Tablets as Archaeological Objects

Like Jim Davila, I missed the publication of a new, large, fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš when it came out last year. Al-Rawi and George’s publication (“Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 66 [2014], 69-90) of the fragment is abnormally interesting for a number of reasons. Among these is their discussion of the role of the physical examination of tablets in the scholarly history of how to order the material in tablet V. In the course of this discussion they take a shot at much recent work.

Understanding cuneiform tablets as archaeological objects is a practice that had few exponents for much of the twentieth century, when Assyriologists too often gave all their attention to the inscribed text as a self-contained intellectual resource disembodied from the medium on which it was written. (71)

Al-Rawi and George are talking about the shape and other physical properties of the surface of tablets but the same can be said of the details of the provenance of tablets. In the case of their fragment the provenance is unknown. Even where we know the excavation site we often don’t know the exact find spot. This is particularly true of older excavations. I once asked an Assyriologist about the find spot of a tablet from Kuyunjik. He told me to just be happy that we are relatively sure it is from Nineveh!


Still, I think it is important to treat tablets as archaeological objects, as artifacts, whenever we can. Back in March I gave a paper at the SBL Pacific Coast Regional Meeting outlining some evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit. Much of that paper was based on features of tablet utilization, the curvature of the tablet surfaces, sign morphology and find spot. As I said in that paper,

My evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit depends on the study of tablets with alphabetic cuneiform writing as artifacts in their totality and not just as media for texts in the Ugaritic language.

Some of you know that I have toyed with the possibility that the later kings of Ugarit were literate in the local vernacular. Much of my thought process on is driven by the archaeological context of certain Ugaritic tablets as much as by what is on those tablets. More on this later – – maybe.

Shumma Alu Volume 3

This is somewhat old news but Sally Freedman has published volume 3 of Shumma Alu. This volume covers tablets 41 to 53 which contain omens relating to cattle, equid omens, wild animals, cats and dogs, pigs, fire. But this time the volume is only available online. Of this she says in her introductory remarks,

It is uncertain whether further volumes will appear in a conventional book format. However, I am posting text editions of the reconstructed Tablets on, so that the work I’ve done on the remaining Alu Tablets will be available for anyone who is interested. Images of almost all the original texts are online, either on the British Museum website or in the database CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative).

Freedman’s publication of these tablets is a welcome addition to her previous two volumes on this important Akkadian omen series: only 67 tablets to go. Actually not all 67 remain tablets are extant but Freeman will not lack for work over the coming years.


How a Footnote Stopped a Note

I’ve been writing a note on how an Ugaritic meteorological term (ģrpl) can be a trope for snake venom (ḥmt) in KTU 1.107 (RS 24.251+). I thought I discovered something. Enuma Elish V:49-52 mentions that Marduk reserved for himself wind, kaṣāṣa-rain, and fog, “spreading her (Tiamat’s) venom (Akkadian imtiša).” And then I found this in a footnote in Pardee’s 1988 edition of the Ugaritic text.

De Moor (OTS 24 [1986], p. 10) a cité comme parallèle littéraire pour les nuages porteurs de venin l’association de la brume et du poison dans l’Enuma Elish babylonien (V 51); dans le texte babylonien c’est Mardouk qui agit mais dans ce même contexte (ligne 45) il s’agit de l’établissement de la divinité solaire, Šapaš.

And so ended my hope for fame and fortune.

Oswald Loretz – January 14, 1928 – April 12, 2014

Oswald Loretz was a preeminent student of all things Ugaritic and of the ancient Near East more generally. His individual body of work is massive. When combined with the work he did in partnership with Manfried Dietrich, his contribution is almost unbelievable. My personal library has several works he wrote or edited. One of these I consult very frequently. I’m glad to know the others are on my shelves when I need them. Oswald Loretz, I never met you but I will miss you. The world of ancient Near Eastern scholarship will miss you.
Via Jack Sasson

