Work Done

A "Fulbright" in Turkey

By: Samuel Noah Kramer

Originally Published in 1952

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Upon arrival in Istanbul, I called immediately upon Mr. Aziz Ogan, the Director of the Archaeological museums of that city, who informed me that the Directorate of Antiquities, located in Ankara, had once again generously granted me permission to continue my research. As in the case of my earlier visits, the genial and sympathetic director gave his enthusiastic approval and cooperative support to the highly specialized project, for he fully realized that not only did it promise to result in a not insignificant contribution to humanistic studies, but it also served as an instructive example of Turkish-American cooperation on the cultural level. I was given comfortable and well-lighted space in the Tablet Archives section of the museum, which, I was happy to learn, was now under the capable charge of two young Turkish cuneiformists, Hatice Kizilyay and Muazzez Çig.2 Both had studied in the University of Ankara under Benno Landsberger, the most creative cuneiform scholar of our times, and under the eminent Hittitologist, F. C. Güterbock. In more recent years they had worked closely with F. R. Kraus who had been curator of the Tablet Archives for many years, and who, among other achievements, had prepared in the course of his stay in the museum, a highly detailed catalogue of the entire Nippur collection of the museum, consisting of some seventeen thousand tablets and fragments, which will prove invaluable to all who plan to do research in the museum’s Tablet Archives. Moreover, under Güterbock’s tutelage, these two ladies had copied and published quite a number of Hittite texts, while in the course of more recent years they had copied a considerable number of Sumerian legal documents; these are now in press. Fortunately for me they were also eager to try their hand at copying Sumerian literary texts, and as will soon become apparent, they made a highly important contribution to the project.

Three drawings of fragment tablets covered in inscriptions.
Figure 2. Three exercise tablets on which the ancient schoolboys practiced the writing of Sumerian proverbs. These particular proverbs concern the scribe, the singer, and type of eunuch-priest known as the gala.
Four drawings of tablet fragments covered in inscriptions.
Figure 3. Fragments of an essay concerned with the life of a Sumerian schoolboy, published three years ago under the title “Schooldays.”

All was now set for the work to begin. The first step, before copying, consisted of course of selecting from among the thousands of tablets and fragments in the museum’s Nippur collection those which were inscribed with the Sumerian belles lettres. Fortunately this was now, as a direct result of Kraus’s painstaking catalogue, a relatively simple matter. For the catalogue divided the Nippur tablets into a number of categories, one of which was that of Sumerian literature. All that had to be done therefore was to have the pieces which were marked in the catalogue as containing unpublished literary inscriptions brought to my working desk. I soon realized, however, that it would be impossible to copy all the unpublished pieces-there were some eight hundred of them according to Kraus’s catalogue-and it became necessary first to identify the types of composition inscribed on them in order to select for copying those which promised to prove most fruitful for the restoration of the more significant Sumerian compositions. I, therefore, asked that the tablets be brought to my desk drawer by drawer in numerical order, and then proceeded to study each of the eight hundred pieces more or less cursorily in order to place it in its proper literary category, and when possible, actually to assign it to the composition to which it belonged. After all these data were jotted down, the drawers were returned to their proper place in the cupboards, and I was now ready to begin copying them category by category, beginning with the proverbs and wisdom texts which were the largest and most significant single group and ending with the few and relatively far less important fragments inscribed with parts of the Sumerian epic tales.3 The results of the year’s labor may now be summarized as follows:

Of the approximately eight hundred unpublished pieces in the Istanbul museum, some four hundred and fifty turned out to be tiny fragments inscribed with but a few broken lines of text, and it was not possible therefore to assign them to a particular composition. I therefore decided to leave this group for the very last in the hope-unfulfilled, as it turned out-that there might be time to copy at least a part of them towards the end of my stay in Istanbul. For the importance of a literary fragment is not always to be measured by its size; there are some well-preserved tablets which merely duplicate material already published and are therefore of relatively little value, whereas some of the smaller pieces may have the very lines and phrases which are missing from texts otherwise nearly complete.

A drawing of a tablet fragment covered in inscriptions.
Figure 4. A collection of letters. Two of the correspondents can be identified: Shulgi, the second ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and one of his officials by the name of Aradmu.
Six drawings of tablet fragments with inscriptions.
Figure 5. Fragments of letters. The piece in the upper left is a letter to Aradmu from his king, Shulgi.

