by Jenkins-who also made city kilns available for student tablet firing. Results of test firings of Idaho clays, student (and instructor) iPods, and one deck of US Army “Heritage Resource Preservation” playing cards (which feature a cuneiform tablet on the back of each card-and tablets, seals, and other historical artifacts and structures in Iraq-ancient Mesopotamia-on the face side) were then placed on display at BSU.

• Display photos
• Deck of cards array
• ArtTalk: Lost in the Shuffle (163K PDF)
• Fact Sheet: Training for In-Theatre Cultural Resource Protection (50K PDF)

(Note: some of these photographs are no longer available. Instead of editing Tom’s article, I’ve just emboldened info for the ones for which photos are available. See gallery above.)

A selection of iPods by eight students (asterisked captions are followed by photographs taken by Carrie Quinney of BSU Photographic Services):

PAIGE WEBER: A “traditional” tablet made from Cartwright Road (Boise) clay. Tablet emulates the cuneiform markings of a Babylonian tablet. (2 ¾ x 4 ½”)*

 Paige’s tablet

FRANCES SUTTON: Round “tokens” have been created out of three Snake River Valley, Cartwright Road, and BLM clays. (Each approx.1 ¼ x 1 ½”)* Frances’s tablets

ISAAC GUNTHER: Tablet made from BLM clay simulates a real iPod. (3 ¾ x 2 ¼”)*

 Isaac’s tablet

JESSIE BEARD: A punning “eye” pod tablet (from BLM clay). (1 ½ x 2 ¼”)

 Jessie’s tablet

TABBY JOLLEY: Jolley’s punning, painted and decorated tablet is an Idaho spud-a plural iPod (eyes of the potato-get it?). (3 x 6″)

 Tabby’s tablet

AMBER TRENT: A Winco supermarket receipt tablet. Trent is emulating hundreds of thousands of Babylonian tablets which are receipts, receipts for sheep, honey, land sales, etc. She has used Cartwright Road clay. (2 ¾ x 2 ¼”)*

 Amber’s tablet

HOLLY GERE: Air or sun-dried tablets are far more fragile than fired tablets. Breakage has rendered Gere’s message (on BLM clay) ominous and/or ironic…. (4 ¼ x 7 ½”)

 Holly’s tablet

RANDY PURVIANCE: BLM and commercial clay have been mixed-much as the elements in Purviance’s cutting-edge tablet. It’s a “green” tablet (wind powered-note propeller?) that turns a spool on which have been affixed a 19th century ( Eadweard Muybridge) sequence of photos:

Photo 1

Photo 2

which may then be viewed on (through?) a 21st century screen (square hole?) in the clay:

Photo 3

Credits: Many individuals assisted in the Idaho iPod project. Many thanks (in alpha order) to: Gary Bettis, Scott Brown, Cort Conley, Virginia Gillerman, Felicia Burke Halter, Mark Hofflund, Sharon Hubler, Clinton Hughes, Rick Jenkins, Jerry Jerrems, Rick Just, Linda Morton-Keithley, Coyote Short, Paul Swiergosz, Mike Wardle.


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Book Arts: Writing on Stone(ware)

Monument for the Neolithic Tartaria tables, Tartaria, Romania

Monument for the Neolithic Tărtăria tablets, dated to 5500-5300 BC and discovered in 1961 at Tărtăria, Alba County, Romania by the archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa. The clay tables are associated with the Turdaş-Vinča culture and the Vinča symbols on them predate the proto-Sumerian pictographic script. The monument has been created near the discovery location. By Țetcu Mircea Rareș via Wikimedia Commons

