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Fragment Found at Uruk Matches Cone Found in CNES Shoebox

By Eva von Dassow (edited from CNES, fall 2007)

Readers of last year’s newsletter will remember the story of an inscribed clay cone discovered in a shoebox, and how the cuneiform text of the cone commemorated a previously unknown Mesopotamian king: Naram-Sin of Uruk, who probably reigned sometime in the 19th century BCE. It turns out the story has a sequel.

A fragment of an artifact bearing the very same text as our cone was excavated at Uruk almost a century ago. This fragment, found during the German archaeological expedition to Uruk in 1912-1913, had been photographed in the field and taken to the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, but it had never been published because it doesn’t preserve enough of the text to be understood without a duplicate or another inscription mentioning the same king.

The discovery that the text of the Uruk fragment matches that of the CNES cone was made possible by Jack Sasson of Vanderbilt University, who circulated my newsletter article about the CNES cone on his e-mail list, where it was seen by Eckart Frahm of Yale University, who remembered having been shown a photo of the unpublished fragment by Margarete van Ess, who leads the Uruk excavation project of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (Orient-Abteilung) in Berlin.

claynailThe artifact that was found at Uruk is a fragment of the round head of a clay “nail.” Ours is an intact, though battered, headless clay cone. Whereas the inscription on the CNES cone is written carelessly, the inscription on the Uruk fragment is written in a neat, calligraphic hand.

In ancient Mesopotamia, when kings sponsored buildings, they normally had their construction work recorded in inscriptions, which could take various forms, including clay tablets, nails, cones, and so forth. Clay nails (or “cones”) were inscribed on the head and the shaft, while headless cones were inscribed only on the shaft.

wall foundationTypically, headless cones as well as clay tablets were made by the dozen. Each was inscribed with the same text and buried in the foundations of the building they commemorated–rather like a time capsule—so that when new construction took place on the same site, the old inscriptions would be found and the ruler would be remembered. Clay nails appear instead to have been placed in the building’s walls, with their heads sticking out where they would be visible and their inscriptions could be read–like cornerstones on modern buildings. The illustrations show, in a schematic way, how these two different types of inscriptions might have been placed in the structure of a building.

What does our cone, and its fragmentary duplicate, say? Some text is missing or illegible in both exemplars, but here is how the 20-line inscription goes:

“Naram-Sin, shepherd who makes abundance for Uruk, king ... good ... for his land:
When (the gods) An and Inanna granted me the kingship of Uruk, at that time, by my mighty weapon, ... ... (thus-and-such a place) I captured ... ... (and) I built my royal palace.

During my reign, 3 kor of barley, 12 minas of wool, 10 minas of copper, (or) 3 seah of sesame oil cost 1 shekel of silver, at the going rate in my land.

The sons and daughters of Uruk returned home(?) and the “word” (= case?) of the orphan and the widow was glad.”

The content of this short text is fairly standard and it adds little to our knowledge of Mesopotamian history. It doesn’t even tell us very much about this Naram-Sin who became king of Uruk by the grace of the gods, though it is interesting that he touts the good economy that supposedly prevailed under his rule. And too little of the Uruk fragment is preserved to restore more than a few signs in the damaged text of the CNES cone.

Nevertheless it is significant that a duplicate of the CNES cone inscription is extant, that it was found at Uruk, and that it was inscribed in a different hand. The existence of two exemplars, in different forms and written in different handwriting, and the fact that one of the two was actually excavated at the site of Uruk, confirms that there really was a king named Naram-Sin who ruled Uruk, if ever so briefly, and that he really did start construction of his palace there.

How did Naram-Sin acquire the throne of Uruk, how did he lose it, and how did he disappear almost completely from history? None of his contemporaries or successors mentions him in any known text. But he shared an illustrious name (that of the renowned grandson of Sargon of Akkad, who ruled four centuries earlier) with two near-contemporary kings, the long-ruling Naram-Sin of Ashur and the ambitious Naram-Sin of Eshnunna.

And his statement about low prices reappears in the inscriptions of the king who may have bumped him from the throne, Sin-kashid. The latter identified himself not only as king of Uruk but as king of the Amnanum, a prominent Amorite lineage group, and he affiliated himself through marriage with the royal house of Babylon. If we are right to place our Naram-Sin on the throne of Uruk immediately before the better-known Sin-kashid, perhaps we get a glimpse into the equivalent of “party politics” in southern Mesopotamia during the century preceding Hammurabi.