Of the remaining pieces, about 350 in number, I myself copied two hundred and thirty-two, arranged on one hundred and eleven plates, eleven by seven and one-half inches in size. The majority are rather small fragments, but quite a number are large and middle-sized pieces, and not a few are four, six and eight column tablets in various states of preservation. Their contents, excluding several pieces which cannot be further identified at the moment, may be described briefly as follows:

One hundred and thirty-six pieces are inscribed with proverbs, sayings, and essays of various types and sizes. Up until quite recently, almost nothing was known of this type of Sumerian creative writing, which belongs to the “wisdom” or “gnomic” type of world literature. Now, however, when, to the newly copied Istanbul material, will be added the very considerable number of “wisdom” pieces in our own museum, as well as a number of excellently preserved “wisdom” tablets and fragments from the new find of the recent Joint Nippur Expedition (see BULLETIN XVI, No. 2), Orientalists will have at their disposal the text of hundreds of Sumerian proverbs and sayings (Fig. 2),4 and of at least several essays (Fig. 3). It is only fair to stress, however, that not a little of this newly restored “wisdom” material will remain unintelligible for a long time, since the translation of proverbs in particular offers some unusual difficulties because of their cryptic and laconic character, as was only too apparent in the case of the cooperative “experiment” in which eight cuneiformists were asked to translate forty-eight selected proverbs independently (see below).

Drawings of two tablet fragments covered in inscriptions.
Figure 6. Two pieces inscribed with a hymn to the goddess Nanshe in her role of guarantor of what may be termed man’s “social conscience.”
Drawing of a tablet fragment and several small pieces covered in inscriptions.
Figure 7. Tablet with small fragments belonging to it inscribed with part of a debate between silver and bronze.

Thirty-one tablets and fragments are letters (Figs. 4, 5). These consist in the main of copies of correspondence between the high administrative officials and the kings of the dynasty commonly known in the history books as the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Only seven of the pieces copied by me are hymns, since nearly all the hymnal material was put aside for the two Turkish curators to work on. Five of these pieces are of particular interest to the readers of the BULLETIN of the University Museum. The contents of these two fragments help to fill in some of the gaps in the Nanshe “social justice” hymn (Fig. 6) on which I reported in BULLETIN XVI, No. 3, and thus help to illustrate concretely the method by which Sumerian compositions are pieced together little by little over the years.

Twenty-eight of the copied pieces contain portions of myths. Among these are two fragments belonging to the now largely restored myth “Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World,” the first known example of a composition employing the motif of the death and resurrection of a deity. One piece helps to fill part of a gap in the myth “Enki and Sumer,” which reveals the Sumerian explanation of the organization of the earth and the establishment of its cultural processes. Four of the mythological fragments are inscribed with hitherto largely unknown tales of strife between a bird and a fish.

Eight of the copied pieces belong to the “disputation” type of composition, which for some reason was a particular favorite with the Sumerian poets and writers. This was a type which consists in the main of a debate between two rivals, each of whom may personify a season, animal, plant, occupation, implement, metal or stone. Our eight pieces contain portions of the debate between cattle and grain, pickaxe and plow, silver and bronze (Fig. 7), tree and reed (Fig. 8).

Four drawings of tablet fragments covered in inscriptions.
Figure 8. Two fragments inscribed with a debate between tree and reed.
Three drawings of tablet fragments covered in inscriptions.
Figure 9. Three fragments of a tablet which contained a Sumerian king list. F. R. Kraus, former curator in the Istanbul museum, saw that the upper fragment “joined” a published piece in the University Museum.

Nine are epic tale fragments, but they are so small that they add but little to what is already known of that genre of Sumerian poetry.

Four are historical in character. Of these, one is a three-fragment piece which had already been identified by Kraus as belonging to a “king list” (Fig. 9), that is, a type of semi-historical document, which, when complete, purported to list all the dynasties and rulers of Sumer, together with the years of their reign, from the clays “before the flood,” that is, presumably from the beginning of kingship. Much of this king list is of course legendary, particularly the parts dealing with the earlier dynasties, for which the authors could have but little authentic data. Nevertheless this document remains one of our major sources for the reconstruction of the chronology and history of Sumer, and every new piece which helps to fill part of the existing gaps in the text is of course of very considerable importance. The new Istanbul piece not only gives the names of several hitherto unknown kings of Sumer, but, because one of its fragments makes a “join”5 with a fragment of the very same tablet in our own museum published thirty years ago by Leon Legrain, curator emeritus of our Babylonian Section, it supplies us with a bit of highly important information in regard to the sequence of the early Sumerian dynasties. For, as a result of this “join,” which was already noted by Kraus in his catalogue, we learn that the Second Dynasty of the famous Sumerian City of Ur-the same Ur which has been excavated to a large extent some years ago by a joint expedition of the British Museum and our own-cannot be fitted into the position hitherto generally assigned to it within the king list.

Of the other three historical pieces, one is a small tablet inscribed with copies of inscriptions on steles in a temple at Nippur, dedicated to the goddess Ninlil, the wife of the air-god Enlil. Interestingly enough the inscriptions are both in Sumerian and the Semitic Akkadian, and provide us with some interesting historical data for the reign of Shu-Sin, the fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the same Shu-Sin who is the “bride-groom” of the love-poem of which a translation is given on page 33.

