last month
next month

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

10/2015 manuscript  of the month

A manuscript in the shape of a sheep’s liver?

This clay object shaped in the form of a sheep’s liver contains a text written in cuneiform on both sides. It was found in the palace of Mari, Syria, was part of a collection of similar objects and is dated to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE. What might such an item have been used for?

Fig. 1: Photo of the liver model AO 19829, recto
> Enlarge

This object belongs to a collection of thirty-two liver models found in 1935 by the French archaeologist André Parrot (1901–1980) in the royal palace of Mari (Syria, Middle Euphrates), in the king’s quarters, together with his international correspondence. It dates to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE and is now kept at the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Representation of the features on the liver model seen
in Fig. 1 (drawing based on Meyer 1987, p. 197) > Enlarge

This palm-sized model is small compared to real livers. It is made of clay and shows the two lobes, right and left. Moulded pieces of clay represent the main parts: the long gall bladder and the caudate lobe (‘Finger’), which is prismatic and blunt-pointed (Fig. 2). Lines representing the porta hepatis (‘River of the Liver’) and grooves on the lobus sinister representing the impressio reticularis (‘Presence’) and the impressio abomasalis (‘Path’) were made with a stylus and are thus also easy to identify. Abnormalities are marked by incised lines or holes; such marks on the liver were interpreted as omens and ‘read’ by diviners. Additionally, text was inscribed on both sides of the model.

Divination is attested by an enormous number of sources from the beginning of the 2nd millennium to the 2nd century BCE. The most important type of divination took its omen from the presentation of the entrails of a ritually sacrificed animal, usually a lamb. The diviner analysed the characteristics of the internal organs: the liver, lungs, intestines, spleen, etc., the most important one being the liver since it was considered to be the main organ for thoughts and feelings. Moreover, its shape presents a range of peculiarities. The diviner therefore regarded the liver as the ‘tablet of the gods’ and as the main medium able to reveal gods’ wills. In Mari, between three and seven hundred lambs were slaughtered within a specific month for the purpose of divination!

Fig. 3: Photo of the liver model AO 19829, verso
> Enlarge

Clay models of the liver contain both graphic representations and text. Abnormalities are usually represented graphically on the models from Mari, while the predictions they contain are written close to the malformations. On the recto of the liver model in Fig. 1, we can see the gall bladder, the ‘Finger’ and the ‘River of the Liver’, which all look normal. The ‘Path’ is also represented by a light, horizontal line. Any deformities are situated on the left lobe, which was considered a negative zone. The three small vertical lines located at the incisura ligamenti teretis (‘Palace Gate’) were also believed to be unfavourable. The text near these reads: ‘If the mood of the country turns evil [, it will be like that]’.

The three holes pierced through the object also indicate a negative sign. The text on the verso side beside the holes (Fig. 3) is the following: ‘Omen of siege, the one of [the city of] Kish. Breaches were cut through [the defences] in Kish in front of the army, and the army of Ishme-Dagan was captured’. It is certainly based on an earlier copy since Ishme-Dagan is known to have ruled the country during the second half of the 20th century BCE. Thus, this text is linked to an ancient historical event. The connection between the signs on the liver and the event was noted down and registered as an omen. This kind of divination was thus first empirical, based on the observation a posteriori, and was later conceptualised.

Fig. 4: Twelve clay models of the liver
from Mari in a showcase at the Louvre Museum
> Enlarge

Since many texts for divination by examining entrails cover the same content, one may wonder why such liver models existed at all. The liver is a hidden part of the animal which, when cut out of the sacrificed lamb, could not be preserved very long for obvious reasons. Making a model of the liver out of clay would have been very useful if one had wanted to learn about its general shape and parts, view the various deformations of the liver that occurred, read the predictions corresponding to specific abnormalities without mastering complex terminology, or keep a copy of a liver after its examination. Several copies of such livers could be made over time in order to preserve the link between the omen and a particular historical event.

While the character of the model is obvious, one might hesitate to claim this item is a manuscript due to its unusual form. However, there are several reasons why this object could be defined as a manuscript. As mentioned above, the writing material is clay, the most common medium used for cuneiform script: clay cuneiform tablets are portable, self-contained and erasable. Besides this, the liver models (Fig. 4) were used to archive precedents and were kept in the diviner’s house or temple and palace libraries since diviners were often employed by the state to inform and help the king in all his decisions. There may have been various other reasons for these manuscripts being created, including the need to record the appearance of a liver that had been examined, for teaching purposes and to transmit knowledge.


GLASSNER, Jean-Jacques (2009): ‘Écrire des livres à l’époque paléo-babylonienne: le traité d’extispicine.’ In: Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 99, 1–81.

JEYES, Ulla (1989): Old Babylonian Extispicy. Omen Texts in the British Museum (Publications de l’Institut historique-archéologique néerlandais de Stambul, 64). Leiden.

KOCH-WESTENHOLZ, Ulla (2000): Babylonian Liver Omens. The Chapters Manzāzu, Padānu and Pān tākalti of the Babylonian Extispicy Series mainly from Aššurbanipal’s Library (Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications, 25). Copenhagen.

MAUL, Stefan M. (2013): Die Wahrsagekunst im Alten Orient. Zeichen des Himmels und der Erde (Historische Bibliothek der Gerda Henkel Stiftung). Munich.

MEYER, Jan-Waalke (1987): Untersuchungen zu Tonlebermodellen aus dem Alten Orient (Alter Orient und Altes Testament, 39). Neukirchen-Vluyn.

RUTTEN, Marguerite (1938): ‘Trente-deux modèles de foies en argile inscrits provenant de Tell-Hariri (Mari).’ In: Revue d’Assyriologie, 35, 36–70.

Paris, Musée du Louvre
Shelf mark: excavation number, M. 1160; Musée du Louvre: AO 19829 (Paris); publication number Rutten 1938, no. 11.
Material: manuscript made in unbaked clay in the shape of a sheep’s liver; two cuneiform inscriptions.
Dimensions: 6.9 × 7.5 cm.
Provenance: Room 108 of the royal palace of Mari (Middle Euphrates, Syria), presumably 19th century BCE.

Text by Cécile Michel
© for fig. 1&3: RMN (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux
Fig. 2: Cécile Michel
Fig. 4: RMN (Musée du Louvre) / Martine Esline
Reference note:
Cécile Michel, “A manuscript in the shape of a sheep’s liver?”
In: Andreas Janke (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2015.10, SFB 950: Hamburg,