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Two Old Babylonian Model Contracts

Gabriella Spada <>
University of Rome “Sapienza”

Old Babylonian, legal, school, adoption


§1. Introduction: the model contracts[1]
§1.1. Although the so-called “model contracts” were not functional documents (being stripped of incidental details such as the list of witnesses and the date), they represent a comprehensive assortment of all types of contracts that the ancient Mesopotamian administration might have been required to draw up in the everyday economic life (barley and silver loans, deeds of land/field/slave sale, lease of fields, marriage contracts, adoptions, manumission of slaves, etc.).[2]


§1.2. Scholars, while reconstructing the Old Babylonian scribal curriculum,[3] have recently identified the drawing up of model contracts (together with that of proverbs) as the final stage of the first elementary phase of training,[4] in which students were introduced to the cuneiform writing system as well as metrology, Sumerian vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure, by proceeding from simple to complex, and including much occasion for reinforcement of previously learned skills and knowledge by constant repetition. In these earlier phases of the curriculum, the teacher (the ‘ummia’) closely supervised the students and employed a model text that was copied by a pupil as often as needed until he knew it by heart.[5]


§1.3. The genre of model contracts as a whole, although apparently a common element in scribal schooling, has, apart from some edited examples,[6] not been studied in depth. In comparing model contracts with real administrative and legal contracts, one notes the absence of a list of witnesses and of a date, both essential for the legal validity of a document. In their place, some model contracts include the notation lu2-ki-inim-ma-(bi) iti-bi mu-bi, “its witnesses, its month, its year (are omitted),” while others simply omit this information altogether.


§1.4. Often, model contracts were arranged in compilation tablets (German Sammeltafeln),[7] in a conscious order, obviously for didactic purposes;[8] these collections occasionally consisted of groups where related model contracts differed from each other in the values for one (or more) of the contractual variables.[9] The repetitive character of these texts is useful for explaining and drilling the Sumerian sentences and formulas. Our knowledge of the scribal training in practical concerns of everyday legal and administrative procedure is not completely illuminated by such scholastic sources; in fact, when parties requested the drafting of a contract, a suitable format would be chosen and particular provisions would be included and, supposedly, scribes made these decisions, but we do not know the exact procedure.


§2. Two model contracts: an adoption and an orchard sale (Education 78, Cotsen 52175)
§2.1. General description
§2.1.1. The two model contracts here presented (in a single tablet) belong to the Lloyd E. Cotsen Cuneiform Tablets Collection,[10] consisting of 215 tablets, the majority of which were written by apprentice scribes in ancient Mesopotamian schools.[11] They provide a relatively comprehensive view of scribal training and writing techniques in the Mesopotamian educational system.[12] Most of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period (2000- 1595 BC), but some texts go back to earlier periods (the oldest are from the Uruk III period, ca. 3200-3000 BC).[13] The collection includes exercises in vocabulary, sign formation, literature, grammar, law, letters, administration, stylus practices, thus covering the entire curriculum of scribal training, from the most basic beginner lessons to the advanced lessons of the final stage of education. The origin of the material is not yet known, having been acquired over time through the antiquities market.[14]


§2.1.2. The tablet examined here[15] contains two model contracts, divided by a ruling on the clay: the first one (obv. ll. 1-17) concerns the rescue and the adoption of an abandoned baby by a nugig-priestess; the second one (obv. l. 18 - rev. l. 12, following the line numbering practice of CDLI) is a sale contract of an orchard planted with date palms. In addition, the Cotsen collection contains ten other tablets recording model contracts:[16] silver loans, barley loans, a dispute concerning a party wall (Sumerian iz-zi dal-ba-na),[17] and the adoption of a child.[18] Our document is a rectangular, single-column tablet (Sum. im-gid2-da, “long tablet”); joined from fragments, it measures 145 × 59 mm and its surface is a mottled tan and dark brown color; moreover, there are white concretions visible everywhere.[19]


§2.1.3. This peculiar text corresponds to Type III tablets within the classification first proposed by M. Civil (1969: 27-28, 1979: 5) and later modified by S. Tinney (1999: 160).[20] Based on the script, it is possible to date the tablet to the Old Babylonian period; this identification is fully confirmed by the particular oath clause at the end of both the model contracts. In fact, instead of the usual promissory oath that customarily concludes the model contracts (mu lugal-bi in-pa3, “he has sworn by the royal name”), here the clause provides a direct invocation to the deities Nanna and Šamaš, and to the king Rīm-Sîn, the 10th king of the Larsa dynasty (1822 - 1763 BC). As far as the provenience of the tablet is concerned, there is no archaeological evidence for the city it comes from, but the combination of the two deities and the name of the ruler of Larsa in the clause of the oath, leads us to hypothesize an origin from the city of Larsa, or one of the cities under its direct control (this hypothesis will be defended during the analysis of the text below).


