Top of page

Collection Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III

Clay Tablets Reveal Accounting Answers

Some of the oldest written accounting records, dating to 2100 B.C., are drawing attention to the Library and could be included in a new book. Researchers have translated the ancient writing on the tablets, which were found to contain records of tax assessments and payments. However, what is written on tablet No. 37 in the Kirkor Minassian Collection remains a mystery.

Jerusalem's Marcel Sigrist's recent visit with friends in Washington, D.C., became a working vacation. He learned that the Library has some of the world's oldest accounting records, which may help solidify his theories of early accounting in ancient communities. Sigrist, a professor at the Ecole biblique françoise Jérusalem, is a graduate of Yale University; he has traveled all over the world studying and transliterating clay tablets similar to those in the Library's Kirkor Minassian Collection. The Library purchased its clay tablet collection in the 1930s from Kirkor Minassian, a dealer in antique and rare books. During acquisition trips for the Library, he carried a letter from Librarian Herbert Putnam requesting consulates to give him "all aid and comfort." Minassian items are divided among the Hebraic and Near East sections, and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Sigrist spent a few days early this month in the African-Middle East Reading Room transliterating Sumerian accounting records from Umma, a city south of Baghdad, Iraq. The rectangular tablets are dated on the bottom, positively identifying them as 4,000 years old. The tablets, inscribed in Sumerian, show how the day-to-day economy operated during ancient times. Sumerian, a non-Semitic language originating in present-day Iraq, is one of the world's oldest written languages and is formed by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into clay, said David K. Moore, acquisition assistant, Northern European Acquisitions Section, who provided the initial brief translation and identification of the tablets in the Library's catalog collection five years ago. More than 20 languages, all of which are dead languages, are written in cuneiform, from the Latin word for wedge, cuneus.

"Each time we find a new tablet, it proves that we were right about the system we thought they used," Sigrist said. "Each [individual] tablet is not important, but when you consider there is a break in the [accounting] systems, you better prove your theory." The rectangular tablets record the sequence of the government taxing its people, payments in cattle, shipments of cattle to shepherds for fattening, and gifts of cattle to the temple as an offering. One tablet contains a record of years of feeding barley to donkeys, and was probably used, Sigrist said, so its owner could keep track of how much he spent on the animal and could better ascertain its worth. These clay tablets are some of the oldest accounting records known to exist, the visiting scholar said. Egyptians kept similar records on papyrus, which deteriorates faster than clay. The Library has some Egyptian records on papyrus that date back a few thousand years. Round tablets, as shown below, were examples of those used for school exercises from the time period. On one side the instructor wrote a lesson plan, and on the other side is the student's homework, Sigrist said. The round tablets are not dated as the rectangular tablets are, but the language and signs on them date the tablets to within a century or so of the accounting records. One tablet, No. 37, remains a mystery. Moore said Sigrist could not recognize the language because it followed no known syntax and reads like gibberish. Sigrist believes a similar tablet exists, and is contacting colleagues for further comment. Sigrist has transliterated clay-tablet records from all over the world and written a more than a dozen books about them. He has also done work for collections in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, including collections at Princeton and the Babylonia Collection at Yale. Sigrist plans to publish his transliterations and translations of the Library's collection later this year, Moore said. Kristin Kleber, a doctoral student from the Oriental Institute of the Free University of Berlin, recently came to the Library to translate another item in the Minassian Collection—writing on a brick from Calah. Her translation will be included in a forthcoming publication by Johannes Renger, Kleber's professor at Free University. The brick is inscribed in Assyrian, a later Semitic language that adopted the cuneiform writing system. Kleber's translation is: "Shalmaneser, the great king, the mighty king, king of the universe, King of Assyria, son of Assur-nasir-pal, the great king, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurta, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of Assyria (brick from) the construction of the ziggurat in Kalhu." Shalmaneser III ruled from 858 - 824 B.C., and Calah was his capital. Shalmaneser III's father, Assur-nasir-pal, is the Assyrian king at war with Israel as mentioned in the Bible.

— Christina Tyler, The Gazette 10, no. 36 (October 1,1999).

Marcel Sigrist points to the cut edges of the clay tablets, showing that the tablets were cut for aesthetic purposes by a dealer in modern times.
Photos by Glen Krankowski
Round clay tablets show students' lessons and work. The Library's clay tablets, as shown here, are packed in foam and tissue for protection.
While at the Library, Kristen Kleber translated a brick inscribed in Assyrian from the capital of the Assyrian Empire.