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Mesopotamian Royal Inscriptions

Among the earliest preserved Mesopotamian royal inscriptions are a statue of Dun-ak, ruler of E'eden; two duplicate alabaster statuettes of Enlil-pabilgagi king of Umma, a lapis lazuli bead dedicated to Inanna by Akka, king of Umma, and two alabaster vessels inscribed with the name and title of Mebaragesi, king of Kiš.

From the slightly later Early Dynastic IIIa period (ca 2650 to 2550 BC) come a small number of dedicatory texts which already begin to illustrate the range of types seen in later periods. These include stone tablets, e.g. one of Enna-il, king of Kiš; a mace head and inscribed bowl of Me-silim, king of Kiš; stone statues such as that of Bara-sagnudi, king of Umma; a bronze sword of Lugal-namnir-šum, king of Kiš; and a stone bowl of Abzu-kidug, governor of Nippur.

Sources increase in the ED IIIb period (ca. 2550-2350 BC), in particular from the population centers of the rulers of the first Lagaš dynasty, but also from the Sumerian cities of Adab, Akšak, Nippur, Umma, Ur and Uruk, as well as from Mari on the middle Euphrates written in Akkadian.

The inscriptions of Ur-Nanše, the first Lagaš I king, record a great number of construction projects, primarily temples and their associated buildings, also walls, gates and canals. His inscribed materials include stone plaques, slabs, and stelae, some of which depict the king and members of his family. Copper nails or pegs inserted through metal plates were used as foundation deposits (temen), as stated explicitly by examples of Eiginimpae, a ruler of Adab.

Texts from the time of the next Lagaš I rulers show a rapid and marked increase in text length and variety of objects inscribed, most still dedications of temple construction and ornamentation, but some providing much more histortical information as well, the most famous of which being an account of the generation-long border conflict between the city-states of Lagaš/Girsu and Umma during the reigns of Eanatum and Enmetena, and a record of the elimination of many corrupt practices of state officials usually referred to as the legal Reforms of Urukagina. Both of the latter texts were written on large and squat clay cones, a document shape specific to this period. Another kind of text which now appears is a long clay nail (kib) with dedicatory inscription on the shaft, which was set, often in quantities, into the walls of newly constructed temples. This particular text shape has later reflexes, often larger and holding more text and often with the inscription repeated on the head as in an Old Babylonian example of king Enlil-bani of Isin. Inscriptions in stone included door-post pivots and boulders serving as stelae describing military campaigns in addition to the usual construction activity. Stone bowls were favorite temple offerings ‘for the life’ of a ruler; the CDLI records nearly a hundred such bowls bearing the same long commemorative inscription of the conquering Uruk king Lugalzagesi. Many inscriptions like this one are now being made available in literary score versions. Stone ‛perpetual prayer’ statues were also regular religious donations. Stone tablets served as a normal part of foundation deposits.

The Old Akkadian or Sargonic period (2350-2200 BC) saw an explosion of royal inscriptions written in Akkadian, including lengthy historical accounts of the exploits of chiefly the kings Sargon, Rimuš, and Naram-Sin, written on clay tablets and on several more monumental objects such as steles, the massive diorite Maništusu Obelisk, or the finely-wrought copper statue on a socle from Bassetki which describes king Naram-Sin's divinization by popular acclaim after his military triumphs. Standard dedicatory objects include foundation documents, door sockets, bricks and many clay stamps (CDLI registers forty-five stamps of king Šarkališarri) for rapidly producing their inscriptions, stone plaques, mace heads, and cones. A transition to a new standard cone shape found in the following Lagaš II period can be seen in examples of the Uruk king Utuhegal whose conquests are detailed in his so-called Annals. Religious donations again often take the form of fine cups, bowls, vases or jars of stone or metal. From this period also come documents found at the Elamite capital Susa.

