Episode 45. Victor Klinkenberg: An archaeological approach to tablets: transcript

0:13  JJT

Hello. And welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:31  JJT

We often talk about collaboration between cuneiform specialists and archaeological specialists in terms of combining the evidence offered by each field. Texts might give us names or dates, for example, while archaeological context will guide us in applying that information: what phase of the building do those tablets come from? 

0:54  JJT

More recently, attention has been paid to the tablets that carry the texts as objects in their own right. We might analyse the clays or their inclusions. An aspect that still receives far less attention is what the situation and context in which tablets are found tell us about those tablets themselves. How were people using them? Do we see moments frozen in time, like countless mini-Pompeiis?

1:25  JJT

Our guest is an experienced archaeologist, who has worked in great detail on finds of tablets from several sites in western Asia. He explains how archaeological methodologies can help us understand the textual sources.

1:53  JJT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

1:57  VK

Thank you very much. Very happy to be here.

2:00  JJT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

2:05  VK

My name is Victor Klinkenberg. And I’m originally from the Netherlands. And I am a prehistoric archaeologist. In my research, I investigate objects and other material remains: why they are in the location that we find them in the archaeological record. And with that information, I try to understand more about the social life of people in the past. So I have a critical perspective on the material remains. And with that I try to understand humans. And I currently work in Cyprus at the University of Cyprus in Nicosia, where I’m finishing a two year research fellowship working on my archaeological site near Paphos called Palloures. It’s chalcolithic. And there I do also this particular type of research where I investigate depositional patterns to understand how people behaved in the past.

3:00  JJT

Now, we’re going to talk about tablets, aren’t we? So, lumps of clay with cuneiform writing on. And that was their primary purpose—to carry text. You’re approaching it not from the perspective of someone interested in the text, but from the perspective of an archaeologist. Could you introduce us to your archaeological approach to tablets please?

3:22  VK

Yeah, absolutely. As I was introduced to the topic in detail during my PhD, where I was working on the depositional patterns and activity pattern at a site in northern Syria, Tell Sabi Abyad. And I was fascinated with the sheer number of cuneiform tablets, and how much they were telling us about life at this site. So as a prehistoric archaeologist, I always felt like we were cheating by using all these texts. And then as I was approaching all the objects in the sites as an artifact and trying to understand why they were located where they were, I noticed that for the cuneiform tablets, they were usually treated quite differently. So both the archaeologists and the assyriologists at the site, they would kind of ignore a little bit this aspect of these artifacts … of these objects.

4:12  VK

So how I see them is firstly as just an artifact that is part of a soil matrix inside a particular stratigraphic location in the site. This is how I work with them. And I look at them trying to understand if they are broken: are they fragmented or are they complete? In what kind of position are they located? Are they all grouped together? Or are they spread around? In what kind of soil matrix are they found, etc, etc. And it wasn’t with any evil intent that I analysed this. But it was quite surprising what we found when we started to critically look at these contexts. And many of the contexts that were considered to be kind of unproblematic and in situ … yeah, imagine a context where an archive was present with hundreds of cuneiform tablets, and oh my god, war has broken out. A cupboard falls on the floor, everyone runs away, the palace is torched. And this is how we find it. Sort of a Pompeii situation. It’s a fun story, and it helps you kind of contextualise why we find tablets. But, ja, in archaeology, of course, it’s not very common. This is why we really went into it and tried to understand really, how are these objects deposited?

5:28  JJT

In your analysis, you talk about archives, as we often do in this field. But this is quite a complicated term in cuneiform studies. What do you mean by archive when you use that word?

5:43  VK

The term archive is, in my view, almost a problematic term. When I was working on the material at Tell Sabi Abyad, I was working very closely with Frans Wiggermann, who was the assyriologist of the excavation. He presented himself to me as a hardcore assyriologist, who would tell us archaeologists–the opposite camp for dispute in his, and then, my eyes–that he would tell us how things were, and how this worked, and what an archive was, etc. So if I may emphasize this division between his perspective and mine, his perspective would be that in the past, people stored their cuneiform tablets in a certain location, which was secured and easily accessible, to make sure that they would have all their administrative texts, letters, etc, together in one place that they could easily retrieve and work with. And that what we find in the archaeological record is exactly that: someone’s cupboard. Someone’s chest full of material. Or whatever practical physical context it was, but essentially a functioning archive of texts of one person or one institution from the past.

