The Sumerians: Archeology And Decipherment

Sumer, the land which came to be known in classical times as Babylonia, consists of the lower half of Mesopotamia, roughly identical with modem Iraq from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. It has an area of approximately 10,000 square miles, somewhat larger than the state of Massachusetts. Its climate is extremely hot and dry, and its soil, left to itself, is arid, wind-swept, and unproductive. The land is Hat and river-made, and therefore has no minerals whatever and almost no stone. Except for the huge reeds in the marshes, it had no trees for timber. Here, then, was a region with “the hand of God against it,” an unpromising land seemingly doomed to poverty and desolation. But the people that inhabited it, the Sumerians, as they came to be known by the third millennium B.C., were endowed with an unusually creative intellect and a venturesome, resolute spirit. In spite of the land’s natural drawbacks, they turned Sumer into a veritable Garden of Eden and developed what was probably the first high civilization in the history of man.

The people of Sumer had an unusual Hair for technological invention. Even the earliest settlers had come upon the idea of irrigation, which made it possible for them to collect and channel the rich silt-laden overflow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and use it to water and fructify their fields and gardens. To make up for the dearth of minerals and stones, they learned to bake the river clay and mud, the supply of which was practically inexhaustible, into sickles, pots, plates, and jars. In lieu of the scarce building timber, they cut and dried the huge and plentiful marsh reeds, tied them into bundles or plaited them into mats, and with the help of mud-plastering fashioned them into huts and byres. Later, the Sumerians invented the brick mold for shaping and baking the ubiquitous river clay and so had no more building-material problem. They devised such useful tools, skills, and techniques as the potter’s wheel, the wagon wheel, the plow, the sailboat, the arch, the vault, the dome, casting in copper and bronze, riveting, brazing and soldering, sculpture in stone, engraving, and inlay. They originated a system of writing on clay, which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some two thousand years. Almost all that we know of the early history of western Asia comes from the thousands of clay documents inscribed in the cuneiform script developed by the Sumerians and excavated by archeologists in the past hundred and twenty-five years.

The Sumerians were remarkable not only for their material progress and technological resourcefulness, but also for their ideas, ideals, and values. Clear-sighted, levelheaded, they took a pragmatic view of life and, within the limits of their intellectual re-sources rarely confused fact with fancy, wish with fulfillment, or mystery with mystification. In the course of the centuries, the Sumerian sages evolved a faith and creed which in a sense “gave unto the gods what was the gods'” and recognized and accepted as inevitable mortal limitations, especially helplessness in the face of death and divine wrath. On the material side, they prized highly wealth and possessions, rich harvests, well-stocked granaries, folds and stalls filled with cattle, successful hunting in the plain, and good fishing in the sea. Spiritually and psychologically, they laid great stress on ambition and success, pre-eminence and prestige, honor and recognition. The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his king, his superior, or his equal. No wonder that the Sumerians were the first to compile laws and law codes, to put everything down in “black and white” in order to avoid misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and arbitrariness.

While the Sumerians thus set a high value on the individual and his achievement, there was one overriding factor which fostered a strong spirit of co-operation among individuals and communities alike: the complete dependence of Sumer on irrigation for its well-being-indeed, for its very existence. Irrigation is a complicated process requiring communal effort and organization.

Canals had to be dug and kept in constant repair. The water had to be divided equitably among all concerned. To ensure this, a power stronger than the individual landowner or even the single community was mandatory: hence, the growth of governmental institutions and the rise of the Sumerian state. And since Sumer, because of the fertility of the irrigated soil, produced a vast surplus of grain but had practically no metals and very little stone and timber, the state was forced to obtain the material essential to its economy either through trade or military force. So that by the third millenium B.C., there is good reason to believe that Sumerian culture and civilization had penetrated, at least to some extent, as far east as India and as far west as the Mediterranean, as far south as ancient Ethiopia and as far north as the Caspian.

