Ur Digitization Project: Item of the Month, June 2012

June 25, 2012

Near the end of May I had the privilege of giving a tour of the Penn Museum Mesopotamian storage to Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline, and many other excellent books, graphic novels, and stories of all sorts. I asked him what he would like to see and he said anything and everything, so I took him through the shelves and stopped first at an artifact I thought he might have a particular interest in. Known as the disk of Enheduanna, it holds a connection to Neil’s profession — it depicts a person who is probably the world’s first recorded author, Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad and high priestess of the moon god at Ur.

Neil and Brad discuss cylinder seals and ancient writing. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.
Neil observes the disk of Enheduanna. Actress Jennifer Summerfield is in the background, Neil Gaiman in foreground, and Brad Hafford holds the disk. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

The artifact has been mentioned relatively often but it deserves another look, and because it is from Ur and being recorded by the Ur Digitization Project, I thought I’d make it this month’s —

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.6612 (Museum Object Number B16665)
Ceremonial Stone Disk
(Disk of Enheduanna)

This calcite disk is 25 cm across and 7 cm thick, resembling a cheese wheel. Its shape was probably meant to represent the full moon, as it features the high priestess of the moon god, Nanna. It was found in the temple of Nanna’s consort, Nin-gal (Great Lady), and dates to around 2300 BCE. The disk was broken in antiquity, but most of the pieces were recovered on excavation and the whole has been restored (see photos below).

U.6612 field photo
Field photograph of U.6612 after gathering pieces together

Four figures adorn the front of the disk, all facing left and approaching an altar or ceremonial basin. Behind the basin is a stepped construction that resembles a wedding cake. This is probably meant to represent the ziggurat itself, on top of which would be the all-important temple to the moon god. Only the edge of this stepped object was preserved, the rest has been restored making it perhaps too rounded and wedding-cake-like. The first (left-most) of the approaching figures is a shaven-headed male priest whose outstretched arm holds forth a jug from which he pours libations (liquid offerings) into the basin or onto the altar. Behind him stands a figure a bit taller than the others and resplendent in her flounced robes, long braided hair, and hat. This is the high-priestess Enheduanna herself, overseeing the ceremony with raised hand. Behind her stands another priest, again shaven as was the practice of priests, waving something that Woolley believes is a fly whisk to keep the great lady comfortable. Just behind him is another priest. The only preserved part was his right hand, which is in the same position as the priest with the ‘fly whisk,’ thus that figure has been repeated in the restoration. A small vase is restored in his left hand found on a fragment that does not appear in the original photo.

restored disk of Enheduanna
Photo of restored disk U.6612 / B16665

The back of the disk bears an inscription, a dedication from Enheduanna to the moon god. This is what makes the object so important — we can identify the person who dedicated it and her position as high priestess. We can also match her name with other occurrences. Cylinder seals or seal impressions of her steward and her scribe have been found at Ur, for example, both mentioning her name. We also have her writings, a collection of temple hymns that were passed down continuously, and in an Old Babylonian version we have this note: “the editor of the tablet is Enheduanna; my lord, what has been created no one else has created.” The word ‘editor’ is somewhat loose here; it is unclear whether she only gathered them together in one place, but there is a strong indication that she wrote or rewrote them as well. This statement has often been taken to place her as the first identifiable author in history; someone who composed, compiled, and took credit for her writings.

Back of restored disk showing inscribed dedication to the moon god and the name of Enheduanna herself.

Her lunar disk dedicated to the deity she served at Ur was later defaced and broken to pieces. We are lucky that the chip containing the face of Enheduanna herself flew off intact and was found in excavations. The other faces have all been mutilated and Woolley clearly noted pick marks where the stone had been intentionally split. Why it was defaced is likely due to later political machinations rather than a dislike of Enheduanna herself. It was probably a reaction to Akkadian rule near the dawn of the Neo-Sumerian period.

Sargon of Akkad had taken control of southern Mesopotamia after the long Early Dynastic period and set up his daughter as high priestess at Ur, showing the importance of the city and its deity. Enheduanna’s post was vital and she took it seriously indeed. She wrote and gathered together temple hymns in praise of her patron, helping to secure her father’s position as King of the Four Quarters and securing her own position as the first identifiable author/editor in the world, 4300 years ago.