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Virginia Rimmer, Nicholas Kammer and Professor Alice SlotskyBrown Seniors 'Crack' Cuneiform Tablets

Visitors to the John Hay Library sometimes ask, "How old is your oldest book?"  Answer: 4,000+ years old.  The Library holds 27 cuneiform tablets and cones from ancient Mesopotamia, none of which had been translated until two seniors in Visiting Professor Alice Slotsky's class, Ancient Scientific Writings: Akkadian, undertook an elective project to decipher two of the tablets.  Their transliterations and translations  are published below.

ABOUT CUNEIFORM WRITING.  Cuneiform writing was, for close to 3000 years, one of the principal media of literate civilization. This almost matches the length of time for which our own alphabet has been in common use. Brown's collection of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets covers this long span of time and includes both Sumerian and Akkadian examples, both of which were written in cuneiform script. 

The Sumerians and Akkadians lived harmoniously in the same geographical area, the region between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, but they spoke two dramatically different and unrelated languages. Sumerian was the language of a people who migrated to southern Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium BC. To this day, we do not know to which language family it belongs. Akkadian, on the other hand, is the earliest attested member of the Semitic family of languages. It was written and spoken by both the Assyrians and Babylonians. The writing was invented by the Sumerians and subsequently adapted for Akkadian and other languages, including Elamite in Iran and Hittite in Anatolia.

Both languages were written using a reed or wooden stylus that made impressions of simple shapes on soft clay. To read what was written on letters, legal documents, and literary and scientific texts, knowledge of some 200-300 cuneiform characters made up out of combinations of wedges and lines was adequate, but there is no way of knowing what percentage of the population possessed this basic literacy. Anything resembling formal education was primarily for the purpose of training scribes, not only to read and write but also to occupy administrative positions in palaces and temples. Most modern scholars believe that few people were literate in any given period of Mesopotamian history, and that, by and large, literacy was limited mostly to a small professional class of scribes. All had to undergo long training and much practice, like any other craftsmen, and having completed it, became members of a privileged class entitled to call themselves DUB.SAR "scribe." They were mostly male, although a few female scribes are known. Some became ordinary scribes earning their living in the streets, while others were employed by the palace or the temple. Some of these rose to be the literati of their day.

ABOUT THE PROJECT.  The project to translate cuneiform tablets in the Library's collection was a completely elective component of Professor Alice Slotsky's class, HM0232 (Ancient Scientific Writing: Akkadian). Two students enthusiastically rose to the challenge. Both are graduating seniors and advanced Akkadian students. Virginia Rimmer is an archaeology major who is going on to an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Ancient Near East dept. Nicholas Kammer is an economics major and will be starting at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

Both tablets chosen for the project turned out to be economic texts written in Sumerian, not Akkadian.  Since the students are proficient in Akkadian but not Sumerian this is was a trial by error operation for both of them. They are poring over Sumerian cuneiform sign lists for the first time in their lives, and using books of parallel published tablets to try to crack the cuneiform and the translation. 

Commentary by: Alice Slotsky, Visiting Assistant Professor, History of Math, May 2002

The two Sumerian economic tablets analyzed below are from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Umma (Jokha in modern Iraq) and can be dated by year, at the very end of the third millennium, (2028 BCE for M 38 and 2035 for M39) which falls during the Neo-Sumerian period.  M38 is a record of bundles of reeds and it has a beautiful, legible seal rolled over the back of it. M39 concerns the yield of dates from two date palm orchards tended by two (named) gardeners. Both tablets were gifts of Henry Thatcher Fowler, Professor of Biblical Literature at Brown University from 1901 to 1934.

Museum Object 38

This clay tablet was written in month twelve of the first year of the reign of Ibbi-Sin, 2028 BCE. It records the delivery to some central storehouse of bales of bundled reeds, some of which were then set aside for tax payments. A cylinder seal had been rolled over the entire surface of the front and back of the tablet and the cuneiform impressed over the seal impressions. The tablet was then sealed once again, and a clear image can be seen between lines 8 and 9.

Transcribed and translated by Nicholas A. Kammer, Brown University, Class of 2002

line Transliteration Translation
1 9,180 9,180
2 [ ] s[a-g]i [ ] re[ed bund]les
3 gu-kilib-ba 14 sa-ta in each bale 14 bundles
4 30 gú sa-ta-zi 30 fresh reed bundles for taxes
5 ki Ses-a-ni-ta from Sesani

line Transliteration Translation
6 kisib Inim- dSára sealed by Inim- dSára
7 gìr Kù-ga-ni under the responsibility of Kugani
8 iti dDumu-zi month of the god Dumuzi
9 mu dI-bí - the year when Ibbi-
10 dSuen lugal Sin became king
1 Inim-dSára Inim- dSára
2 dub-sar scribe
3 dumu Lugal-iti-da son of Lugal-itida
Museum Object 39

This clay tablet was written in month six of the third year of the reign of Su-Sin, 2035 BCE. It records the harvest of ripe dates in two gardeners' date palm orchards. As is sometimes a problem with the reconstruction of ancient economic texts, the numbers here do not always add up properly. While the total yield of dates from the orchard of Ur-dIs kur is accurate, the sum of dates picked in Undaga's orchard has a minor discrepancy.

Transcribed and translated by Virginia Hudson Rimmer, Brown University, Class of 2002

line Transliteration Translation
1 2 gis 1 bán 2 trees, 1 bán
2 11 gis 3 bán 11 trees, 3 bán
3 21 gis 3 bán 21 trees, 3 bán
4 20 gis 2 bán 5 sìla 20 trees, 2 bán 5 sìla
5 25 gis 2 bán 25 trees, 2 bán
6 22 gis 1 bán 5 sìla 22 trees, 1 bán 5 sìla
7 36 gis 1 bán 36 trees, 1 bán
8 36 gis 6 sìla 36 trees, 6 sìla
9 14 gis 2 sìla 14 trees, 2 sìla
10 135 gis sà sù 135 unproductive trees


su-nígin 2 pi 2 bán 8 sìla zú-lum gur

total amount of dates: 2 pi 2 bán 8 sìla


Ur-dIskur nu-gis kiri6

Ur-dIskur, gardener


1 gis 2 bán

1 tree, 2 bán

14 2 gis 2 bán 2 trees, 2 bán

line Transliteration Translation


7 gis 1 bán 5 sìla

7 trees, 1 bán 5 sìla


8 gis 1 bán

8 trees, 1 bán


19 gis 5 sìla

19 trees, 5 sìla


9 gis 2 sìla

9 trees, 2 sìla

19 166 gis  sà sù 166 unproductive trees
20 su-nígin 1 pi 1 bán 2! (8) sìla zú-lum gur total amount of dates: 1 pi 1 bán 2! (8) sìla
21 Un-da-ga nu-gis kiri6 Undaga, gardener
22 iti su-numun-ta u4-8-àm ba-ra-zal-ta month of the seed grain, 8 days having elapsed
23 mu-ús-sa má dEn-ki ba-ab-du8 the year after the ship of the god Enki was finished

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