The Color of Plaster – Oh My

It’s been a long time since I posted so I thought I’d post something abnormal if not abnormally interesting. Here are five omens from Šumma ālu tablet 6:28-32
DIŠ É si-ir-šu BABBAR UKÚ-in
If a house’s plaster is white – he will become poor.
DIŠ É si-ir-šu GI6(MI) NU DÙG-ub ŠÀ-bi
If a house’s plaster is black – unhappiness of heart.
DIŠ É si-ir-šu SI.A(SU5) EN É BI i-šar-ri
If a house’s plaster is red, the owner of that house will become rich.
DIŠ É si-ir-šu SIG7 [. . .] ir-x-x
If a house its plaster is green . . . .
DIŠ É si-ir-šu BABBAR GI6(MI) SI.A(SU5) SIG7 la mit-gur-tu4 EN É BI INIM É-GAL UŠ-di
If a house’s plaster is white, black, red, and green – discord; the palace will make a claim on the owner of that house.
Based on a near duplicate (K 45+ [CT 40 1-4] rev.:9), the portent of the forth omen, the green one, may be something like niziqtu, “grief.”
I’ve been looking at colors in omens for a couple of weeks and I’m not sure exactly where all this is going. For now I will simply observe that white does not portend good fortune in all these kinds of omens. The first on above for example. I read somewhere that it did. I know where I read it – more than one place in fact. I just don’t want to fully document all this now. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. Yes I know that I should have said “red-brown” instead of “red” and “green-yellow” instead of “green” but I’m not trying to be all that technical for now. I may have more to say on this as I study it more. You’ll have to excuse me now; I’m off to make sure the folks plastering my house red are doing a good job. I sure don’t want any others colors showing through.

Nuˁmu-Rašpu or Mudammiq-Nergal

How should I understand the name of the scribe who crafted the now fragmentary Akkadian account of the Flood (RS 25.421) from Ugarit? The first line of the colophon reads ŠU mSIG5.dGÌR.UNU.GAL, “(By the) hand of . . . ” – well by the hand of somebody. The same scribe’s name appears to also be written mSIG5.dMAS.MAS and mSIG5.dKAL. He likely worked at Ugarit during the reigns of Ammittamrru II, Ibrianu and Niqmaddu III.
The same signs I transliterated mSIG5.dGÌR.UNU.GAL are sometimes transliterated mSIG5.dNÈ.IRI11(x).GAL. Various scholars have preferences in this matter but those preferences are not based on the cuneiform signs themselves.
Let’s start with the theophoric element, dGÌR.UNU.GAL. This and dMAS.MAS are rather common writings for the Mesopotamian god Nergal. But in the pantheon texts from Ugarit (RS 1.017:27, 24.264:26, 20.024:26, 24.642:8) dGÌR.UNU.GAL equates to rsp. Not too surprising that Mesopotamian Nergal would equate to Ugaritic Rašap/Rašpu. There’s really nothing controversial about this. A dozen personal names from Ugarit have rsp as a theophoric element and either dGÌR.UNU.GAL or dMAS.MAS generally represents rsp in Akkadian texts from Ugarit. For example, alphabetic ilršp is written mdAN. MAS.MAS in RS 17.61:18.
Now for the first element: SIG5 generally stands for Akkadian damqu. Akkadian damqu is (nearly) semantically equivalent to Ugaritic ncm. Both mean “good, pleasant, beautiful.” We see mnu-ma-re-ša-ip in a list of 16 otherwise unidentified people (RS 2007:2). This is not necessarily our scribe but the name does represent a spelled out version of a very similar name in a western (Ugaritic?) form. [Note for later reference the u vowel in nu-ma-.] The alphabetic place name ykncm is written URUia-ku-SIG5 in RS 11:800:13’ and elsewhere. Finally one should note mSIG5na (RS 17.150+17.34:36 and elsewhere) which almost certainly equates to the Ugaritic personal name ncmn.
For the record, Nougayrol (Ug 5, 303) rendered our scribe’s name Na’amrašap; Lambert and Millard (Atra-Ḫasīs, 133) rendered it Mudammiq-Nergal; and Huehnergard (The Akkadian of Ugarit, 344) rendered it Nucmu-Rašpu. On this Münniche (The God Resheph in the Ancient Near East, 145, n240) says, “Lambert & Millard 1969, 132-133 translate the name as Mudammiq-Nergal, which is improbable at Ugarit both because of the Mesopotamian form of the god’s name and the reading of the sign SIG5.”
So how should I render mSIG5.dGÌR.UNU.GAL? I’m not sure. If I think this scribe is from Mesopotamia as Naḫiš-šalmu likely was, something like Mudammiq-Nergal might be on or near the mark. Such a name is known from Mesopotamia. But if I think he was born and raised at Ugarit or at least in the West then I think I need to render it Nucmu-Rašpu or the like.
Now if you thought that was fun, I bet you can’t wait for my post on the line in RS 22.121’s colophon that follows ŠU mSIG5.dGÌR.UNU.GAL. It reads S[A]G(?) dŠU.GAR .DURU2.NA or something very much like that. These concerns are diversions from the issue I’m really working on. Maybe I’ll get past these diversions and have something abnormally interesting to say about the Flood account as known at Ugarit.
Update: January 16, 2014
I just noticed that I posted the complete text and my translation of this tablet in August of 2010. What a memory! I still have a couple of things I what to say that I didn’t say then but it may take me a while to get them together.

