One of the Oldest Babylonian Tablets in the World

By: George A. Barton

Originally Published in 1912

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THE University Museum possesses one of the oldest Babylonian tablets in the world. There are but four other objects which can be compared with it. These are the Blau Monuments, consisting of two small votive objects now in the British Museum, an archaic tablet in the F. A. Hoffman Collection of the General Theological Seminary, New York, and a tablet first published by Professor Scheme, which is now in the possession of a gentleman in Baltimore. These four objects, together with the tablet of the University Museum, form a class by themselves. The nearest approach to them is a text found at Telloh considerably below the level of Ur-Nina, published by Sarzee, but this text does not begin to approach so closely to picture-writing as the five objects just referred to.

Line drawing of four sides of square tablet showing cuneiform inscription
Fig. 1. — Ancient Babylonian Stone Tablet.
Museum Object Number: B16105
Image Number: 56716

The tablet to which this article refers, bearing the catalogue number 16105 has been in the Museum for many years. It was purchased for the Museum by Mr. J. H. Haynes from Arabs in 1896, at the time when he was in charge of the expedition of the University conducting the excavations at Nippur. I saw the tablet for the first time in February, 1911, when I was permitted to copy it. The text is a purely ideographic one, written for the greater part in real pictographs. Purely ideographic Sumerian texts are, as every Assyriologist knows, difficult of interpretation. The successful interpretation of such a text depends upon a knowledge of the genealogical history of the cuneiform signs. Several years of investigation given to the preparation of two volumes on The Origin and Development of Babylonian Writing, now in press, have enabled me to give the text of this interesting tablet at least a tentative interpretation, and to call attention to some of the more important contributions which the tablet makes to the study of ancient Babylonian writing. The discussion of more intricate technical points would be out of place in the present paper.

This valuable treasure of the University Museum is inscribed on both sides and both edges. It differs from all tablets with which I am acquainted in that the three columns continue from the face over the edge on to the back of the tablet, while two of these three columns are further continued on to the other edge. At the third division of the first column, either the tablet, which is of a greenish-black stone, had a defect, or the scribe made a mistake and found erasure difficult, for at this point he has set the edge of the column in from the edge of the tablet about a quarter of an inch.

The form of this tablet, like that of the E. A. Hoffman tablet, which is also of stone, is fashioned in imitation of a clay tablet. Both are much thinner at the edges than at the center. These stone texts accordingly bear witness by their shape to the fact that, although no writing on clay as old as they has survived, clay tablets were used in Babylonia at an earlier date. Had this not been so, these tablets of hard stone would not have been fashioned in the form which plastic clay so easily assumed. The tablet is 2 11/16 inches long, 2 3/4 inches-wide and 3/4 inch thick at the center, tapering towards the edges.

The following is a tentative transliteration and translation:


    2. UŠU MUL E
    3. SA-NE GIN
    4. TUK (??)
    5. MUD
    1. XXX SAL-A-DUL
    3. V BUR
    6. AŠ TAB
    1. E . . . XI
    2. A-UIXU-A
    4. EN-NE (??)
    5. SAM AZAG SAG GID (?)
    7. ŠER (?)


    1. 1 Bur of land (belonging to) Khiginmi-Sal.
    2. At sunset the locusts he drove out;
    3. their curse he established.
    4. He received (??)
    5. a family [or group]
    1. of 30 slave-girls.
    2. 2 Bur of fruit-land (belonging to) Nunsabar.
    3. 5 Bur
    4. of land (belonging to) Udu-sag. The man broke a jar,
    5. he stood, he cut open a sacrifice, a word
    6. of cursing he repeated;
    1. it went out . . . . verily
    2. against the caterpillars
    3. 2 Bur of land were purified
    4. (belonging to) Enne (? ?);
    5. the price of purification is a tall (?) palm-tree.
    6. 3 Bur of a field (belonging to) . . . . . . . son of Nundudu; he offered a sacrifice,
    7. he made (it) bright (?).

The tablet records the means taken to rid various tracts of land of a plague of locusts and caterpillars. The last line, “he made it bright,” refers to the ceremonial purification of the field.

In the first column, case 1, the figure of a jug resting on supports is a different picture from any previously known of a well known symbol of a jug resting on a stand. Col. III, case 1, presents still a different picture of it.

Col. I, case 2, contains two new pictographs: the sun entering its subterranean passage, and a locust. Col. I, the edge, presents a new and difficult sign. It is a kind of helmet with a cape at the back, in the manner of a modern Arab kafiyeh. Two signs were previously known which had descended from a somewhat similar head-dress, though neither of them indicated so complex a picture. I have interpreted this new picture by one of these.

Col. I, 5, contains the most complete picture of a bird and egg yet found. The oldest form previously known, lacked the bill of the bird, so graphically pictured here.

Col. II, 5, and III, 6, contain the only pictures of hour-glass-shaped altars with a fire burning on the top that have yet been found in Babylonian writing. Such altars are frequently pictured on the seals.

Col. III, case 2, contains a rude picture of a caterpillar. It affords the explanation of a sign, the origin of which had long puzzled scholars. The sign means, “worm,” “vermin,” “flea,” etc., and the early forms are clearly derivable from this picture.

Col. III, case 5, contains an older picture of a palm-tree growing out of irrigated land and blowing in the wind than any previously known. It confirms a conjecture of Professor Hommel and the present writer, that the later sign for palm-tree originated in such a picture; (cf. Old Testament and Semitic Studies in Memory of William Rainey Harper, II, 236).

Cite This Article

Barton, George A.. "One of the Oldest Babylonian Tablets in the World." The Museum Journal III, no. 1 (March, 1912): 4-6. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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