Cuneiform Digital Library Journal
2004:2
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The Calendar of Neo-Sumerian Ur
and Its Political Significance*

Magnus Widell < widell@uchicago.edu >
University of Chicago

Keywords
Ur III, calendar, Ur, chronology


§1.1. The calendar used in the city of Ur during the Ur III period before the twelfth month of the 30th year of Šulgi’s reign has been the subject of several earlier studies.[1] Based on a few tablets using Girsu month names and an alleged absence of month names belonging to the regular calendar of Ur before this date, Edmond Sollberger (1954/56, 19-20) argued that Ur originally used the Girsu calendar. After the twelfth month of Šulgi 30, Ur took over the calendar used in Puzriš-Dagan. Sollberger’s reconstruction of the early Ur calendar can be displayed as shown in figure 1.

 

Figure 1: Traditional view of the relation between the Ur and Puzriš-Dagan calendars

 

§1.2. This view, which is widely accepted among Sumerologists, was questioned by Mark Cohen in his book on the calendars of the ancient Near East (1993, 131-132). According to Cohen, it seems more likely that the capital Ur provided the livestock center Puzriš-Dagan with its calendar, which was based on the pre-Sargonic calendar of Ur. From the twelfth month of Šulgi 30, Ur is attested with its regular Ur III calendar, which again would be taken over by the administration of Puzriš-Dagan from Šu-Suen 4 and onwards. Cohen’s alternative reconstruction of the development of the calendars in Ur can be displayed as shown in figure 2.

 

§1.3. The political history of the period between the fall of the Akkadian empire and the beginning of the Ur III state can be described as obscure, to say the very least. Therefore, any data that may throw light on the political development of the period are important. The choice of calendar used in the capital during the early history of the Ur III state may, in my opinion, offer some clues as to the circumstances surrounding the earliest history of the state.

 

Figure 2: The relation between the Ur and Puzriš-Dagan calendars according to Cohen

 

§1.4. In this paper, we will first scrutinize the available evidence in order to determine which calendar Ur actually did use during this period of time. Second, we will examine how the choice of calendar in the capital Ur may shed some light on the political development of the period.

 

§2.1. In his critique, Cohen has pointed out the scarcity of the material on which Sollberger based his observations: only 15 tablets with month names preserved, dated to before Šulgi 30, month 12, were available to him. Nevertheless, the striking dominance of Girsu month names in these 15 attestations cannot be explained as a mere coincidence. Table 1 shows the month names found in these texts and the various local calendars in which these month names were used.

 

§2.2. While it is true that foreign or unknown month names continued to appear in the texts from Ur after month 12 of Šulgi 30 (Cohen 1993, 131), it should be kept in mind that the number of attestations are very low (approximately .3% of the total number of texts with preserved month names). This stands in stark contrast to the almost complete dominance of Girsu month names in the texts from before this date. Moreover, in 2001, Henri Limet published an additional text from Šulgi 30 with the Girsu month ezem-dLi9-si4. Six further texts can be found in the collection of tablets from Ur in the British Museum, currently being catalogued by a team of Italian scholars.[2] All of these new texts use the Girsu calendar, and an Ur/Puzriš-Dagan calendar before the twelfth month of Šulgi 30 remains conspicuous by its absence. According to Cohen, the Girsu month names in Ur can easily be explained if the texts were all from a single archive involving individuals with economic ties to Girsu (1993, 131, see also Sallaberger 1999, 236, n. 324). Indeed, although these early texts were not excavated together,[3] a closer examination of the texts suggests that all (or, at least, several) of them should be connected to the storehouse of the šabra administrator (e2-kišib-ba šabra).

 

 

Year UET

Months in Ur tablets
from before Š 31

Girsu
Nippur
Umma
Ur
šeKINku
PD
mašdagu
 
Š ? 3, 291 ezem-ddumu-zi
vi
-
-
-
-
 
Š 24 3, 324 munu4-gu7
v
-
-
-
-
  3, 293 mu-šu-du7
ix
-
-
-
-
  3, 772 diri
-
-
xiiII
-
-
 
Š 25 3, 294 gu4-ra2-izi-mu2-mu2
ii
-
-
-
-
  9, 1214 šu-numun
iv
iv
vi
-
-
 
Š 26 3, 368 [gu4-ra2-izi(?)]-mu2-mu2[4]
ii
-
-
-
-
  3, 1203 munu4-gu7
v
-
-
-
-
 
Š 27 9, 1183 še-KIN-ku5[5]
xi
xii
i
i
xii
  3, 296 diri še-KIN-ku5
xiII
xiII
-
-
xiII
  9, 1184 še-il2-la
xii
-
-
-
-
 
Š 28 3, 289 gu4-ra2-izi-mu2-mu2
ii
-
-
-
-
  3, 290 gu4-ra2-izi-mu2-[mu2]
ii
-
-
-
-
 