7:00  VK

And this has been disputed, also very much in assyriological literature. So I don’t want to claim that this is a dispute between all assyriologists and archaeologists. So what a group of texts we find in the soil at an excavation, what that really means has been questioned. It is often still called an archive. Because very often we find tablets together in a large group or smaller groups that seem to be meaningfully connected. So very often, we will find a group of artifacts or a group of texts, and they were all written by the same person or addressed to the same person. Or they are involved in, for instance, one particular institution in a short period of time, such as a palace or some other smaller administrative unit. It makes sense to consider context like that in a group of meaningfully constituted texts as an archive.

7:54  VK

This word has stuck in the literature. And it’s kind of used for all these different text groups. But when using this term, most people, I would say, they don’t literally mean that that is an in situ archive–the bookcase of king so and so. But instead, it’s an easy way to talk about a certain group of texts. So instead of talking about an administrative unit in the documentation of an archaeological site, so for instance, find number 365.2, we will talk about the archive of Tammitte, or the palace archives. And this helps in general discussions with colleagues, when you want to discuss certain texts or provenances of certain texts. At the moment, the word “archive” can mean both a strong interpretation–this was an archive, and it is in situ, and it is the original archive of a certain person or institution. But in another sense, many people use the term simply to denote a cluster of texts that were found in one place, and usually also are meaningfully connected through their content.

9:05  JJT

So are tablets found in archives then? How do we find these objects?

9:11  VK

This is like a core aspect of archeological research. And the further away in prehistory you go the further back in time, the more important it is for archaeologists to determine exactly how, when, and why something ended up in a place where they are found. This is a very important branch of archeological research in general. And when we are investigating behaviour in the past, we use these material remains. And so we must understand how old they are, why they are left where they are, how representative they are for the behaviours in the past, and what it says, for instance, about preservation. For cuneiform tablets, this has very often not been really critically assessed, and also not documented in great detail. So for many of the great sites which were excavated like 100 years ago, they don’t really provide us with the documentation that is necessary to investigate these depositional processes.

10:11  VK

I’ve looked at a couple of sites in northern Syria that were close to Tell Sabi Abyad, that I was working on for my PhD. And in all these sites, I was seeing a recurring pattern. And this pattern is that the tablets which we find are often mixed in with soil, the tablets are often broken, and they are located in construction layers. So they are found in a layer which we otherwise, if they were not texts, but other types of objects–pottery or stone artifacts, we would immediately classify this as secondary refuse. Secondary refuse means that it is material that was discarded, but not just on the place of use, but taken away and discarded elsewhere, away from the place of use. So really, to get rid of this material.

11:01  JJT

Could you tell us more about that, please? On a very basic level, archaeologically, how would you tell the difference between something that is in situ, and something that is rubbish?

11:13  VK

Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, yeah. On the face, many of these contexts seem rather unproblematic. That’s the important thing. That’s like a set of rules or at least specific ways to interpret these. What are the specific arguments for why this is a particular context? Why is it discard? Why is it in situ? Etcetera. The term in situ is very problematic. So if we want to compare a regular archaeological deposit with something that is exactly in situ, we talked about Pompeii. So the Roman town that was covered by the volcanic ashes. And that appears to be like pristine condition, a moment frozen in time. But even there, there are so many processes involved in what is preserved and what is not, that’s the term in situ implies that it is perfect, and that you can see straight away, that it is an absolute reflection of the past. Unproblematic.

12:10  VK

But it never really is. When we’re looking at archaeological deposits, they’re always put in the ground in some way, either deliberately or undeliberately, and afterwards are also affected by all sorts of processes such as looting, digging, construction of new buildings on top of older remains; of course, simple natural decay of a lot of material. So when we are looking at archaeological deposits, there are a couple of characteristics that can help us determine how they were placed in the ground and what happened with them afterwards. Now, especially in the Near East, in tells, wherever you can find these cuneiform tablets, we are dealing with great contexts in which we can still see where the walls of buildings were standing, they’re often standing for a meter or more. And inside, we can characterise the soil by looking at its structure, colour, homogeneity, there’s any layering, the type of soil that is present. That helps us determine how it was deposited: through natural or human-induced processes.