We know the act of writing on clay tablets is an ancient practice. To date, the oldest that have been found are the unearthed at neolithic sites in modern-day Romania and Hungary. The three Tărtăria Tablets have been radio-carbon dated to 5500 BC and are thought to be evidence of proto-writing. For me, today’s post, is exciting to work on…for several reasons. Having been involved with Book Arts since the mid-1980s, it is high time I combined this art form with my favorite medium, clay. (If writing on clay interests you, check out Tom Trusky’s Idaho iPods, about a project based upon Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets.) For today’s post, though, I’d like to first unveil Forrest Snyder’s Ceramic Books, a beautifully designed and enticing site. He creates loose-leaf books which are presented as stacks, hangings, and objects. Pages overlap or drape over shelving and chunky cubes are stacked. Snyder’s pages are adorned with letters, words and images, and the ‘ink’ is a warm brown, which works well with the cream-colored clay. The pages may be stamped or printed; I’m not quite sure how it is done. Print appears on different portions of the page. “My books contain poetry, prose, and related images spanning many pages,” he states on his website. “I try to enhance my thoughts by the choice of materials and methods, the firing resulting in permanent artifacts, and the conditions of their existence – pages change over time,” he continues. These images of his ceramic books are breathtaking and it is such a pleasure to view his slide show. Another approach is shown on Chris Skinner’s Lestaret’s Blog. Here, you’ll find slipcast and slab-built book covers with very fine finish work. Skinner makes rubber moulds of old, embossed books, then replicates them in clay, highlighting textures, print, and designs with stains. The work must be painstaking and the results are

Plantin letterpress

Plantin letterpress type. By France3470 via Wikimedia Commons

perfection. Actually, I have a project I hope to begin working on in the near future: a porcelain book. The idea has been in the back of my mind for about a year and I’ve thought of it while I’ve made other things. I want to roll out thin sheets of porcelain, cut to size (maybe), tear a ‘deckle edge’ (definitely), dry very, very slowly (weighted), write with an underglaze pen, fire, then bind. The idea of writing on clay tablets thrills. The Book Arts field covers much terrain and there are many ideas to explore and projects to create using different clays and techniques. When I gave a workshop on bookbinding several years ago, I made a tiny book and I think I will also want to experiment with tiny clay books. If you would like to begin such projects using clay, too, you have many means available for writing on your ceramic pages. Underglaze pencils, pens, crayons and trailers are among the tools you could use. If you subscribe to Ceramics Daily, read this article by Robin Hopper to learn how to make your own. If you want to write or do detail work with gold, Kemper Tools sells a Gold Pen. The possibilities are endless and timeless.

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Harold Innis and cuneiform on the clay tablet

British Museum, Assyrian Collections, cuneiform. By Matt Neale from UK via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite Communications theorists is Harold Innis, who was a Canadian professor at the University of Toronto. Communications, as a field of study, was still in its infancy in Innis’ day, but he propelled it into the sphere of legitimacy. By the time Canadian Marshall MacLuhan coined the term, “the medium is the message,” Communications was fully accepted as a social science. Wikipedia does do a pretty good job of summing up one of Innis’ legacies: “One of Innis’s primary contributions to communications studies was to apply the dimensions of time and space to various media. He divided media into time-binding and space-binding types. Time-binding media are durable. They include clay or stone tablets. Space-binding media are more ephemeral. They include modern media such as radio, television, and mass circulation newspapers.” Specifically, in Empire and Communications, Innis wrote:

The concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization. Media that emphasize time are those durable in character such as parchment, clay and stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development of architecture and sculpture. Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character such as papyrus and paper. The latter are suited to wide areas in administration and trade. The conquest of Egypt by Rome gave access to supplies of papyrus, which became the basis of a large administrative empire. Materials that emphasize time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions, while those that emphasize space favour centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character.

Clay cone Sippar Louvre AO3277

Inscripted clay cone commemorating the construction of the walls of Sippar by King Hammurabi. Terracotta, first half of the 18th century BC. Louvre Museum, Department of Oriental Antiquities. By Jastrow via Wikimedia Commonss

History World explains it thusly:

Inscribed in clay: from 3100 BC

In the river plains of Mesopotamia, where writing first develops, clay is an easily available commodity. It becomes the writing material of the temple scribes. Their implement is a piece of reed cut to form a rectangular end. These two ingredients define the first script. Characters are formed from the wedge-shaped marks which a corner of the reed makes when pressed into the damp clay – a style of writing known as cuneiform.