figure1 sign

Figure 1: The text Cotsen 52175


§2.2. Model contract 1: Adoption of an exposed baby by a nugig-priestess
§2.2.1. The first case recorded on the tablet concerns a nugig-priestess named Simat-Adad, who rescued and adopted an exposed baby, a foundling. A child exposed by its legal guardians, at the point of abandonment, is statusless, and no one has a legal claim to it. When the child is rescued and therefore legally claimed by another person, that person then assigns a status to the foundling (that of son, daughter, freeman, slave, etc.). The text reads, obv. 1-17[21]:


1.   1 dumu-nita2 gaba
2.   ˹pu2˺-ta pa3-da
3.   sila-ta kur2-ra
4.   1me-diškur nu-gig
5.   ka ur-gi7-ra-ta ba-[da]-kar
6.   ka uga-ta ba-da-an-šub
7.   1me-diškur nu-gig
8.   nam-dumu-ni-še3 šu ba-an-ti
9.   nam-ibila-ni-še3 in-ĝar
10.   u4 kur2-še3 tukum-bi
11.   1me-diškur nu-gig
12.   dumu-ĝu10 nu-me-en ba-an-na-du11
13.   e2 a-ša3 ĝeškiri6 geme2 ARAD2
14.   niĝ2-gur11-ra u3 ĝeššu-kara2
15.   a-na ĝal2-la-am3
16.   ba-ra-an-e11-de3
17.   mu d˹nanna˺ dutu u3 [dri]-˹im˺-dsuen lugal in-pa3


One suckling male child, found at a well, rescued from the street, Simat-Adad, the nugig, has snatched from the mouth of a dog, has made a raven drop from its mouth. Simat-Adad, the nugig, has adopted him as her son (and) established him as her heir. In the future, if Simat-Adad, the nugig, says to him, “You are not my son!,” she shall forfeit house, field, orchard, female and male slaves, possessions and utensils, as much as there may be. She has sworn by the name of Nanna, Šamaš, and of the king Rīm-Sîn.


§2.2.2. Description
§ The basic schematic form of the Old Babylonian adoption contracts[22] contains the following elements, frequently (but not always) in the following order: [23]

a) a clause stating that the adoption has taken place;

b) a clause stating that an adoption payment has been made to the natural parents or to the adopter;

c) a clause describing the property to be inherited by the adoptee;

d) a clause of penalties for breaking the contract by the adoptee or the adopter(s);

e) a clause describing the adoptee’s obligation to support his adoptive parents (usually with regular allotments of food, clothing and money);

f) oath and a list of witnesses.


§ In the adoption contract here published, only three of these general clauses (a, d and f ) appear, and the phraseology differs significantly from actual adoptions: the formulae used to describe the baby as a foundling (found at a well, brought from the street, rescued from the mouths of a dog and a raven) seem to be references to didactic collections of legal phraseology.[24]


§ It seems that among various societies throughout history, there was the practice of exposing unwanted infants.[25] Parents who did not want or could not care for their child exposed it, thereby renouncing all rights and obligations to the baby, who was now in “an outside, ownerless and lawless area where the dogs roam, which is outside the legal borders of the community.”[26] An abandoned child was described as the one “who has no father (and) mother” (ša aba u umma lā īšû), or “who does not know his father (and) his mother” (ša abašu ummašu lā īdû);[27] he may have been found in the street (ina sūqi), rescued from a well (ina būrti), let go from a raven’s mouth (ina pī āribi), or cast in a puddle. The most common phrase to describe a foundling is “the one snatched from a dog’s mouth” (ina pī kalbi ekim-šu).


§ It is interesting to note that one of the names given to foundlings in ancient Mesopotamia (in the Old Babylonian [ca. 1800-1600 BC] and Neo-Babylonian periods [ca. 650-540]) was ša-pī-kalbi, literally “He-of-the-dog’s-mouth.”[28] However, as M. Malul and others have pointed out, this is not the only name that implies that a child was exposed. Other similarly constructed names are: ina-pī-kalbi-irīḥ, literally “He-has-been-left-over-from-the-dog’s-mouth,” sūqā’a/šulâ’a/sūqā’ītum, “(S)he-of-the-street,” nāru-erība, “The-river-has-compensated me,” and more in this vein. All these expressions clearly prove that the practice of exposure was quite widespread in ancient Mesopotamian society, and that children were abandoned in various places, such as streets, woods, mountains, near or even in rivers, wells, and even swamps and puddles (presumably in protective containers).