Head of Gudea; turban; nose intact; chip off chin and turban.
Figure 10. Gudea, the ishakku of Lagash, whose approximate date will be rectified as a result of the prologue of the newly copied Ur-Nammu law-code.
Museum Object Number: B16664

Six of the newly copied pieces belong to a composition which seems to lament the destruction of the city of Agade and the troubles of Naram-sin, one of the great kings of the Akkad Dynasty which began its rule about 2350 B.C. There are quite a few unpublished pieces belonging to this literary work in our own museum, as well as some new material from the recent excavations of the Joint Nippur Expedition, and it may now be possible to reconstruct most of the text and get at its real meaning and character.

One of the pieces contains a copy of the oldest law-code so far known to man, that promulgated by Ur-Nammu, the founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur who began his reign according to the “short” chronology6 about 2050 B.C. The tablet and its contents are described more fully below. What should be noted here is that it contributes an unexpected piece of historical information which indirectly will help to set straight at last the approximate date of one of Sumer’s best-known figures, that of Gudea, the Ishakku or “prince” of Lagash (Fig. 10). Hitherto, the reign of Gudea, whose face and features are well known from his numerous statues excavated by the French years ago in Lagash and now on display in a number of museums including our own, has generally been placed by scholars before that of Ur-Nammu, although some inscriptional evidence to the contrary had to be explained away to make the date fit. The new law-code, however, now makes it certain that Gudea is to be placed after and not before Ur-Nammu, that is, that he was prince over Lagash while one of the rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur, probably Shulgi, held sway over Sumer as a whole. For the prologue to the code mentions the defeat by Ur-Nammu of a prince of Lagash by the name Namhani, whom all scholars place a generation or two before Gudea.

The pieces listed and summarized above are copied by myself. In addition, the two Turkish curators of the Tablet Archives of the Museum of the Ancient Orient copied another fifty-nine tablets and fragments arranged to fill fifty plates. All are hymnal in character, that is they are hymns and prayers to some of the more important Sumerian deities (Figs. 11, 12). This new material should prove invaluable for the reconstruction of the text of a number of Sumerian hymns, which are of course our major sources of information for Sumerian religion.


2 The Turkish “i without a dot” is pronounced as the “oo” in “book” and “c with a cedilla” is “ch” as in “church.”
3 There were few “epic” pieces to copy this time since almost all the unpublished fragments inscribed with this category were copied in 1946. See p. 20.
4 All hand copies, unless otherwise indicated, are by the author.
5 A “join” is the technical term for the joining together of two parts of the same tablet which had become separated either before, during, or after their excavation. All cuneiformists have an understandable weakness for making joins and particularly for joins between two pieces of the same tablet which have found their way into two separate museums. In the case of the Nippur tablet collection, the early division of the tablet finds between the two museums naturally lends itself to the possibility
of such “long-distance” joins. One of the most important of these was made more than twenty years ago by Edward Chiera who found in the University Museum the lower half of the very same four-column tablet whose upper half had been copied more than a decade earlier by Stephen Langdon in the Istanbul Museum of the
Ancient Orient. The tablet was inscribed with the first half of the myth, “Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World,” and it was largely this join by Chiera which made it possible for me to reconstruct in the years that followed the entire extant part of the myth. All the published pieces, which until then had “hung in the air” as it were, now fitted neatly into the text. Kraus’s join of the “king-list” fragments is another
example of a valuable bit of detection. Separate and by themselves the two pieces would probably not have yielded the valuable bit of information concerning the dynasties of Ur. I, too, have made several of these long-distance joins; one of these helped to clarify to some extent the otherwise highly obscure beginning and end of the epic tale “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” which has just appeared as the seventh Monograph of the new series of University Museum publications. Another join will help the reconstruction of the text of a rather rare and not insignificant hymn to Enlil, the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon; for details see pp. 33 ff.

6 The “short” chronology dates the law-giver Hammurabi about 1700 B.C.; UrNammu, the founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, about 2050 B.C.; Sargon the Great, About 2350 B.C.; Mesannipadda, the founder of the First Dynasty of Ur, about 2600 or 2500 B.C. Scholars using the “long” chronology, on the other hand, date each of these rulers several centuries earlier. The evidence now available, most Orientalists agree, favors the “short” chronology, and this is the one used throughout this article. Readers should bear this in mind in order to avoid confusion with the dates they may have found in the older histories and textbooks, which usually follow the “long”
chronology.

Cite This Article

Kramer, Samuel Noah. "Work Done." Museum Bulletin XVII, no. 2 (December, 1952): 8-22. Accessed July 13, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/3624/


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