The rulers of the second Lagaš dynasty (ca. 2200-2100 BC) engaged in extensive religious building activity in their cities of Girsu, Lagaš, and Niĝin, and produced a correspondingly large number of dedicatory inscriptions. Most notable are the two giant (56 x 33 cm) clay Cylinders A and B and some thirty stone statues of Gudea, all of which describe in poetic detail his temple construction and which together provide the single largest corpus of literary Sumerian, over 3000 lines, at a time in which it was still a living language. In addition, small clay cones inscribed on the shaft, developments of the long clay nails of the Lagaš I period and designed to be inserted into newly built temple walls, were produced in great quantities. The CDLI currently registers 1700 examples recording Gudea’s construction of the Eninnu temple of the highest god Ningirsu, 160 of the temple of the god Nindara in Girsu, 120 of the temple of the god Ningešzida in Girsu, etc. Such standard inscriptions were also commonly written on building bricks, bronze foundation figurines, stone tablets, mace heads, door sockets, plaques, and bowls.

Standard dedicatory document types continue in the following Ur III period (ca. 2100-2000 BC), the final efflorescence of Sumerian culture: clay bricks and brick stamps; many small clay cones (with 165 CDLI examples of this inscription alone); many stone door sockets including some inscriptions on multiple sockets (nineteen examples of one type, ten of another); stone mace heads; and stone statues. Foundation deposits are represented by many stone tablets and bronze canephors. Less common document types include inscribed drain pipes; metal axe blades; and stone weights. Temple donations include the usual metal bowls, stone plates and assorted other vessels; also beads of agate or carnelian, and a gold earring dedicated to Geštinana, the sister of Dumuzi. Longer inscriptions of king Šu-Sin provide some military history. The single most significant Ur III royal inscriptional document recorded by the CDLI is the Law Code of Ur-Namma, partly preserved on a large clay cylinder and some associated tablets.

The shapes of some dedicatory inscriptions show changes in the Early Old Babylonian (2000-1900 BC) and Old Babylonian (1900-1600 BC) Periods. Large nails now often show several columns with lengthier inscriptions on shaft and head; blunted small cones appear, some nearly cylindrical. A new shape begins, an ovoid barrel cylinder. As before, bricks can be stamped or written. Many inscriptions provide more historical information, become more annal-like and detailed. An interest in the past is demonstrated by copies of royal inscriptions of earlier kings, e.g. Sargon of Akkad or Šulgi of Ur. The most noteworthy object from this period is the giant stele containing the entire Law Code of Hammurapi.

Old and Middle Assyrian inscriptions are represented in the CDLI mainly by bricks, steles and obelisks, and a few precious objects such as a chalcedony plaque and a small tablet of gold. The Neo-Assyrian period (911-612 BC) is especially characterized first by a multitude of preserved stone wall reliefs overwritten with narratives (see especially CDLI’s Nimrud pages), and second by a large number of prisms and prism fragments—a new document shape—containing royal historical information about, for example, the military campaigns of Sennacherib and his son Esarhaddon. The famous account of the 8th Campaign of Sargon II is, instead, preserved on a very large tablet, while stelae record other royal accomplishments. Inscribed building bricks remain popular, but clay cone documents are now replaced by by prismatic barrels.

The Middle Babylonian period (1400-1100 BC) is known especially for its pictoral kudurru boundary stones. The Neo-Babylonian period (911-612 BC) is generously represented in the CDLI especially by bricks, but also demonstrates a number of new document shapes. Replacing the older cone shapes are solid or hollow two and three-column oval clay barrels, prismatic oval barrels, large and small bullet barrels, and neatly made hollow cylinders. Metalwork includes inscribed knife or spear blades. One also sees later copies of the inscriptions of early kings, e.g. Šulgi or Ur or Abisare of Babylon.

The Achaemenid period (547-331) is represented in the CDLI above all by the Behistun Inscription, an Akkadian, Old Persian, and Elamite trilingual cliff inscription that is the Near Eastern equivalent of the Egyptian Rosetta Stone, and the famous ovoid-barrel Cyrus Cylinder just finishing its tour of US museums. Of interest are also a monumental column base and two jar labels written in four languages, Akkadian, Elamite, Old Persian and Egyptian. The Hellenistic period (323-63 BC) is represented in the CDLI only by tablet fragments.

Daniel A. Foxvog