University Libraries

Andersen Library

March 3, 2015
8:30am - 4:30pm

Cuneiform Inscriptions

The University of Minnesota owns nineteen artifacts inscribed in cuneiform, the script of ancient Mesopotamia. This collection, which is kept in Special Collections and Rare Books at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, comprises sixteen clay tablets, two clay cones, and one inscribed and sealed clay tag. These documents include sixteen administrative records from various cities of Sumer in the Ur III period (late 3rd millennium BCE), and three short royal inscriptions from the cities of Isin and Uruk in the early Old Babylonian period (early 2nd millennium BCE). Most of the texts were published four decades ago by Tom B. Jones, then professor of ancient history at the University of Minnesota, and John W. Snyder. They are now made available to the public in new editions, including transliterations, translations, and photographs, through digital media.

The Ur III Dynasty, so called because according to the Sumerian King List this was the third time the city of Ur held dominion over Mesopotamia, is perhaps best known to modern students of history for its highly developed bureaucratic organization. The administrative apparatus of the state ruled from Ur was created in order to ensure that state's effective functioning, and its operation was manifest in a continuous stream of "clay-work" - accounting records inscribed on clay in the cuneiform script, using the Sumerian language, probably produced by the dozens per hour in each major administrative center of the realm. It would appear that every item received within, transferred between, or disbursed from the interlocking institutions comprising the Ur III state had to be accounted for in writing: what was it, who provided, transferred, or expended it, what for, under whose authority; and exactly when - administrative records in this period are typically dated by the year of the reigning king, by the month, and sometimes by the day. Records of individual transactions had, furthermore, to be summed up periodically in balanced accounts. Many of these administrative records were impressed with the seal of the official in charge of the transaction recorded; these seal impressions reflect the network of authority linking the various "departments" of the state administration. Of the voluminous quantities of such records that were generated by this energetic bureaucracy, tens of thousands happen to have been preserved over the millennia and discovered in modern times, and have found their way into institutional and private collections, like that of the University of Minnesota.

After administrative records, one of the most common types of inscribed artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia are the royal inscriptions commissioned by kings of cities and states great and small to commemorate their deeds, often their construction of buildings or other public works. Three inscriptions of this type entered the University's collection: one inscribed cone of Lipit-Eštar, king of Isin in roughly the late 20th century BCE, recording the construction of his "House of Justice"; and two inscriptions of Sîn-kāšid, king of Uruk in the early 19th century BCE, one cone and one tablet with nearly identical texts recording the construction of his palace. These short royal inscriptions are by no means unique documents, as the administrative records discussed above are. They were, rather, mass-produced by scribes working practically as human duplicating machines, and they were typically deposited within the very fabric of the building whose construction they commemorated, combining the functions of a cornerstone and a time capsule. Often large numbers of virtually identical copies of such inscriptions were produced and deposited in this way. Dozens of exemplars of the inscriptions of Sîn-kāšid and Lipit-Eštar have surfaced, some in legitimate excavations but many on the antiquities market, and they have typically entered modern collections along with Ur III records.

History of the Collection

How did these inscribed artifacts find their way to the University of Minnesota?

Edgar James Banks is the dealer who sold the University many, if not most, of its cuneiform tablets. He was very active in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and is responsible for most of the small cuneiform collections at universities, seminaries, and museums around the country. Banks led an interesting life, a summary of which can be found in the excellent article, "The Forgotten Indiana Jones," by Dr. Ewa Wasilewska in The World and I Magazine Online. Dr. Wasilewska is writing a biography of Edgar Banks, and we are very grateful to her for her advice and her help in identifying Banks' handwriting. Banks himself wrote several books, and one of them, Bismya or The Lost City of Adab, has been made available online by the University of Chicago Library. As a final note, at least one of the two cones in the collection was purchased from Banks, but we have been unable to determine which one; also, it seems likely that Banks was the source of some of the uncredited tablets. For additional information on Banks and his activities, visit the links page.

Mrs. Kate Koon Bovey donated at least one of the tablets, but unfortunately we don't know which one(s). She donated large collections of books to the library in the early 1940's, so she probably donated it then, but we don't have enough information to credit her with the donation of any specific tablet.

The most recent addition to our collection is the donation of a three-sided sealed clay label from the Ur III period, UM 19, donated by Karen Moynihan in August 2001.

The digitization of this collection is part of a worldwide effort to provide cuneiform-inscribed texts on the internet. The benefits of web-based publications over print ones are many. Frequent updates, greater accessibility, and comprehensive photographic documentation are just a few. This effort is spearheaded by the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI).

Use of Website

The content of these web pages is intended to be useful to the general public as well as to cuneiformists. The layout of the pages is based on the form taken for print publications. The individual pages for each tablet or cone contain cataloguing information, transliterations, translations, references to secondary literature and related texts. The cataloguing information consists of publication information, catalogue numbers, brief acquisition data, content, historical context and a physical description. Photographs of all inscribed surfaces are also provided. Higher quality photographs are available by clicking on the photographs on the pages. If there are notes for any lines of the transliteration or translation, the corresponding line number will be blue and lead to the notes.

Eva von Dassow is responsible for the new text editions presented here. Matthew James Buell designed and programmed this web site (later edited in Drupal by Tim Johnson). Mark Gill researched the history of this collection and the career of Edgar J. Banks. Ahn Na Brodie photographed the inscriptions. We gratefully acknowledge Marcel Sigrist for his assistance on the text editions.