§ The adopter of the rescued baby is here a nugig-priestess.[29] The Sumerian term nu-gig,[30] whose lexical equivalent in Akkadian is qadištu, has been variously translated as “hierodule, harlot,” or “holy one, sacred, tabooed woman,”[31] and recently as “midwife.”[32] In the Old Babylonian legal system, the nugig/qadištu appears together with other classes of women regulated by the law codes:[33] the nadītu, the kulmašītu and the ugbabtu were women organized into special groups, each having a special relationship to a male deity and whose sexuality was controlled by celibacy or marriage.


§ According to the Old Babylonian references, the nugig/qadištu seems to have had a special relationship with the god Adad[34] and (in Mari) with Annunītum.[35] This priestess was not cloistered and could own property, marry, and bear children;[36] in addition, there are some indications that she may have served as a wet-nurse or a midwife.[37] Details on her professional activities have to be inferred also from some literary, often poetic texts (such as “Enlil and Sud”), in which the nugig is described as a midwife, with duties not limited to nursing infants, but extending all through the pregnancy, administering the physical preparations and care given to pregnant women in traditional societies.[38]


§2.2.3. Commentary
1: for the term dumu-nita2 gaba, cf. CAD Ş s.v. ṣiḫru, “small, young, second in rank; child,” 180a ; CAD I, s.v. irtu, “chest, breast,” in mār (mārat) irti “suckling,” 186. See also dumugabû in CAD D, 183.


2: pu2-ta pa3-da was a common Sumerian name, but here it is used in its literal sense, “found at the well.” For a similar usage see Klein & Sharlach 2007, i 2 and NGU 204: 22-23. Although sila-ta ku4-ra and ka ur-gi7-ra-ta kar are not attested as Sumerian PNs, their Akkadian equivalents, respectively sūqā’a/šulâ’a/ sūqā’ītum, “(S)he-of-the-street” and ša-pī-kalbi, or ina-pī-kalbi-irīḫ, “He-of-the-dog’s-mouth” or “He-has-been-left-over-from-the-dog’s-mouth,” serve as quite common PNs in the OB and NB periods (see above).


2-6: identical phraseology appears in the 1st millennium didactic lexical texts Ana ittišu (Ai) and Ur5-ra II.[39]


Ai III iii 32-37 Ur5-ra II 3-5
32) pu2-ta pa3-da 3) pu2-ta pa3-da
  ina bur-ti a-tu-šu   ina bur-tum a-tu
33) sila-˹ta˺ [ba-an]-˹ku4˺-ra 4) sila-ta i-ku4-ra
  ina su-qi2 šu-ru-ub   ina su-u2-qi2 šu-ru-ub
34-35) ka ur-˹gi7˺-ta ba-an-[da]-kar 5) ka ur-gi7-a-ni-še3 ba-an-da-kar
  ina pi-i kal-bi e-ki-im-šu   ina pi-i kal-bi e-kim
36-37) ka ˹uga˺-ta mi-ni-ib2-ta-šub
  ina pi-i a-ri-bi u2-šad-di


(the child) has been found in a well, it has been rescued (lit. brought into [the house] from the street), it has been snatched from the mouth of a dog, (it has been let go from the mouth of a raven)*.


In line 3, the PAP-sign appears, and the verb is to be read i3- kur2-ra, where kur2 may be considered a student error in dictation (an unorthographic reading of ku4 = kur9).[40]


3-4: nu-gig-ga-bi dumu sila-am3 mi-ni-in-ri, qa2-di-iš-˹ta˺ [ši-i] ma-ru ˹su˺-[qi iš-ši]-ma, “this nugig/qadištu took in a child from the street,” Ai VII iii 11. It is interesting to highlight that the name of the priestess, Simat-Adad (“Fitting-for-Adad”)[41] presents the divine name of the god Adad, to whom the qadištu-priestesses are mainly dedicated, according to the Old Babylonian sources.[42]


5: in the ancient Near East, the dog is a common animal that roamed the streets and the steppe, ate whatever had been thrown out, and was often a nuisance; its role as one of the typical representatives of the ownerless area is supported by the Mesopotamian legal evidence.[43]


6: for the writing U2.ŠE.NAGAga cf. CAD A2, s.v. āribu, lex. section. To the best of my knowledge, the description of the foundling as the one who “has been let go from the mouth of a raven” is attested only in this model contract and in Ai III iii 36 (see commentary to ll. 2-6).