Š 29 3, 340 šu-numun-na
iv
iv
vi
-
-
 
Š 30 3, 300 ezem-ddumu-zi
vi
-
-
-
-

Table 1: Early Months from Ur available to Sollberger

 

§2.3. The texts record the fact that various individuals received (šu ba-ti) or weighed (i3-la2) copper or other precious metals or materials from this storehouse for sundry luxury items (UET 3, 294, 324, 1203; BM 30182 [see fn. 2 here]). Sometimes the individuals were acting on behalf of the palace (UET 3, 293) or the Nanna temple (UET 3, 340; see also Limet 2001 and BM 30182), but in most of the texts the affiliation of these officials is not specified. Were these texts written in Ur? An example of a text from Ur with a foreign month name may have been written in another city, and sometime later brought to the capital.[6] However, this theory appears to be unfounded: the storehouse of the šabra administrators is attested exclusively in texts from Ur, and the institution is found also in later Ur III texts from the city using the regular Ur calendar (UET 3, 1327). The fact that some of the texts record transactions between the storehouse of the šabra administrator, which was found in Ur, and other well-known institutions in this city, such as the palace or the Nanna temple, seems to speak against any economic interests of the city of Girsu in these texts. Moreover, as I have argued recently, it would make no sense for an archive to adjust its dating system to its foreign clients (Widell 2003b). Ur III texts are not written to please the involved parties, but to legally record a specific transaction. If these early texts were written in the administrative setting of Ur, they would almost certainly be drawn up according to the administrative practices and the calendar of this city, especially since these texts were written and archived within the public sphere of the city’s economy.[7]

 

§3.1. The data presented here unanimously supports Sollberger’s original reconstruction of the early calendar of Ur. It does not, therefore, seem imprudent to conclude that the city employed the Girsu calendar until the twelfth month of Šulgi 30, when it changed to its own local calendar. However, if we were to accept this conclusion, we face a major problem, which is in fact the very reason for some scholars’ attempts to revise Sollberger’s reconstruction. A quarter of a century ago, Tohru Ozaki (Gomi 1979, 9 n. 4) commented upon—without attempting to explain—the peculiar fact that the city of Ur chose to keep the calendar of its one-time enemy Girsu after it had become independent:

... when we take account of the circumstances of the foundation of the empire by Ur-Nammu, it seems curious that its capital city continued to use the calendar of its one-time enemy during ca. half a century after the victory. In East Asian history the use of the Chinese era and calendar by its surrounding states meant the expression of their obedience to Chinese domination.

§3.2. The victory that Ozaki refers to here is the defeat of the Lagaš II ruler Namhani/Nammahni.[8] According to Samuel Kramer’s original edition of the prologue to the Codex Ur-Namma, Namhani was killed by Ur-Namma, an event that has been thought to have led Ur-Namma to proclaim himself the founder and ruler of the Ur III state.[9] It is, however, questionable whether the ancient Mesopotamian calendar really carried that much ideological significance. If the local calendar really was such a symbol of independence and pride, why did Ur not impose its local calendar in Girsu after Ur-Namma’s victory, when it had the political and military power to do so? Such an act would certainly help Ur to recover some of the dignity it lost during the years with the Girsu calendar, and at the same time show Girsu—and the rest of Mesopotamia—who the new master in the house was.

 

§3.3. However, this did not happen and Mesopotamian calendar reforms in general appear to be more practically oriented than politically motivated. The Ur III administration, which otherwise can be characterized by a significant degree of systemic cohesion, never ceased to accept the local use of different calendars at the same time. Moreover, we know very little of the actual background of the supposed conflict of Ur-Namma and Namhani, or how such a conflict would affect the relations between the two cities. The textual material from the Ur III period does not, in any way, indicate the existence of tensions or latent hostilities between the two cities. One might, on these grounds, speculate that Namhani lacked substantial public support in his own city during the conflict. It seems at least plausible that the new governor in Girsu, installed by Ur-Namma after his victory, depicted Namhani as a ruthless despot acting on his own selfish initiative in the conflict. The fact that Namhani, as the only Lagaš II ruler and one of but several rulers in the entire history of Mesopotamia, may have been a victim of so-called damnatio memoriae (in which successors take steps to physically remove a ruler’s name from the historical record; see Edzard 1997, 194, and Perlov 1980, 79), supports such an assumption.

 

§4.1. The uncertainties surrounding the proposed conflict between Ur and Girsu do not stop here, however, and some scholars, including Bertrand Lafont (1993, 678 and 681), have questioned the very existence of the conflict between the two cities. Others, such as François Carroué (1994, 74-75) and Claus Wilcke (1993, 60), have argued for a certain rivalry between the two cities. One thing seems certain: the repeated boundary disputes between the cities documented during Utu-hegal’s reign certainly do not indicate that the cities were on good terms (see Flückiger-Hawker 1999, 4).

