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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

10/2013 manuscript  of the month

A clay manuscript with cuneiform signs from very different periods

A clay tablet which was inscribed during the 7th century BCE contains a standard list of cuneiform signs in use at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE and their supposed corresponding archaic forms in use at the end of the 4th millennium BCE. Why did a scribe of the 1st millennium BCE write down such old signs?

This clay tablet is known because two fragments forming 80% of the original tablet survive. However, their inventory numbers indicate that they were discovered at two different sites. The first fragment (ND 4311), which is preserved in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, was discovered in 1955 by the archaeological team of Max Mallowan (Agatha Christie’s second husband) in Nimrud, the ancient city of Kalhu, on the Upper Tigris in Iraq. It was found together with 300 tablets in the ruins of the Temple of Nabû, the scribes’ god. This library was established by the Assyrian King Adad-nērārī III (798 BCE), and later enlarged by King Assurbanipal (668-627 BCE).
The second fragment (K. 8520) presumably originates from Kujunjik, the main hill of the ancient city of Niniveh, which is located forty kilometres north of Kalhu on the Tigris. It was brought to the British Museum by George Smith (1840-1876 CE), who was the first scholar to decipher the flood tablet of the Gilgameš epic. How can two fragmentary clay tablets, which presumably originate from two different sites, belong to one and the same manuscript? George Smith went to Niniveh several times between 1873 and 1876. He also visited Kalhu and found several historical texts there. The tablets he brought back to London were all thrown together before reaching the museum, where they were given inventory numbers later on. All tablets were marked with the letter “K”, suggesting that they had been excavated at Kujunjik (Niniveh).

Figure 1. Reproduction of ND 4311 + K. 8520, recto and verso (according to Michel 2011, p. 248, photo montage: Martine Esline) > Enlarge

The tablet, which was presumably written during the 7th century BCE, contains a list of cuneiform signs in use under the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon (18th century BCE) and their supposed form at the very beginning of writing. Writing appeared in southern Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE and resembled a succession of more or less figurative pictorial signs corresponding to words (pictograms). As the signs were drawn on fresh clay which was later dried in the sun, they evolved into a more angular form and looked like mixed wedges, hence the name “cuneiform writing”. This type of writing was used for more than three millennia throughout the Near East to write a dozen of different languages. The Sumerian language was written with logograms (signs representing a word) at end of the 4th millennium BCE. For Akkadian, a Semitic language, a developed form of the Sumerian signs that were used syllabically (middle of the 3rd millennium BCE) were borrowed. The text on our clay tablet belongs to the category of syllabaries (lists of signs corresponding to syllables) and lexical texts that were used as school texts by Mesopotamian scribes. This manuscript shows a list of signs following syllabary “A” (starting with “A” = “water” in Sumerian), as it was used from the middle of the 2nd millennium onwards. The sequence of the signs is based on their graphic forms, phonetic permutations, semantic associations, and even on phonetic similarities of their translations in Akkadian, which means that later lists lost the order of their Sumerian ancestors. This tablet is the third of a series of four tablets (similar to modern book pages) of syllabary “A”.

Figure 2. Copy of the fragment ND 4311 by D. J. Wiseman, published in Wiseman / Black 1996, CTN IV, no. 229 > Enlarge

Such lists were very useful to learn cuneiform writing; they were memorized by students and reproduced. However, the use of very ancient signs suggests that this tablet was not written for the curriculum, but by an erudite scholar, who was fascinated by the long history of cuneiform script and wished to study antique texts. Indeed, the manuscript simultaneously shows two different forms of this writing separated by more than a millennium. Signs are written in four columns (three of them are visible) on each side with each column being separated in two: On the left, pictograms were incised on clay using a pointed tool; on the right, cuneiform signs were imprinted using the angle of a reed stylus.
In order to understand what motivated the scribe who wrote this manuscript, it is important to find out whether the list was the result of a careful historical investigation or whether the pictograms drawn on the tablet were only figments of the scribe’s imagination. When compared with the signs written down on archaic tablets recovered at Uruk (south of Mesopotamia), which date back to the end of the 4th millennium, the pictograms of our manuscript are slightly similar, but they are most often mirror inverted so that their corresponding reading is systematically wrong. They rather look like a speculative image of what the signs of ancient times may have looked like. Maybe our scribe had access to ancient originals but did not understand them. Or he simply imagined the form and meaning of the ancient ancestors of the writing he had inherited and used for his daily work. Over centuries scribes used to copy ancient historical, literary, or scientific texts to keep them in libraries, sometimes adapting them to their own norms. As they were aware that the writing system they used was the result of a long development, some scholars of the 1st millennium – as the scribe of these two fragments – thus tried to recover the most ancient form of the signs. They reinvented them and used them as if they were their own. Indeed, another tablet from the same period even testifies to the attempt to write down a false historical text by using such invented signs!

Figure 3. Reproduction in red clay of the fragment ND 4311 by C. Michel, recto and verso
(April 2010; Photo: Martine Esline) > Enlarge


CAVIGNEAUX, Antoine (1983): “Lexikalische Listen A”. In Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 6, 609-641.

MALLOWAN, Max E. L. (1966): Nimrud and its remains, vol. 1, London: Collins.

MICHEL, Cécile (2011): “Une liste paléographique de signes cunéiformes. Quand les scribes assyriens s’intéressaient aux écritures anciennes…”. In F. Wateau (ed.), with the collaboration of C. Perlès & Ph. Soulier: Profils d’objets, Approches d’anthropologues et d’archéologues, Colloques de la Maison René-Ginouvès 7, Paris: De Boccard, 245-257. > Link

WISEMAN, Donald. J. / BLACK, Jeremy. A. (1996): Literary Texts from the Temple of Nabû, Cuneiform Texts from Nimrud (CTN) IV, Oxford: British School of Archaeology.

Two fragments of an unbaked clay tablet with pictograms and cuneiform signs
Dimensions: ND 4311 (IM 59264) : 11 × 7.5 cm and K. 8520 : 13.3 × 7.6 cm
Provenance: Library of the Nabû Temple, Kalhu (modern Nimrud, Iraq)
Conservation: K. 8520 : British Museum (London) and ND 4311 (IM 59264) : Iraq Museum (Baghdad)
Time of redaction: 8th or 7th century BCE

Text by Cécile Michel, CNRS, Histoire et Archéologie de l’Orient Cunéiforme (UMR 7041), Nanterre, France.
©: Fig 1+3: Martine Esline Fig 2: D.J. Wiseman