To be sure, all this was five thousand years ago and may seem of little relevance to the study of modem man and culture. But the fact is that the land of Sumer witnessed the origin of more than one Significant feature of present-day civilization. Be the philosopher or teacher, historian or poet, lawyer or reformer, statesman or politician, architect or sculptor, it is likely that modem man will find his prototype and counterpart in ancient Sumer. Admittedly, the Sumerian origin of the modem offshoot can no longer be traced with directness or certainty: the ways of cultural diffusion are manifold, intricate, and complex, and its magic touch is subtle and evanescent. Even so, it is still apparent in a Mosaic law and a Solomonic proverb, in the tears of Job and a Jerusalem lament, in the sad tale of the dying man-god, in a Hesiodic cosmogony and a Hindu myth, in an Aesopic fable and a Euclidean theorem, in a zodiacal sign and a heraldic design, in the weight of a mina, the degree of an angle, the writing of a number. It is the history, social structure, religiOUS ideas, educational practices, literary creations, and value motivations of the civilization created in ancient Sumer that will be briefly sketched in the following pages. First, however, a brief introductory review of the archeolOgical “resurrection” of the Sumerians and their culture and of the decipherment of their script and language.

Remarkably enough, less than a century ago not only was nothing known of Sumerian culture; the very existence of a Sumerian people and language was unsuspected. The scholars and archeologists who some hundred years ago began excavating in Mesopotamia were looking not for Sumerians but for Assyrians; these were the people about whom they had considerable, though far from accurate, information from Greek and Hebrew sources. In the case of the Sumerians, however, there was no recognizable trace of the land, or its people and language, in the entire available Biblical, classical, and postclassical literature (or at least so it was thought; see pages 297-99 for the possibility that Sumer is mentioned in the Bible under a slightly variant form). The very name Sumer had been erased from the mind and memory of man for more than two thousand years. The discovery of the Sumerians and their language was quite unlooked for and came quite unexpectedly, and this rather irrelevant detail led to controversies which were responsible to some degree for the rather slow and troubled progress of Sumerological research.

Decipherment of Sumerian

The decipherment of Sumerian actually came about through the decipherment of Semitic Akkadian, known in earlier days as Assyrian or Babylonian, which, like Sumerian, is written in cuneiform script. And for Akkadian in tum, the key was found in Old Persian, an Indo-European tongue spoken by the Persians and Medes who ruled Iran during much of the first millennium B.C.; for some of the rulers of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty-the name goes back to Achaemenes, the founder of the dynasty who lived about 700 B.c.-found it politic to have their cuneiform inscriptions written in three languages: Persian, their own mother tongue; Elamite, an agglutinative language spoken by the natives of western Iran whom they conquered and subjugated; and Akkadian, the Semitic tongue spoken by the Babylonians and Assyrians.

This group of trilingual cuneiform inscriptions, which was roughly the counterpart of the Egyptian Rosetta stone, did not come from Iraq but from Iran, although it is Iraq that is the home of cuneiform writing. And this brings us to the story of the explorations and excavations leading to the decipherment of the cuneiform script and the rediscovery of the Mesopotamian civilizations. It will here be sketched only briefly-it has been told repeatedly and in detail during the past decades (see Bibliography for specific works )-in order to give the reader at least a glimpse into the picture as a whole and at the same time to make a reverent and grateful bow to those long dead explorers, excavators, and armchair savants who unknowingly and unwittingly, and each in his own way, helped to make the writing of a book on the Sumerians possible. The resurrection of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian peoples, long-buried under their desolate mounds, or tells, is an eloquent and magnificent achievement of nineteenth-century scholarship and humanism. To be sure there were isolated reports of ancient Mesopotamian ruins in the preceding centuries. In fact, as early as the twelfth century a rabbi of Tudela, in the kingdom of Navarre, by the name of Benjamin son of Jonah visited the Jews of Mosul and correctly identified the ruins in the vicinity of that city as those of ancient Nineveh, although his account was not published until the sixteenth century.

On the other hand, the identification of Babylon was not made until 1616, when the Roman Pietro della Valle visited the mounds in the neighborhood of modern Hilla. This sharp-eyed traveler not only gave a remarkable description of the ruins of Babylon, but also brought back to Europe inscribed bricks that he had found there and at the mound now called by the Arabs Tal al Muqayyar, “the mound of pitch,” which covers the ruins of ancient Ur; and thus it was that the first examples of cuneiform writing came to Europe. Throughout the rest of the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries numerous travelers, each with a different idea as to the identification of the various localities and ruins, journeyed to Mesopotamia, all trying to fit what they saw into the Biblical frame of reference. Between 1761 and 1767, there took place one of the most valuable of these expeditions, that of Carsten Niebuhr, a Danish mathematician who, besides copying at Persepolis the inscriptions which led to the decipherment of cuneiform, was the first to give his contemporaries a concrete idea of the ruins of Nineveh with the help of sketches and drawings.

