Babylonian Clay Tablets | Among the Oldest Books

Among the oldest existing “books,” the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing was developed in remote ages from picture signs and was in use by many peoples at the dawn of history. The Semitic Babylonians adopted it from its probable inventors and their own predecessors in the land, the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people of unknown origin. It reads from left to right. The writing was done with a stylus, on soft clay, which was then baked to harden it. 

These tablets were secured by the library from Dr. Edgar J. Banks, formerly American Consult at Baghdad, Field Director of the Expedition of the University of Chicago to Bismaya, and author of several books and numerous articles on archaeology.

He excavated the Babylonian ruin of Bismaya (Bismya), or the ancient city of Adab, for the University of Chicago in 1903-1904. His work showed that Bismaya (ancient Adab) had been inhabited for at least 2000 years, from about 3400 B.C. through 1150 B.C. Some of the tablets came from Jokha (Tell Jokha) on the Euphrates River northwest of Adab. These tablets were acquired by George Washington Fuller, Spokane Public Library director from 1911-1936.

Museums and Archives are unavoidably linked to the history of colonialism, often because of the collecting practices of their founders. The Fuller Collection includes cuneiform tablets and other objects purchased from dealers connected to colonial-era archaeological digs and expeditions. We want to be transparent with the community about their provenance as we reconsider Fuller’s legacy and collecting practices through a modern lens.

To learn more about the fieldwork that led to SPL’s acquisition of the tablets, visit the University of Chicago’s Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures.

Get to know the Tablets

 Tablet #1 

Found at Jokha, the ancient Umma, in central Babylonia. This is about two-thirds of a very large tablet of burned clay. It contains a long list of names and appears to be a tax list. The part of the tablet containing the date is broken away, but the tablet was found with others from the early part of the Ur dynasty of kings who ruled Babylonia from 2400 to 2100 B. C. The character of the writing also indicates that it came from that period. 

Tablet #2 

Found at Jokha. This is a perfect and unusually neat contract tablet of about the average size, burned hard. It is a receipt for quantities of fat meat or of fat, delivered at different times, on the fourth, seventh and eighth days of the month. The date is the lower edge, about 2350 B.C. 

Tablet #3 

Found at Drehem, a suburb of Nippur, where there was a receiving station for the animals for the temple of Bel at Nippur. Most of the tablets from this ruin are of a light grayish color. This is a receipt for sheep delivered to the temple on the eleventh day of the month. Date, about 2350 B.C. 

Tablet #4 

Found at Jokha. This is a large and perfect tablet containing a record of the temple offerings. After the record was written, the temple scribe rolled over the soft clay his cylindrical stone seal. The seal bears the name of the scribe and his father in raised characters, the seated figure of the moon god, with the crescent moon above, and the figure of a priest standing before the deity. Athe bottom of the back is the date, the year of Ini-Sin, about 2350 B.C. 

Tablet #5 

Found at ZJokha. A temple record of a black color. Sealed. Date about 2350 B.C 

Tablet #6 

Found at Jokha. This is a rare messenger tablet, with a list of provisions supplied the messenger for his journey. The messenger tablets are always small and are highly prized because the writing is finer and better than on tablets of any other type. The date is written on one edge, about 2350 B.C. 

Tablet #7 

Found at Senkerah, the Biblical Elassar mentioned in Genesis 14:1. This is a merchant’s tag. It was attached to merchandise with a cord, and when the cord decayed, a hole was left in the clay. The tag contained a description of the merchandise, and was sealed to prevent substitution. It comes from the first dynast of Babylon, of which Hammurabi was the chief king. Hammurabi was a contemporary of the Biblical Abraham, about 2250 B.C. This is the approximate date of the tag. 

Tablet #8 

Found at Senkerah. This is a first dynasty case or envelope tablet. After the tablet itself was written, a coating of clay was wrapped around it and this envelope was also inscribed, sealed and burned again. The original record could be disclosed only by destroying the envelope. This specimen has been broken to show both the case and the tablet within. Date about 2250 B.C. 

Tablet #9 

Found at Warka, the Bibical Erech. This is a votive cone, made by the priests of the temple of the goddess Ishtar, and sold to the visiting pilgrim, who thrust it between the bricks in the temple wall as an offering for the welfare of the king. The inscription reads: “For Sin-Ga-Shid, the mighty hero, King of Erech, Kimg of Amanu, in the temple of the goddess Ishtar, which he built in the royal residence of his kingdom.” The date of this king and of the cone is 2100 B.C. 

Tablet #10 

Found at Warka. This is a votive tablet sold to the pilgrims for the purpose of raising revenue for the temple. The inscription is precisely the same as that upon the cone (#9). Date 2100 B.C. 

Tablet #11 

Found at Babylon. This is a typical late Babylonian contract tablet of sun dried clay, of about the average size and shape. It bears the name of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon from 625 to 605 B.C. The date of the contact is in two lines on the back and reads, “The month Ul, the day 5, the year 19 of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon.” The tablet was therefore written in the year of the destruction of Ninevah. 

Tablet #12 

A large late or neo-Babylonian contact tablet of an unusual form. It contains three lines of writing on one edge. The date is in the last two lines. The year is broken away, but the last line shows that it was in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon from 605 to 562 B.C. The name of the kind id underlined.