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Studying a long-neglected cuneiform collection


Marc Van De Mieroop

ARCHAEOLOGY's Carly Silver recently spoke with Columbia University's Marc Van De Mieroop about his work on a collection of cuneiform tablets from the Columbia library, most of which were donated in 1896 and have been scarcely studied since. Van De Mieroop, who specializes in ancient Near Eastern history, was educated at Belgium's Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven and received his M.A. and Ph.D degrees at Yale. He is set to publish Ur III Tablets in the Columbia University Libraries this year.

How did you learn about these tablets, because they've been there for a while? And how did you find out that they were hidden away?

The people in the scholarly community were aware of the existence of these tablets for many decades before I started to look at them. It was my own teacher when I was an the University of Leuven in Belgium...who urged me to work on them. He spent a lot of time in the United States looking at collections of cuneiform tablets and making hand copies of them. When I moved to Columbia University to take up an assistant professorship, he told me, "Oh, I have hand copies of these tablets. We should do something with them." And that's when I became first interested in them, so this is quite a long time ago.

So, when was it that you first came to Columbia?

This is in the mid-'80s.

And who was the professor that—

His name is Herbert Sauren. He taught me Sumerian when I was an undergraduate, which was possible where I went to university. After I graduated, I stayed in touch with him, and I am still in touch with him.

You're working with him on this project?

The book will come out in a couple of weeks, I've been told, and has three authors: Herbert Sauren, because he made the hand copies, the facsimile copies, of the tablets; then I, myself; and one of my own students, a former doctoral student, who is now a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He worked with me on finalizing the publication of these texts.

So, what have you learned from the translations? What have you learned from the documents you've looked at?

Well, one of the particular aspects of this group of tablets is that they become very useful only within the context of other tablets. There are tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets from this period of time distributed over numerous collections all over the world, and they basically are documents out of context right now. We can only truly appreciate their value looking at them within their context. So, what scholars will do now on the basis of our publication is integrate them into groups of material they already know or that they're working on and add the information from these individual documents to the information from the larger groups.

If you had to pick out a single most surprising fact that you've learned...

It's been a long time since I worked on the details, I must say, but I remember two cuneiform tablets that date only two days apart and list the names of people who work at a mill producing flour. They are very detailed lists of names, carefully written out, of some fifty people who worked in this organization. The fact that they are so accurate in recording of common people providing labor to the institution struck me at the time and still amazes me.

Well, going to the documents themselves, what kind of documents are they?

The documents that are part of the collection are all administrative records from the twenty-first century B.C., and most of them come from one particular city. That [city is] Lagash, in the south of Babylonia, in Sumer—I guess I should say "Girsu," which is more accurate, as it was part of a province called Lagash. And all texts in this collection deal with administrative issues. They deal with the labor being provided by individuals, amounts of bricks that are produced, animals that are being transferred from one part of the organization to another part of the organization. So, these are all documents of daily practice.


The text of one of the Columbia tablets (Courtesy Marc Van De Mieroop)

What sorts of people figure into the documents? Are they workers? Are they administrators? Are they both? Who's writing them?

The people who write them are certainly the administrators. That's beyond a doubt because only administrators—that is, a very small percentage of the population at that time—[were] able to write. What we should imagine is a type of government organization where a small number of individuals record particular transactions that are of importance to the administration.

So, they were archived for the purpose of keeping tabs on various things?

Correct, yes. They were kept in archives for keeping track of transactions.

So, what were some of the transactions?

For example, labor. Agriculture was obviously a very important part of the economy, so the labor needed to engage in agricultural tasks was recorded. Or the goods that had to be provided by the administration, such as the seed that was used to sow fields, or the amounts of grain that were used to feed the oxen that pulled plows, for example. These types of things are recorded.

And why did you decide to translate the Ur III tablets specifically, rather than those from another period?

Basically, my own reason for doing this was because Professor Sauren, my teacher, had copied these tablets. He was a specialist of that specific period of Babylonian history. Most of his research dealt with this particular period of time, so that's why he chose to work on those and that's why I ended up working on them, as well.

So, why do you think the collection went un-translated for so long, because they've been sitting there for a while?