13:16  VK

Then there are artifact concentrations. If we find, for instance, on the floor of a building a lot of artifacts, we can look at their composition. So the total context: are they all fragmented and broken? Or are they complete? And are they very valuable? Do we assume that they were valuable? Are they placed or located on a location that is meaningful, and that seems to reflect their actual use in ancient times? If we would find, for instance, a lot of pottery inside a toilet, it means that there’s a functional difference between the two. So the context doesn’t really mesh with the artifacts. And it means that these pottery fragments, or these pots, are probably not used inside this toilet, or bathroom or whatever.

14:03  VK

On the other hand, if we find some bread moulds, for instance, that were used to bake bread, in an area where we have ovens, and also grinding stones, we can say, hey, there’s some functional similarity here. It looks like a bakery, or a place where bread was made or food processed. And we have these artifacts, which are relating to the same processes. So there’s this functional relationship. So completeness of the artifacts; their relative value–were they likely to be left behind? Or is there a possibility that they were left behind in a great hurry, such as during a catastrophe or during war? Is there a functional relationship between the objects and the space they are found in? And an important one–is there a sort of structuring in the artifacts that we find in one space? So are all artifacts really part of a homogeneous set? Can we say that they were all probably used there in one space? Or is it possible that some items are relating to the use of this space, and other items may be dumped there as refuse. These are all sorts of aspects that you can look at to determine whether or not the items reflect the activities and behaviour in that space in the past.

15:18  JJT

So we do sometimes find contexts that you said were rare, where tablets are almost frozen in time. But then we have others where the texts belong together somehow—they form a coherent group—but they weren’t found quite how they were originally left. Perhaps we could explore that second type in a bit more detail. You mentioned that you had worked at Tell Sabi Abyad. Could you give us an example from that site of how you interpreted the tablets that were found, and how that differs from the way they had been interpreted before?

15:53  VK

Tell Sabi Abyad is a small fortified settlement in the north of Syria, very close to modern Raqqa. And this was excavated by Peter Akkermans from Leiden University. I think they worked there for about 30 years until the war broke out–exactly the year I was supposed to go there. So I have never seen the place for real, but I’ve seen it digitally. So cuneiform tablets were found throughout this settlement. And some clusters. I mean, there are some areas where only one single fragment of a tablet was found. In the largest deposit, there’s about 150 tablets and fragments of tablets in one deposit. And this was known as “the archive of Tammitte”. And Tammitte was an important figure in the settlement when it was in use. Because he was kind of the manager of this whole settlement. It was an agricultural settlement. Lots of administrative things were going on. And he was in contact all the time with the central administration in Ashur.

16:52  VK

And so in a small area, which we can interpret probably as a small apartment, consisting of three small rooms that were connected to each other, and a bathroom with a toilet. They were preserved wonderfully. We found all these tablets across all these rooms. So they were spread out over an area of, I would say, 20 square metres. And the interpretation that was given by Frans Wiggermann … I must say I’m painting a bad picture of him. But we had good times discussing these things … he said these tablets, they were dropped here, because they were carried out during a start of the war. And someone dropped a chest full of tablets, and they fell on the floor, and they left them. And this is how we found them.

17:35  VK

This kind of makes sense. I mean, the whole process of the chest and the start of war is maybe not immediately clear. But all the tablets in this context, they relate to each other. So they’re all part of the administration of Tammitte. Or they are letters, for instance, are written to him, contracts signed by him. And they’re also located in an apartment, which is likely to have been his apartment, where he stored this material. So what I did for my research in general at the site was create a 3D model of all the architecture, and all the deposits, and all the finds that we have. So every find had an X, Y, and Z coordinate. And I plotted these in a 3D GIS computer system in which you can have a 3D model of all these things. So the architecture, all the layers, as well as all the finds, And with a database connection to all these individual items. So I could select every tablet and show them in 3D how they were located in this fortress.