A few years later the French botanist A. Michaux sold to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris a boundary stone found near Ctesiphon, south of Baghdad, which proved to be the first really valuable inscription to come to Europe. Some absurd translations were made of this simple inscription, which actually contains the usual curse against anyone disturbing the boundary marker; one of these, for example, ran as follows: “The army of heaven will water us with vinegar in order to lavish on us the right remedies to effect our healing.”

About this same time Abbe Beauchamp, vicar-general at Bagh-dad and correspondent of the Academy of Science was making careful and accurate observations of what he saw around him, particularly in the ruins of Babylon; in fact, he actually made the first known archeological excavation in Mesopotamia, employing a few native workmen under the leadership of a master mason, in connection with a sculpture now generally known as the “Lion of Babylon,” which can still be seen there by today’s tourist. He was the first to describe parts of the Ishtar Gate, a beautiful replica of which can now be seen in the Near Eastern Section of the Berlin Museum; he also mentions finding solid cylinders covered with minute writings that he felt resembled the inscriptions from Persepolis.

The memoirs of his travels, published in 1790, were translated almost immediately into English and German and created quite a sensation in the scholarly world. One of the consequences of the spark kindled by Abbe Beauchamp was that the East India Company in London authorized their agents in Baghdad to do some archeological prospecting and reconnoitering. And so in 1811, we find Claudius James Rich, a resident for the East India Company in Baghdad, examining and mapping the ruins of Babylon and even excavating briefly, parts of them. Some nine years later, Rich turned up at Mosul, where he sketched and investigated the great mounds of ancient Nineveh. He collected many inscribed tablets, bricks, boundary stones, and cylinders, among them the famous Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib cylinders, carefully copied by his secretary Carl Bellino and sent to the epigrapher Grotefend for deCipherment. Rich’s collection formed the nucleus for the vast assemblage of Mesopotamian antiquities now in the British Museum. Rich died in 1821 at the age of thirty-four, but his two memoirs on the ruins of Babylon with their typographical and inscriptional material lived on and may be said to mark the birth of Assyriology and the related cuneiform studies. He was followed by Robert Ker Porter who made accurate artistic reproductions of a number of Mesopotamian ruins, as well as a plan of the entire area of the ruins of Babylon. In 1828 Robert Mignan excavated briefly in the ruins of Babylon, where Rich had dug in 1811; he employed as many as thirty men and cleared an area of twelve square feet to a depth of twenty feet; he was the first to excavate an inscribed cylinder.

Finally, in the eighteen-thirties, two Englishmen, J. Baillie Fraser and William F. Ainsworth, visited a number of sites in southern Mesopotamia; however, they had no inkling that these were part of ancient Sumer. We now come to the large and more or less systematic excavations in Iraq which began in 1842 with that of Paul Emile Botta, the French consul at Mosul, and have continued, with numerous interruptions, to this day. The earlier of these excavations were conducted in northern Mesopotamia, in the land commonly known as Assyria, and the thousands of documents unearthed there were written in the Akkadian language. But this was not known at the time they were first excavated; all that could then be said was that the script resembled that of the third “class” of the trilingual inscriptions that were found in Iran, primarily at Persepolis and its environs.

At Persepolis, the ruins of a magnificent palace were still standing, with a large number of tall, beautiful columns still in place and sculptured monuments of various kinds scattered about. Surrounding the city were magnificently decorated tombs cut in the rocks. Many of the Persepolitan monuments were covered with a script which, by the end of the eighteenth century, had been recognized as similar to the inscriptions on the bricks from Babylon. Moreover, by the middle of the nineteenth century one of the inscriptions on the trilinguals had been deCiphered and had provided a stock of proper names that could be used to decipher the third of the inscriptions, which in tum made it possible to read the “Assyrian” tablets being excavated in Iraq.

