Cuneiform Digital Library Notes
2015:10        «              »
A note on groups of forged copies of
Ur III tablets from Girsu

Richard Firth

In his paper, “Un motivo per cui le tavolette amministrative neo-sumeriche sono così numerose”, Francesco Pomponio (1992) drew attention to several groups of forged casts of tablets. These forgeries are relatively unusual because they have been so well documented. The aim of this note is to take that study further for the forged Ur III tablets from Girsu that were considered in that paper. These were most probably the work of a single forger and it is interesting to note the way that they are now spread around Western collections.

These forged copies of tablets are itemised in Table 1, which extends the list noted by Pomponio. [The groups of copies are identified here using their CDLI numbers and all references to CDLI are with respect to downloads in May 2015.] Table 1 shows that the copies are mostly clustered together within three collections.

In the case of the relevant tablets in the British Museum, the majority have registration numbers of the form 1901-02-09, nnnn indicating that they were all registered on 9th February 1901. The copied tablets from the University of Pennsylvania are all numbered within the range UM 29-15-951 to 962 (except possibly NATN 682).

There are also numerous duplicates amongst the tablets published by Legrain (1913) from the Cugnin collection. Legrain was very much aware of the presence of these casts and states that they are very skilfully made and notes that in one example there are 9 copies of the same tablet. [It is convenient here to use the numbering of the texts in Legrain’s paper, so that Cugnin 21 refers to the tablet with the text given by Legrain as no. 21, and so on. This note is concentrating on Ur III texts from Girsu so Cugnin tablets 28, 30-41, 57, 82, 88, 102 & 107 will not be considered here.]

The clustering of these forged Ur III Girsu tablets within these collections strongly suggests that they are the work of the same forger.

Cuneiform tablets can be forged either by writing by hand on clay, attempting to copy ancient tablets, or by creating casts of ancient tablets. In the present case, the forged tablets have been created by separately making copies of the obverse and reverse using moulds and then joining together the two halves. Pomponio notes that the forged tablets have two characteristics. Firstly, the signs are formed in a shallower way than normal; and, secondly, there is usually evidence of a seam where the obverse and reverse were joined. For some forgeries, this seam is disguised by partially covering it with seal impressions (Leichty 1970). In others, the edges are smoothed and polished to remove signs of the join (Hilgert 1997). However, in the examples shown by Pomponio, neither of these has been done.

With the exception of P127604, all of the tablets listed in Table 1 are small (typically, 27 × 31 × 15 mm) with a few lines of text on each side. One might assume that the copies of larger tablets in the Cugnin collection, with more lines of text, were either the work of a different forger or that the same forger had produced them later when his skills and confidence had developed.

As already noted, all but one of the British Museum tablets listed in Table 1 have registration numbers of the form 1901-02-09, nnnn, indicating that they were all registered on the same day. These were purchased from Élias Géjou, a well-known antiquities dealer who supplied cuneiform tablets to the British Museum. [These include the 184 tablets with registration numbers beginning 1897-05-13 (BM 23103-23286); and the 787 tablets with registration numbers beginning 1899-04-15 (BM 85194-85980).]

Eight of these forged tablets have registration numbers that are clustered together within the short range 1901-02-09, 1101 to 1117. There is probably a strong relationship between the BM registration numbers and the individual containers that held the tablets when they were initially delivered to the museum. Therefore, it seems likely that most of these eight tablets were actually in the same container when they are sold to the British Museum.

This supports similar findings for this group of copies in the Pennsylvania museum and the Cugnin collection. The implication is that the forger released batches of copies into the antiquities market and, in these three instances, these forgeries remained within those batches when they were eventually sold to their current owners. It is not clear how long the chain was between the forger and the international dealers who sold tablets to the museums. However, it seems unlikely that a dealer, such as Géjou, would want to risk his reputation by incorporating a small number of forgeries within a sale of a much larger number of tablets. Furthermore, it also seems unlikely that a dealer would knowingly leave copies of the same tablet within the same batch, since this increases the likelihood of the copies being spotted.

On the basis of the available evidence, the forged tablets in Table 1 from Chicago (A), Couvent Saint-Etienne, Jerusalem (SE) and the John Rylands Library, Manchester (JRL) appear to be singletons rather than indicators of a larger group of copies.

For Ur III specialists, the warning is to be particularly watchful for the possibility of forgeries within British Museum tablets with registration numbers beginning 1901-02-09, as well as tablets from the University of Pennsylvania within the range UM 29-15-951 to 962 and tablets from the Cugnin collection.