18:38  VK

The first conclusion that I came up with … well, the first interpretation, I said, Okay, this is this is actually secondary refuse. So this material is not in situ, it is not an archive, like a bookcase that fell over and is buried by soil or collapsed building. But it is material that is discarded away from the place of use. But in many cases, the groups of tablets are very clustered. And I noticed that inside the archive of Tammitte or in the apartment of Tammitte, the layer of tablet fragments was about 40 centimetres in thickness, nearly half a meter. And they’re relatively small items. Most of them are about 10 by 10 centimeters and maybe five centimetres thick. So why they will be located in layer of a total 40 centimetres is a bit strange. If they actually fell on the floor, we’d expect them all to lie perfectly flat on the floor, and that’s it.

19:34  VK

So it turns out that a lot of tablets fragments from that apartment, from that deposit, they were already fragmented before we found them. And we could refit some of these fragments together into the original tablet that it once was. When I looked at these refits and I drew lines between, you know, one fragment to the other, where they refitted to each other, it turned out that these fragments are sometimes meters away from each other. So they were already fragmented and probably mixed in with this soil before they were dumped in this apartment.

20:07  VK

So let’s say in a normal context at a site, when I would find a layer of secondary refuse–and this is the most common type of archaeological deposit–we would find broken pottery, bones, burnt material, lots of heterogeneous soil, stone items, all sorts of things. And very heterogeneous. These are deposits that are filled with all sorts of material, and they don’t seem to really pattern anything. The deposits in which we find tablets are relatively homogeneous. So we do find pieces of bone, some pottery, and some other little things in there. But there is a density of these tablets. These tablets are quite conspicuous. So while we don’t find tablets in most deposits, when we do find tablets, we find them clustered. So a whole bunch together. The deposit that they were in contains charcoal, lots of small, burnt bone fragments, or pottery fragments amongst them. It was, let’s say, a very dirty deposit. It wasn’t a clean layer. It was really garbage. And so we can only interpret the tablets themselves as part of this garbage and part of this sort of deliberate dumping of material. Now, although there were lots of little things in this layer, it was very homogeneous throughout. So completely, it was filled with charcoal, and these cuneiform tablets, and little bits of other general refuse. And it was after it was dumped, there was a floor constructed directly on top. And what this tells me is that what we have here is the secondary discard–something that was first discarded elsewhere.

21:52  VK

Imagine this: someone is working on an archive or cleaning it out or doing administrative duties. And at some point, they noticed that some letter is no longer useful and doesn’t need to be kept. Or maybe a contract that has been settled has been broken, wants to be completely destroyed. And is chucked in the corner of the room where in which these administrative things are being done. And at some point, there is so much of this rubbish that is piled together, or perhaps stores in a little container temporarily, that they want to get rid of it completely. And it is this material, which was first temporarily stored in, let’s say in a little rubbish bin, is then discarded together in some construction layer, or in some garbage heap where it is covered with other material. So on the one hand, we see that cuneiform tablet contexts are also secondary refuse contexts, often, not always, but often. But on the other hand, they are quite unique in that they have this material. And there are the deliberate discards probably by this person who was managing their archive or the texts.

23:03  VK

So it looks to us, if we compare it to other similar proposals at the site, that this material was dumped here in a construction layer. So really a sort of a base for the next floor, which was a relatively common thing to do. It looks like these items were deliberately dumped in a place, that means that they are out of the way and you can’t reach them anymore. So they’re also secure. It also means that no one else can find these tablets, your old administration, to use it against you, if that is possible in some way. So this is how I worked with it. I tried to look at their 3D location, their state–they were all fragmented, they were covered in dirt. And the stratigraphic context in which we find them. And the conclusion is indeed secondary refuse that was deliberately dumped together.

23:55  JJT

You’ve also worked at Tell Fekheriye. What did you learn from that site?

24:00  VK

Yeah, so after looking at the material from Tell Sabi Abyad, I wanted to get an idea if this was a one-off, or this was a recurring pattern at other similar sites that were nearby. So I looked at the documentation, or at least the publications from Tell Fekheriye. And in Tell Fekheriye, there were about 51 cuneiform texts found, and they were found underneath the floor of this Middle Assyrian house, number one. And according to the excavator, they were discarded in this area as the terrain was filled with compact soil and also broken and smashed up mud bricks, and potsherds and other material. And he claims that this is indeed also to build a solid foundation for the floor of the subsequent architecture. So again, also in this case, we’re really looking at a context in which broken tablets are mixed in with soil and other general household refuse. And they were dumped inside the construction layer. Just [like] at Sabi Abyad.