It's a remarkable thing. People had worked on it before and they'd catalogued the collection. Actually, a small percentage of the collection had been published in full before. This was in 1906.... People had worked on it before and a complete catalogue of the collection appeared in 1973. Part of the reason is that there are literally tens of thousands of these type[s] of tablets in many different collections. You would think everybody would come to New York City to look at this, but, actually, there are much larger collections of this type of material in the United States at Yale University and at the University of Pennsylvania, and people have tended to work on these larger collections. In a sense, there is an embarrassment of riches of this material, so, therefore, people didn't feel a great need to work immediately on the Columbia collection.

They felt like they got enough of a sense of the period from reading the bigger hoards of documents?

Sometimes, yes. You could say that.

So, you mentioned that most of the tablets were from Lagash. Do you know about how many of them there were?

256. In total, we published 318 tablets.

So, you mentioned that your professor had a lot of scans or hand copies of these. Had he translated them beforehand or were you translating them?

No. The usual practice in the discipline for this type of material is that someone first makes a hand copy—that is, a drawing of the tablet, which is a three-dimensional object. Professor Sauren did that. Then, the content is transliterated: the cuneiform signs are rendered in the Latin alphabet using conventions of the discipline. And, finally, we provide indexes of the words in the texts and brief descriptions for a catalogue. Steven Garfinkle and I did that.

So, you transliterated every single tablet—

In the book, everything is transliterated.

Was there analysis in it, as well?

No, actually. The purpose of this particular book is to make the material available to scholars and so the emphasis is on the manuscripts themselves. We wanted to provide them to the scholarly world in as accurate and complete a form as possible. We do not include an interpretation in this volume.

If you had to provide a succinct analysis of documents you've translated, what would be the most striking aspect?

Again, it's not something where you focus on the individual document: you focus on the document as part of a larger group. And so this material only gains from its interpretation within the larger group. Providing a publication of these documents to the rest of the scholarly world is a very important element of the work, however.

So, how did you work with your collaborators? Did you and Professor Garfinkle just do the transliterations or did you all three work together?

Because we were spread out geographically, Professor Sauren basically left all the material to me and said, "Do what you can with it." My student, Professor Garfinkle, and I together looked at all the material and we made our transliterations. We sat together when looking at the tablets, we discussed problems of interpretation of particular words, things like that, and we worked on the book together. He did most of the work in the end, putting texts in a particular order, making indexes, things like that.

Had Professor Sauren made copies of all the 300+ tablets already?

Yes. We did not make a single extra copy. He had done everything.

I know, in recent years, there has been an increased effort to digitize images of ancient Near Eastern texts. I know Bruce Zuckerman has done that at the University of Southern California. So, you've used all hand copies in this process?

You should look at the CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) website at the University of California, Los Angeles, The purpose of that project is to make digital images of as many as possible cuneiform tablets available online, oftentimes with a transliteration. This is similar to what we do in the book, but the scan of the actual tablet is the focus. The two methods of publication are not exclusive. It is still beneficial for scholars to have a real book in hand when they look at this material and to see a hand drawing made by someone who knows the material well. Although scans are accurate, the tablets are three-dimensional objects and not all signs are clear on them. A specialist handling the actual object can provide an informed reading.


The Plimpton 322 tablet (Courtesy Marc Van De Mieroop)

Ur III is one of the most abundant periods of documentation. How do you think these documents are characteristic of the historical time frame in which they were written?

The abundance of this material leads to the interpretation that this was a state organization that was very bureaucratic, where the state kept track of a large amount of the economic activity that took place in its area. It is clear that the Ur III state wanted to keep clear records of what went on and that it is, indeed, an early example of a bureaucratic state. On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that what it records is elements of the state organization. That doesn't mean that every economic transaction that took place in the twenty-first century B.C. in the entirety of Babylonia has been recorded and could potentially be found by us. We are looking here at a prominent, important element of economic life that is recorded by bureaucrats of the state.

Do the tablets that you've translated only give a sense of state-sponsored activity or are there any private economic sectors?

It is possible to get some ideas about private economic activity, but mostly that is only accidental when it interacts with the state economic activity. In this particular group, we couldn't really find much evidence of that.

But it doesn't mean that it wasn't there, just that it wasn't recorded?

No, I am convinced that a lot of economic activity outside the state sector took place. But that is barely documented in our sources.

Because most of the tablets are not from the city of Ur itself, does it represent a difference in state control than you would see in Ur itself or is the same bureaucratic system from city to city, in both cities?