However, forgeries in the British Museum are not by any means confined to those with registration numbers beginning 1901-02-09. In their catalogue, Sigrist et al. (2006: 306) note 60 forgeries (45 made from moulds and 15 hand-written). These are scattered around several groups of purchases, although a relatively large number (i.e., 38) were from the same batch, purchased from William T. Burbush, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham (with registration numbers of the form 1898-02-15, nnnn). These forgeries currently remain unpublished and so it is not possible to determine how far such copies have found their way into other collections.

Table 1

CDLI numberMuseum no.Registration no.
P127598(i)BM 0888821901-02-09, 0599
BM 0933641901-02-09, 0981
BM 0934901901-02-09, 1107
BM 0934941901-02-09, 1111
BM 0935081901-02-09, 1125
BM 1003801905-05-15, 0340
Cugnin 20
Cugnin 21
Cugnin 54
SE 004
P374121BM 0932971901-02-09, 0914
BM 0933681901-02-09, 0985
BM 0934001901-02-09, 1017
BM 0934331901-02-09, 1050
BM 0934611901-02-09, 1078
BM 0934811901-02-09, 1098
P374322(ii)BM 0933691901-02-09, 0986
BM 0934021901-02-09, 1019
BM 0934031901-02-09, 1020
BM 0934791901-02-09, 1096
BM 0934841901-02-09, 1101
BM 0934881901-02-09, 1105
BM 0934961901-02-09, 1113
BM 0934981901-02-09, 1115
A 00930
JRL 0030
Cugnin 22
UM 29-15-952
UM 29-15-955
P374133BM 0888601901-02-09, 0577
BM 0889091901-02-09, 0626
BM 0889281901-02-09, 0645
BM 0934241901-02-09, 1041
BM 0934371901-02-09, 1054
BM 0934871901-02-09, 1104
BM 0935001901-02-09, 1117
P374120BM 0932871901-02-09, 0904
UM 29-15-958
UM 29-15-962
P127601(iii)Cugnin 24
Cugnin 26
P121373(iv)BM 0886781901-02-09, 0395
BM 0887421901-02-09, 0459
UM 29-15-951
UM 29-15-953
UM 29-15-959
Cugnin 18
Cugnin 19
Erm 04119
WML 34.42(v)
P127604Cugnin 42 (copy)
Cugnin 43 (copy)
Cugnin 44 (copy)
Cugnin 45 (copy)
EBKT cast P382215(vi)
P121375UM 29-15-954 (NATN 677)
NATN 682(vii)
i Legrain states that Cugnin 20 & 54 are copies and that Cugnin 21 is the original.
ii According to PPAC 5, 1398, BM 88972 (1901-02-09, 0689) has the same text as P374322 except that it is reported to list 6 gešu3-suh5 ig rather than 8. It is described on the British Museum website as a cast. Therefore, it seems possible that it is part of the P374322 group of tablets.
iii Legrain identifies Cugnin 24 as the copy and Cugnin 26 as the original.
iv UM 29-15-953 may be the original that was damaged during the preparation of the mould.
v Previously published as Schollmeyer 217 from a private collection (MVN 1, 164).
vi Hilgert, CDLJ 2008:2, n. 5.
vii Note that Owen (1982) and Gerardi (1984) both refer to NATN 682 as UM 29-15-984; however, there is a different tablet on CDLI P121380 with this number.


Gerardi, Pamela
1984A Bibliography of the Tablets of the University Museum, Occasional Publications of the Babylonian Fund 8. Pennsylvania.
Hilgert, Markus
1997“Notes and Observations on Ur III tablets from the Oriental Institute”. JCS 49:45-47.
2008“Cuneiform Texts in the Collection of St. Martin Archabbey Beuron”. CDLJ 2008:2.
Leichty, Erle
1970“A Remarkable Forger”. Expedition Spring 1970:17-21.
Owen, David I.
1982Neo-Sumerian Archival Texts primarily from Nippur in the University Museum, The Oriental Institute and the Iraq Museum (NATN). Eisenbrauns.
Pomponio, Francesco
2012“Un motivo per cui le tavolette amministrative neo-sumeriche sono così numerose”. In: Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, Cinzia Pappi, and Simonetta Ponchia (ed.) Leggo! Studies Presented to Frederick Mario Fales on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday ():637-652.
Sigrist, Marcel, Zadok, Ran and Walker, Christopher B. F.
2006Catalogue of the Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum III. .
ISSN 1546-6566    © Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative | Archival: 2015-07-15