25:00  JJT

Interesting. There is the situation when tablets are found, that we tend to interpret those contexts through the textual component rather than the material component, that is, tablets being lumps of clay. This is perhaps because tablets were primarily text carriers, and maybe also related to the disciplinary split between text specialists and archaeologists.

25:23  VK

No, absolutely. There’s one context at Tell Sabi Abyad where we found a tablet fragment on the bottom of a cesspit, very close to the office of Tammitte. And it turned out that this fragment actually refits to one of the fragments that were found inside the office. So clearly, someone needed to go to the bathroom really quickly, and couldn’t find anything else except for something in his office bin that he could use as toilet paper. And yeah, if you’re thinking about how these tablets were used in the past, the writing and administration and everything is only a part. It’s an important part, but it’s only a part of it. And they could have had all sorts of different meanings and values to people, even then. {LAUGHS}

26:11  VK

And there’s another context at Giricano, which I found very interesting, because often, when we find a cluster of texts, it is directly assumed that it’s probably meaningfully constituted. And these are some kind of little archive or a major archive. And it makes sense that we think this. So at Giricano, there was a jar found. And inside this jar are 15 Middle Assyrian texts. So they clearly were placed there together by someone in the past. And the interpretation seems rather clear cut that this is a small archive. But it turns out that these were maybe records of outstanding transactions that were not completed yet. And again, it makes sense. They were part of an archive of Ahuni. This is a person who is a party in every transaction in the texts that were found in there. So this was interpreted as the archive of Ahuni. And yeah, it seems unproblematic. But again, if we look at the material qualities of these items, we see something different. The jar was found in a very strange, poorly defined context. It seems to be buried or thrown away. It’s not really located in a perfect in situ place inside the building. The jar itself was partly broken. The texts themselves were broken, despite the extremely careful excavation of these texts, obviously. So there’s something different going on. This is not a perfect in situ archive that was just left behind. These were already fragmented and broken before they were deposited.

27:46  JJT

These finds of tablets in jars are rather intriguing. Quite a number of finds have been made of tablets in jars. We think that was one of the main methods of storing tablets, right? Although from a modern perspective it seems much less practical than using shelves or baskets. So do you think that these jars, or some of them, at least, are better understood as office bins?

28:11  VK

Yeah, it’s difficult to say. There’s also always multiple characteristics that you have to keep in mind, that you have to look at to determine what the functional relationship and the motivation behind placing these objects inside the jar etc? Was it to store them? Was it to transport them? Was it to discard them? And I don’t think you can just have some sort of umbrella interpretation for each particular physical context. I mean, I don’t think it was as structured necessarily, as we would like. Administrators could use anything at their disposal for storage, or transport, or discard, or you name it. So that means that I don’t have a clear cut answer for you. I don’t think we can really say that they are most likely all discard. But at the same time, you can indeed also not claim that these must be perfect meaningful archives or folders or files, or whatever. Look at the fragmentation. Are there other materials also inside? What is the archaeological, stratigraphic context of the jar itself, etc.?

29:13  VK

So, to kind wrap these contexts up, we started to think that there are a couple of important things that we’ve seen. So first of all, it looks like many tablets that we find can be characterised as secondary refuse. So they are discarded away from a place of use. And they were often fragmented and even burnt before they were deposited. So this tells us that probably these tablets were discarded somewhere temporarily, before they were finally deposited in the place where we find them. And this is what we call the office bin hypothesis: that people during administrative activities would have either a corner of a room or maybe a container that they would dump items that they want to discard later. And these could be sensitive documents.

30:05  VK

So it’s important that they were not just discarded outside in the courtyard of the palace. They were kept together as what we call provisional discards. And afterwards were dumped together in either a soil layer, or perhaps even just in the water, where they would dissolve. And why some of these were found inside soil layers? This is probably to do with the specific contexts that we find them in. Because we find them in construction layers very often. So it is likely that if Ahuni or Tammitte, or anyone else who is sitting on a mound of administrative documents that they want to get rid of, and they notice that someone next door is building a new floor, they say, Hey, wait, let me just dump this material in there and then construct your floor over them, rather than walking all the way to the river to dump them in the water or something.