8-9: the adoption clause here designates the adoptee both with the status of son (nam-dumu/ana mārūtim) and of heir (nam-ibila/ana aplūtim), being a combination of two different adoption clauses. In the context of adoption, analysis of the pertinent documentary evidence reveals a great degree of semantic overlap, and does not allow the distinctive nature of the statuses to be determined. So, we consider the two terms to have been synonymous and, when used together, they seem to function as a hendiadys indicating a single transaction.[44] The verb used in connection with nam-dumu, šu-ti (leqû), is commonly found in documents from Larsa and Ur[45] (while adoption contracts from Nippur[46] use the Sumerian verb ri, Akkadian tarû), exactly as the verb used here in connection with nam-ibila, ĝar (šaqānu), that is typical of the formulary of Larsa and Ur[47] (while documents from Nippur[48] use again for the status of heir the verb ri).


10-12: a parent who tried unlawfully to dissolve the legal tie between himself and his child by using the formula dumu-ĝu10 nu-me-en (Akk. ul mārī atta) “you are not my son,”[49] could expect to be severely punished.[50]


13-16: the most common penalty for an adopter who denies the legal bond with the adoptee was the forfeiture of movable and immovable property;[51] here the sanction is expressed through a complete list of all the goods that will be forfeited: house, fields and orchards, slaves, possessions, and tools, “as much as there may be” (a-na ĝal2-(la)-am3).[52] In the adoption contracts, the same formula is always expressed through the corresponding Akkadian formula, mala ibaššû (sometimes also mimma la ibaššû).[53] It is interesting to stress that no penalty is foreseen for the adoptee, as is the case, to the contrary, in the model contract edited by Klein & Sharlach 2007: “If PN1 (the adoptee) says to PN2, his mother: ‘You are not my mother!’— they will shave him (and) she will sell him.”[54]


17: usually, in model contracts, the promissory oath is expressed by the generic formula mu lugal-bi in-pa3, without any specific designations of the names of gods and/or the king. It is surprising, then, to find here an oath sworn by the names of two deities, Nanna and Šamaš, respectively, and of the 10th king of the dynasty of Larsa, Rīm-Sîn.[55]


The presence of these two deities and of the king Rīm-Sîn leads me to propose a provenience of Larsa (or from another city under its direct control, such as Kutalla)[56] for the tablet containing this and the following model contracts. Indeed, in contracts written in Larsa, oaths made in the name of Nanna,[57] followed by the god Šamaš, the patron of the city, worshipped in the chief sanctuary e2-babbar, and, finally, by the king, were prevalent.[58] Even under the predecessor of Rīm-Sîn, his brother Warad-Sîn, this formula was in use, but it became the standard formula in Larsa under the reign of Rīm-Sîn (and it supplanted completely the “basic” formula, without the names of deities or king, used in Larsa in the beginning of the reign of Rīm-Sîn). In particular, it should be noted that in the oath clause of both model contracts the name of Rīm-Sîn is preceded by the divine determinative, the sign dingir. From the documentation, we know that Rīm-Sîn was deified beginning in the 23rd year of his reign, and since this year dingir+RN started to appear in the oath invocations, becoming finally predominant after the conquest of Isin by the king, in his 30th year, and remaining in use until the end of his kingdom.[59] This leads us to assume that the model contract was written after the 23rd year of the Rīm-Sîn’s reign.


§2.3. Model contract 2: Sale of a date palm orchard
§2.3.1. The second case recorded on the tablet concerns the sale of an orchard, planted with date palms, that is said to border on the Euphrates (obv. 18 - rev. 8).


1.   2 (or 3?) iku ĝeškiri6 ĝešĝešnimbar ib2-sa2
2.   gu2 i7 buranuna
3.   us2-sa-du ĝeškiri6 nu-ur2-eš18-dar
4.   us2-sa-du 2-kam dsuen-a-bu-šu
5.   ˹saĝ˺-bi kaskal
6.   ˹saĝ˺-bi 2-kam i3-li2-a-bi
7.   ĝeškiri6 dutu-re-me-ni
8.   ki dutu-re-me-ni
9.   lugal ĝeškiri6-ke4
10.   1dsuen-a-ša-ri-du
11.   in-ši-sa10
12.   1/3 ma-na ku3-babbar sa10 til-la-bi-še3
13.   in-na-[an]-la2
14.   u4 kur2-še3 u4 ˹nu-me-ak?˺ dutu-re-me-ni
15.   ĝeškiri6-ĝu10 nu-ub-be2-a?
16.   mu dnanna dutu u3 dri-im-dsuen lugal in-pa3
17.   inim ĝal2-la ĝeškiri6
18.   1dutu-re-me-ni
19.   ba-ni-ib-gi4-gi4