Clay tablets, dried hard in the sun, make an almost indestructible temple archive. But they are not very convenient for sending messages.

Cuneiforme sites

Location map of the archaeological sites which provided the majority of known cuneiform tablets (especially those in capitals), and some of the peripheral sites where cuneiform texts have been found in order to show the extension of the use of the cuneiform script. By Sémhur via Wikimedia Commons


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Thank you for visiting Jane Street Clayworks!

Viewership pattern from 11/15 to 12/15, with the most in the United States and Canada and England

When I finally got Google Analytics up and running, I was astounded! I had had no idea that people the world over had seen Jane Street Clayworks. Of course, I know social media has no boundaries, but learning that someone from Tunisia had read my blog was very touching. After I got over the initial excitement, I investigated further using this amazing tool. Then began to feel very grateful. Thank you very much for visiting Jane Street Clayworks, each and every one of you. Your visit is appreciated and I happy you arrived on my doorstep. You are so welcome.

Over time, I have been keenly interested in which articles people have looked at the most and, hands down, the most-read article is “The History of Bricks: Mesopotamia.” In addition, the most viewed photograph also accompanies that article and it is of the famed Ziggurat of Ur. Pauline brought up the idea that teachers might have assigned the article to students. I did put my heart and soul into that series and still believe the humble brick holds the key to civilization, historically.

Search engines sent readers here and it is my sincere wish that you have found what you are looking for with your research or surfing. Using Google Analytics graphics, I want to take the time to show you more about the company you keep here, as I think you’ll find it’s as interesting as I do. When I look at the map above, I see the obvious: most of you are from the United States. I wondered about that, as someone who is writing from Canada, but the U.S. population is gargantuan compared to that of Canada and it makes sense that the readership therefore appears disproportionate. And there are probably more people on the Internet in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Regarding my country, as I peel back the geographic layers, I see that most of my Canadian readership is from the province in which I live, British Columbia.

Viewership patterns in Canada, with the most readers in British Columbia and Ontario

As it turns out, the U.S. state with the most readers is California, followed by New York. This also means that, all told, most of you are from the West Coast of North America. There could be umpteen reasons why there are so many readers from California, but I do emphasize the Arts and Crafts style and there are bungalows aplenty in The Golden State, along with a healthy appreciation of this historical movement (and its connection to ceramics and pottery). There is a fair spread of readers up and down the state, as you can

Where the majority of this blog's viewers reside, coastal CA

see. Trending toward the coast, save a few spots that are more central. Then we have New York, with a wider geographic spread, but mostly centred in New York City. Much the same with Florida…viewers from all over the state, with the most from the Miami area. Just thinking of Florida makes me pine for the sight of a traditional Florida cottage with its lovely screened sleeping porch, speaking of architectural styles… But while the majority of readers are from California, you are appreciated no matter which country you hail from or which region of said country. I have enjoyed seeing where you are from, especially and I hope you don’t mind my sharing a few locations: Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug, Jakarta, Casablanca, Al Qahirah (or what I know as Cairo), Algeria (this must include my friends there), readers throughout the entire Middle East, Europe, Scandinavia, and, in China, most are from Chongqing.

Yet, whether you are from Southeast Asia, South Asia, Down Under, or anywhere else on the globe, I thank you for coming to Jane Street Clayworks. You are what makes this blog tick and what sustains my interest. Your visit is so appreciated. As an Adult Third Culture Kid, people and places are in my blood…no geographic location seems too far away…. Plus, we all share in the appreciation of ceramics and pottery, it’s history and modern practice.

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