30:56  VK

This explains a couple of things. This explains the fact that they seem like secondary refuse. It explains why they always seem to be a coherent set of texts from one particular archive or one particular person. And why we find these sort of compact clusters of this material. And what we also of course, have to ask ourselves is, how do the contexts that we find the few times that people decided to dump tablets inside the settlement, rather than recycle the clay or dump them in the water or something else to destroy them? And how does this reflect the original archives in the past? And all the other behaviours that are associated with that? So it is relatively random in the sense that we find only a part of the administration of the past that happened to have followed this process. It tells us to kind of be cautious of how representative we think these are. Try to imagine reconstructing society from looking at office bins in a couple of buildings in any city that you have now. This is, I think, how we should interpret these texts. And we see at Giricano this jar, we hope to be able to interpret it maybe as one of these provisional discard contexts. So this was actually maybe one of the office bins of the past.

32:13  JJT

As you mentioned at the start, the majority of tablets have been found in older excavations where detailed archaeological information was not collected. Is there anything we can do retrospectively to look at finds of tablets on these older excavations and apply your approach to them?

32:31  VK

Yeah, this is certainly a problem. We have about a half a million tablets in museum collections around the world right now. And a large number of these probably we cannot reconstruct their contexts. Many tablets in the past were even fired by the excavators to preserve them. So we can’t even determine if they have differential burning in the past or other physical properties that we might want to investigate. But from the half million tablets, I think there should be enough to investigate substantially how these processes really worked at different sites. Because I’ve looked at only a handful of excavations in the north of Syria and a relatively random selection, if I’m honest. And there are contexts which we definitely can consider to be in situ. There are libraries where we can see complete tablets, 1000s of them, neatly arranged in stacks or in rows. There is a variety in the type of contexts that we can find these tablets in.

33:32  VK

Rather than considering it difficult, I think what I would call for is to make an inventory of what is possible. Which sites can we actually determine, to some degree, the depositional history of these tablets? I mean, we don’t have to create a fancy 3D model of every site. If we can determine the stratigraphic context of tablets, then already, we can do a lot. So I would say rather than being hung up on all the things that we cannot do is really look at, okay, which sites do we have this information for? And let’s get on it. {LAUGHS} There’s so little work that has been done on this specifically, there is so much to gain by simply getting started, and working on the material where we can do this. It’s really exciting. There’s world to win.

34:20  JJT

I really like the human perspective your approach brings. We’re often guilty of treating scribes almost like robots, and rarely as individuals.

34:29  VK

Yeah, definitely. Because I was working on this, I was also working on the depositional patterns and how they are socially meaningful. The first step that I’m proposing now is simply depositional analysis is something that in archaeology was a hot topic in 1960s. After you’ve determined if you have the proper archaeological context, you can start thinking about all the sort of social behaviour that is part of these practices, and what tablets meant for people in the past, how they were considered, how they were valued. It’s only the first step. So it fascinates me.

35:03  JJT

I’d love to see that myself actually. Is there somewhere we can read more about your work? Or could you tell us about your future plans for this kind of work?

35:12  VK

My current research, I have kind of two projects at the same time.My main excavation project is aluminous in Cyprus, and I invite everyone to have a look what we’re doing there, because it’s equally exciting, even though it’s a completely different context, please visit palloures.eu, so “p a double-l o u r e s”. We have annual excavations of about six, seven weeks. And we post a lot on social media. All sorts of exciting things coming out all the time. And here you’ll find many of my publications as well. Otherwise, you can track me on ResearchGate and academia.edu, which I try to keep up to date, but {LAUGHS} I’m not a star in these things. I’d be very eager to hear if people are interested in collaborating on this material. If they have documentation of archaeological sites. If there are ideas of how we can apply these techniques more. And if I can help with this, think along, or just simply discuss these things, I’ll be very interested. And people can reach me on the website of the University of Cyprus.

36:16  JJT

Thank you very much.

36:18  VK

Yeah, no worries. I’m happy to talk about this.

36:21  JJT

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37:37  JJT

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38:17  JJT

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