 

§4.2. Many years after he published his original treatment of the Codex Ur-Namma, Kramer admitted in a short article that his first reconstruction of the sign ug5, “to kill,” on the damaged line mentioning Namhani, was uncertain (1983, 455, n. 12). The general agreement today seems to be that the sign should be read il2, which means “to raise,” and several more recent editions now understand the line to refer to Ur-Namma’s elevation of Namhani to the governorship of Girsu (e.g. Roth 1997; Frayne 1997).[10] Obviously, a promotion, rather than a slaying, would serve as a plausible explanation for the lack of any signs of hostilities between the two cities.

 

§4.3. This new interpretation is not entirely without problems. A promotion of a governor seems somewhat out of context in the prologue of the code. No other governors, or individuals for that matter, are mentioned by name in the text, and one cannot help wondering why Ur-Namma would make an effort to underscore the promotion of a governor, a quite common event. The promotion, or installment of a governor was never considered significant enough to be attached to year names in the Ur III period, and it seems strange that Namhani’s promotion should be even mentioned among the truly spectacular accomplishments of Ur-Namma listed in the prologue of his law-code.

 

§4.4. Moreover, the first year name in Namhani’s reign is a local Girsu year, not the year used by Ur-Namma in Ur. If Namhani was made governor by Ur-Namma, he certainly failed to acknowledge this in his initial year formula (Maeda 1988, 22-23). Also, the new interpretation does not explain the proposed damnatio memoriae of Namhani. If Namhani was promoted – and presumably supported – by the king in Ur, then who was responsible for partially destroying or erasing his name in several of his inscriptions? The damaged inscriptions come from Girsu, and one explanation for this last point could be that Namhani was succeeded by another independent governor in Girsu. This successor was not only an enemy of the city of Ur, but also of his predecessor Namhani, who obviously had been cooperating with Ur.

 

§4.5. In Sollberger’s sequence of Lagaš II rulers, Namhani was followed by the governor Ur-Aba in Girsu. However, based on an enumeration of mortuary offering places (ki-a-nag) for various Lagaš II rulers, Tohru Maeda revised Sollberger’s sequence and Namhani became the last independent ruler of Girsu (1988; see also Monaco 1990). While Maeda’s sequence, or slight variations of it, has achieved a general acceptance among Sumerologists, it should by no means be regarded as definitive.[11] According to Esther Flückiger-Hawker (1999, 5), Ur-Namma must have been in control of Lagaš for at least some part of Ur-Aba’s reign. Moreover, we know that Ur-Aba started his reign using Girsu year formulae but that he changed and started to use the year formulae of the Ur III state sometime thereafter. As we have seen above, Namhani started his rule with a Girsu year. Contrary to Ur-Aba, he appears to have continued to use the local Girsu year formulae throughout his reign (Maeda 1988, 22-23). These facts seem to support Sollberger’s original sequence from 1954/56, which placed Ur-Aba after Namhani.

 

§5.1. To sum up, we may conclude that the circumstances surrounding Ur-Namma’s rise to power in the Ur III state, and the involvement of the Lagaš II rulers in this process, remain unclear. The use of the Girsu calendar in Ur during both the reign of Ur-Namma and the larger part of the reign of Šulgi, suggests that the cities were on friendly terms. Or, does it? One might argue that if it really had any significance at all, it would rather show that the kings in Ur were anxious to demonstrate, to Girsu, to Ur, and to the rest of Mesopotamia, that that the two cites were not on unfriendly terms.

 

§5.2. There are other indications that the relations between the cities may have been rather tense, at least during the reign of Utu-hegal. The administrative texts from the Ur III period do not seem to demonstrate any feelings of hostility between Girsu and Ur. However, an earlier conflict between Ur and Girsu would not necessarily result in a prolonged animosity between the people of the two cities. The hostility the people of both Ur and Girsu would have felt could adroitly be transmitted to the defeated, and presumably dead, ruler of Girsu. One thing is certain: having served as a military governor under the Uruk king Utu-hegal, Ur-Namma was fully aware of the significance of a politically correct “liberation.”[12] Having no Gutians at hand, a war with, and the defeat of, the ruler of Girsu might have become Ur-Namma’s chance to both bestow himself with an appropriate image of a liberator and to gain full control of the rival city of Girsu.

 

§5.3. As a cautionary note, the political and ideological significance of the Ur III calendars should certainly not be exaggerated. However, if the choice of calendar had any significance, we would expect that if Ur-Namma tried to keep, or create, such a positive image by denouncing the defeated ruler of Girsu, he—and later also Šulgi—intentionally refrained from introducing the Ur calendar in Girsu. For the same reason, the Ur kings chose not to immediately abolish the Girsu calendar in the capital. The enforcement of a new calendar and the abolishment of an old one, rather than the actual use of a calendar once it has been established, may feel humiliating and can be seen as an expression, of obedience or aggression. Ur-Namma and Šulgi were powerful kings with great armies, but they also realized the power of diplomacy. The use of force to remove a calendar that the people and the administration of some were used to for the sake of sheer imperial principle would only confine and nurture underlying hostilities within the state.

 


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Version: 14 July 2004