« Fragment Found at Uruk Matches Cone Found in CNES Shoebox | Main | CLA Broadens Religious Studies Program »

Lost and Found: Shoebox Yields Cuneiform Cone

Portrait: Eva von Dassow. In a two-part story, cuneiform expert Eva von Dassow recounts how a forgotten artifact led to the rediscovery of a forgotten Mesopotamian king. Part 1 | Part 2

Moving house often entails rediscovering things you forgot you owned. As Andrea Berlin was setting up our archaeology lab after our move to Nicholson Hall, she unboxed a mystery. She was unpacking the contents of the teaching collection assembled by William McDonald, professor of classics and archaeology from 1948 to 1980. This collection was stored in scores of ballet-shoe boxes, of 1950s and 1960s vintage. Among the potsherds, coins, and other artifacts was a clay cone inscribed in cuneiform. Andrea gave me the cone, saying, “Look what I found.” After all, I’m a cuneiformist, so presumably I could read it. (Spin and rotate the cone to see it from different sides.)

cuneiform inscriptions. But this cone gave me trouble. First, its surface was scratched and gouged, partly obliterating numerous signs. Second, I usually read cuneiform tablets from the mid-2nd to mid-1st millennium BCE, but clay cones like this were used for a type of royal inscriptions on building foundations primarily during earlier periods, in the late 3rd to early 2nd millennium BCE. Handwriting changes over the centuries, and so does the language of writing. For me, then, reading this cone was like the average literate English speaker trying to read something from Christopher Columbus’s time—or even Charlemagne. I couldn’t even know how old the cone was, until I could read it. A label glued on its base said , “Cuneform [sic] document. Mesopotamian. Time of Moses. Bovey Collection. Goldstein.” That was no help—when did the writer of the label think the time of Moses was?

Finally, one afternoon sunlight beaming in my office window revealed the first line: the royal name Naram-Sin. No way, I thought—this couldn’t be Naram-Sin, grandson of Sargon of Akkad (c. 2300 BCE), creator of the world’s first empire! For one thing, his scribes wrote in Akkadian, but the cone was inscribed in Sumerian. (After the fall of Akkad, scribes resumed using Sumerian for royal inscriptions.)

There were two later and less important Naram-Sins: a king of Ashur, and a king of the trans-Tigridian city of Eshnunna, who both ruled in the 19th century BCE. Could it be one of them? No, Naram-Sin of Ashur was excluded, since royal inscriptions from early 2nd millennium Ashur were not written on cones and not in Sumerian. As for his namesake at Eshnunna, I couldn’t find “king of Eshnunna,” or the like, anywhere on the cone; nor could I recognize much else in the text. I put the cone aside for the time being.

In August, I examined the cone again. I compared it to the known inscriptions of the Naram-Sins and their contemporaries, which have been collected and edited by Douglas Frayne and A. Kirk Grayson. Meanwhile, I began to make a copy of the text, sign by sign, scratch by scratch. The cone matched nothing from any of the Naram-Sins, though bits of the text matched bits of other royal inscriptions. For example, halfway around it I could read “He built his royal palace.” Well, of course, that’s what I thought he did! But it was comforting to see this clearly stated on the clay, since I still wasn’t certain how to read the rest.

Indeed, I almost wondered whether this cone was a forgery. “Naram-Sin ... gobbledygook ... built his royal palace ... jabber-jabber-jabber”–the object looked ancient, but the text on it did not quite compute. This Naram-Sin was neither the king of Akkad, the king of Ashur, nor the king of Eshnunna. There was no other known king named Naram-Sin, and no one but kings had cones inscribed for them. I had to consult with an expert in the relevant periods and text genres, so I e-mailed a copy to Douglas Frayne in Toronto.

The following day Doug called me back, pretty excited. The cone turns out to bear an inscription of Naram-Sin, king of Uruk, previously unknown! Together on the phone we worked out most of the text by comparing it with other royal inscriptions from the same time. We decided that our newly discovered Naram-Sin probably reigned just before Sin-kashid, a minor but well-attested king who ruled Uruk about when Hammurabi’s great-grandfather ruled Babylon (early to mid-19th century BCE). In fact, three inscriptions of Sin-kashid are in local collections, one at the Science Museum of Minnesota and two in the University Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books in the Elmer L. Andersen Library.

Our Naram-Sin can hardly have ruled Uruk very long, or surely more than one record would have survived from his reign. Perhaps he got as far as laying the foundations of the palace and having this one single cone inscription drafted to record the construction, before Sin-kashid usurped the throne as well as the palace. Or perhaps–just possibly–a scribe made it all up, while practicing at his job writing royal inscriptions. We may never know, unless another text attesting Naram-Sin, king of Uruk, turns up, maybe in another shoebox no one has opened since it was packed away back in the 20th century CE... Read Part 2