Who Knew?

Last week Claude Mariottini posted a discussion of the problem with תֻכִּיִּֽים, thukkiyyîm, the last word in 1 Kings 10:22, (and 2 Chronicles 9:21). Peacocks, baboons, no one knows for sure what it means. It is surely a foreign word but from where? What Claude didn’t say is that the last three words, שֶׁנְהַבִּ֥ים וְקֹפִ֖ים וְתֻכִּיִּֽים, in I Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:21 are all problematic in one way or another and have been for a long time. Check out Claude’s post for various modern renderings.
The predominate textural tradition in the Old Greek translation of the end of 1 Kings 10:22 reads και λιθων τορευτων και πελεκητων, “and carved/embossed and hewn stones.” Codex Alexandrinus reads the more traditional, “οδοντων ελεφαντινων και πιθηκων και ταωνων, “elephant teeth and apes and ταωνων” whatever ταωνων means. According to LSJ9 1763, they are some kind of birds native to India (peacocks?) but also perhaps some kind of fish from elsewhere! The Old Greek of 2 Chronicles 9:21 reads, οδοντων ελεφαντινων και πιθηκων, “elephant teeth and apes.” Assuming it was in their vorlage, they took a pass on תֻכִּיִּֽים, thukkiyyîm.
Oh yeah, and then there’s Josephus (Ant. VIII, 7.2 [179]) who references the passage, πολὺς ἐλέφας Αἰθίοπές τε καὶ πίθηκοι, “much elephant (teeth?), Ethiopians, and apes.”
Given the right set of presuppositions, all of these various understandings can be explained. “Justified” would be too strong a word. A few of the explanations stretch folk etymology to its limits or depend on rather unlikely scribal errors.
The bottom line: by the time of the Old Greek translation of 1 Kings 10:22, no one was sure what these words meant. No wonder we continue to have our doubts.

Plotting Akkadian Scholarly Tablets

The other day I plotted the distribution of Ugaritic school tablets within the Royal Palace at Ugarit. Today I do the same thing for the Akkadian and Sumerian scholarly texts found there.

Akkadian scholarly texts

Considering the large number of Akkadian texts found in the Royal Palace, the first thing one notices about the scholarly texts is how few of them there are to plot – 7 if you count the one that is a surface find. Second, one notices that all these texts are advanced. Texts like Ḫarra=ḫubullu and 1 come quite late in the standard scribal curriculum. There is not TU-TA-TI, a Silbenalphabet A or a Sa Syllabary or Sa Vocabulary among them. These more elementary texts are all well represented in other centers of learning at Ugarit. Except for RS 16.364 and, of course, the surface fine, the scholarly texts from the Royal Palace were found among or very near large archives.
What to make of this? Again, I’m not sure. However, it does appear that Akkadian was taught in the Royal Palace at Ugarit. But to whom? Arguments from absence are dangerous but the presences of advanced texts to the exclusion of elementary ones leads me to speculate that the Akkadian students in the Palace were advanced students, perhaps apprentice scribers, who took their elementary training elsewhere.

Comments and Confusion