2 (or 3?) iku of an orchard filled with date palms, on the bank of the river Euphrates, (its) flank bordering the orchard of Nūr-Eštar, (its) second flank bordering (the orchard of) Sîn-abūšu, its front-side the roadway, its second front-side (the orchard of) Ilī-abi: (it’s) the orchard of Šamaš-rēmēnī, from Šamaš-rēmēnī, the owner of the orchard, Sîn-ašarēdu bought. 1/3 mana of silver, as its full price, he weighed out for him. Šamaš-rēmēnī has sworn by the name of Nanna, Šamaš and of the king Rīm-Sîn (that) he will not say in the future, ever, “(It is) my orchard.” In case of a claim against the orchard, Šamaš-rēmēnī will be responsible.


§2.3.2. Description
§ This model contract follows the basic format for real estate sales[60] (obviously, being a scholastic exercise, stripped of the list of witnesses and the date):


a) area and type of land

b) location of plot

c) names of the owner and of the buyer

d) sale and payment formulae

e) final clauses

f ) promissory oath formula

g) other additional clauses (warranty against eviction, irrevocability clause)

h) list of witnesses and date


§ The general location of the property is often referred to by the name of the river or the canal on whose banks it was located.[61] In the model contract here published, the orchard is said to be “on the bank of the river Euphrates” (gu2 i7 buranuna).[62] Usually, to give a more exact description, the purchased plot is designated with a list of the neighboring properties, often mentioning the two flanks or long sides (us2, Akkadian šiddum) and the two narrow sides, turned toward the irrigation canal (saĝ, originally “head” in Sumerian, used for the Akkadian pūtum, “front”).


§ The formula “on the bank of WN” is also used to specify the quality of a real estate. In fact, orchards tended to be situated nearer to the city than fields (or even in the city), but at a water source, which could be a well (if in a city), but more likely was a canal or river. In the Old Babylonian period, several fields might be watered by one head-feeder, the most valuable real estate being at, while the least expensive were furthest from a water source. It is widely assumed, in fact, that on the top of the levees were the sites of date palm orchards, and probably also summer gardens, whereas the barley fields were down the backslopes, and perhaps at a considerable distance away from the levee tops.[63]


§ Occasionally, the real estate is bounded by a street (Sumerian sila or e-sir2);[64] in our text it is called kaskal, “roadway,” as it may be expected near a major waterway such as the Euphrates. So, I would tentatively suggest that the main head-feeder was along the river Euphrates, separated from it by a road for the passage of men, animals, and loads of grain and products,[65] while on the two long edges are more orchards.


§2.3.3. Commentary
1: ib2-sa2 is a variant of the formula ib2-si (<ib2-si-a), corresponding to the Akkadian mali, stative of the verb malû, “to be full, filled.”[66]


2: to the best of my knowledge, there are few sale contracts (not from Larsa) in which the real estate is on the banks of, or bounded by the Euphrates river.[67]


5: kaskal as a boundary of an orchard appears in the Larsa sale contract YOS 8, 5 obv. 4, us2-sa-du kaskal.


7-11: for this and similar formulae see Roth 1979: 141-142, where it is stressed that the structure of the present text is standardized in Larsa.[68]


12-13: here the payment for the property follows the order common in Larsa and Kutalla deeds, i.e., a) amount, b) the full price and c) the verb. The most common order for the elements to be recorded in Old Babylonian sale documents generally inverts the order of the first two elements: b) sa10 til-la-bi-še3 a) n ku3-babbar c) in-na(-an)-la2.[69]


14-15: this irrevocability clause, which corresponds to Type E according to the classification made by M. San Nicolò,[70] was wide-spread, but it was predominant in the contracts from Larsa and Kutalla and was normally introduced (as the other clauses of irrevocability) by u4 kur2-še3 or a more complete u4 kur2-še3 u4 nu-me-ak (which appears to be the case here).[71] The standard formula is: (sale object)-ĝu10 nu-ub-be2-a, “(the seller) will not say: ‘(It is) my property!’ (i.e., ‘This property is mine’).” This clause was generally used only in sales and exchanges of immovable property; with persons, the clause is known in slave sales.[72]


16: for a discussion on this peculiar Larsa oath formula, see the commentary to Model contract 1, l. 17.[73]


17-19: this warranty clause against eviction was used frequently only in Larsa and its dependent cities Ur and Kutalla; here the short form[74] is used: inim ĝal2-la (sale object) (seller) ba-ni-ib-gi4-gi4, “the seller will settle a (future) claim on the object.”





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Version: 24 March 2014