The basic practices are the same in each city, but what's actually quite remarkable for this particular period is that each group of tablets that we have—some from Lagash, some from Ur, some from Nippur, some from Umma, etc.—focuses on different areas of economic activity. An element that's very prominent in Lagash is agriculture, for example. The available material from Nippur does not document that activity, which doesn't mean there was no agriculture in Nippur. In the city of Ur, we have a large amount of information about the textile industry, but that doesn't mean that no one wove textiles in Lagash. It just happens to be that the people who excavated these tablets—and many of them were excavated by local people, who sold them on the antiquities market—only found parts of archives or, actually, parts of dumps of archives.

Have you dealt at all with the famous Plimpton 322 tablet, which is a mathematical tablet in the Columbia collection?

I've looked at it, yes, but I don't really know that much about it because I find mathematical texts difficult to understand. It's by far the most famous published tablet from the Columbia University libraries...Only a month ago, some scholars from other universities came to look at it, but it's not my area of specialty.

So, when did you start looking at these tablets?

It's been a long process, longer than would have been ideal...but that is not exceptional. I started to look at them in the mid-'80s. I did a lot of work then and, because of reasons of my own choosing and some beyond my control, I decided this was not something I could continue to work on, so I basically abandoned the project. When a student of mine got his PhD focusing on the Ur III period, I revived it. And that was ten years ago. I wrote the introduction to the book in 2002, which is, again, eight years ago.

Why do you think it took so long?

All sorts of elements play a role here. Certainly, publishers don't see the publication of this type of book as a big moneymaking enterprise, so they publish them in specialized series. This book will appear in a series called Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. It will be volume 16 in that series. The series publishes only a limited number of volumes a year, and so it takes time. It was in the pipeline for a very long time, I must say.

Have your discoveries changed the way you think about the history of Ur III or Near Eastern history in general, or confirmed what you know?

It has confirmed my understanding of the period, especially the engagement of the scribes with economic activity in the period. To me, one of the interesting things is the history of the collection. It is one of the earliest collections of cuneiform tablets in the United States. Most of it came to the United States in 1896. Most of the other collections of this nature in the United States are from other sites in Ur III Babylonia. They tend to come from the sites of Drehem and Umma, and were acquired primarily in the 1920s. So that, to me, is the most surprising, that you have some 250 tablets from Lagash, which, to be honest, were probably stolen during the French excavations there or soon thereafter, and that they somehow ended up at Columbia University.


What do you think the publication of the tablets can bring to the archaeological community?

What it will do is provide a set of scholars—and I'm not saying a large group of scholars, maybe two-dozen—who work on this period [with] evidence that they can integrate into their research. The effect will not be... massive immediately, but it is sort of a long-term effect. For as long as this discipline exists, there will be individuals working on something and they'll say, "Oh, at Columbia University, there is this tablet or group of tablets that has information that is relevant to my research."

How does this research figure into the context of other projects that you've worked on in the past?

Oh, well, I've worked on so many different projects. My earliest interests in the field were social and economic history of Mesopotamia, especially in the twenty-first-twentieth centuries [B.C.]. My own doctoral dissertation dealt with developments when the Ur III period ended and was replaced by the Isin dynasty. Later projects dealt with broader historical questions, but I think it is very important for any historian of ancient Mesopotamia, or any historian for any period of history, to realize that this type of documentation ultimately lies at the basis of what we do. You have to know the nature of this documentation, know the difficulties of its interpretation. You cannot read all such texts yourself, but you still have to be very much aware of what the documentation is, what its limits are, what it potentially can tell you, what it cannot tell you. I teach courses that offer a grand story of the history of Mesopotamia, but that story is based, in essence, on the work of large numbers of people doing detailed research for every period of Mesopotamian history using material of this kind.

Do you have plans to translate any other tablets in the Columbia collection?

I should, but I don't think I will. There's a very small group of what we call "Old Babylonian" tablets that I've looked at in detail and I could very easily publish, but it's so different from what I mostly do today. What I, actually, would prefer—and I hope this publication will give an impetus to that—is that people doing a research project on...specific type of documents would recognize that Columbia University is a place where such material is available.

So, what projects are you working on in the near future?

My big project is totally different from this. Right now, I am working on an intellectual history of Mesopotamia. I'm especially interested in divination, the works Mesopotamians themselves wrote on language, and aspects of law. I would like to write a history of Mesopotamia that focuses on intellectual developments, not political or social [ones]. I must say that I am at the very beginning of this research, so it is hard to predict what it will look like in the end.

So, then, the book is coming out in the next few weeks?

Yes. We had hoped it would come out by the middle of July. I was just told that's no longer possible—it will be by the end of August.