In order to follow this process of decipherment of Akkadian, there-fore, we must first have some idea of the decipherment of the first class of inscriptions on the Persepolitan trilingual and the nature of the information that it provided. The ruins of Persepolis had become known to the European world in the sixteenth century when the itinerary of the Venetian ambassador to Persia, Geosofat Barbaros-in which he talks of them admiringly-was published in Venice in 1543. The writing on the monuments was first mentioned by Antonio de Goueca, the first ambassador of Spain and Portugal to Persia, in his book published in Lisbon in 1611, and described by him as being unlike that of the Persians, Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. His successor, Don Garcia Silva Figueroa, in a book published in Antwerp in 1620, was the first to identify the ruins of Persepolis, using a description of Diodorus Siculus, as the palace of the Achaemenid ruler Darius. He, too, mentions the writing on the monuments, saying that it is unlike Chaldean, Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek, and describing it as long and triangular, shaped like a pyramid, and the characters as not differing from each other except in their position. In a letter dated the twenty-first of October, 1621, Pietro della Valle stated that he had surveyed the ruins of Persepolis and even made a copy-though an incorrect one-of five of the characters on the inscriptions, and suggested that the inscriptions were to be read from left to right.

In 1673, the young French artist Andre Daulier Deslandes published the first accurate engraving of the palace of Persepolis, but copied only three of the characters on the inscriptions and placed them in his engraving in a manner that tended to give the impression that the writing was merely decorative, a theory widely held during the eighteenth century. In 1677, Sir Thomas Herbert, an Englishman who had served the British ambassador to Persia some fifty years earlier, published a rather poor copy of what was apparently a three-line passage, which turned out to be a composite of lines from entirely different inscriptions. His characterization of the script is not without historical interest: “The characters are of a strange and unusual shape; neither like Letters nor Hieroglyphics; yea so far from our deciphering them that we could not so much as make any positive judgment whether they were words or Characters; albeit I rather incline to the first, and that they comprehended words or syllables, as in Brachyography or Shortwriting we familiarly practice.”

In 1693, there was published a copy of a two-line inscription from Persepolis consisting of twenty characters, which had been made by Samuel Flower, an agent of the East India Company. This was taken to be a genuine inscription, although it actually consisted of twenty-three separate signs selected from various inscriptions, an error which caused no little confusion and frustration to those attempting to decipher the script. In 1700, the script first received its appellation “cuneiform,” which has stuck to it ever since, from Thomas Hyde, who wrote a book on the history of the religion of the Old Persians in which he reproduced Flower’s inscription and described the characters as “cuneifonn”; sadly enough he did not believe the signs were intended to convey meaningful speech, but rather to serve as decorations and ornaments. The first complete inscription from Persepolis was not published until 1711, the author being Jean Chardin, a naturalized English citizen who had visited Persepolis three times during his youth. Three years later quite accurate copies of three trilingual inscriptions were published by Carneille Lebrun. But it was the Dane Carsten Niebuhr who paved the way for the decipherment of the Persian inscriptions.

In 1778, he published careful and accurate copies of three trilingual inscriptions from Persepolis; he showed that they were written from left to right, that each of the three inscriptions contained three different types of cuneiform writing, which he labeled “Class I,” “Class II,” and “Class III,” and finally that “Class I” represented an alphabetic method of writing, since it contained only forty-two signs according to his tabulation. Unfortunately, he was of the opinion that the three classes of script did not represent three different languages, but were used to write the same language in three different fonts. In 1798 Friedrich Munter, another Dane, made the all-important observation that Niebuhr’s Class I was an alphabetic script, while Classes II and III were respectively syllabic and ideographic; and that each class represented a different language as well as a different font of writing.

Thus the groundwork for the decipherment was now at hand: there were accurate copies of a number of inscriptions each of which contained three different types of cuneiform script representing three different languages; moreover, the first of the three classes in each inscription was correctly recognized to be alphabetical in character. But the decipherment itself took well-nigh half a century, and would probably have been impoSSible altogether had it not been for two scholars who made Significant if unwitting contributions to the process by publishing studies which, though not concerned at all with the Persepolis cuneiform inscriptions, proved to be a fundamental aid to the decipherers. One of the scholars was the Frenchman A. H. Anquetil-Duperron, who spent much time in India collecting manuscripts of the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, and learning how to read and interpret Old Persian, the language in which it was written. His relevant publications appeared in 1768 and 1771, and gave those attempting to decipher the Persepolis cunei£onn inscriptions some idea of Old Persian, which proved most useful for the decipherment of Class I of the trilinguals once it had been postulated-because of its prominent position in the inscriptions-that it was Old Persian.

The other scholar was A. I. Silvestre de Sacy, who in 1793 published a translation of the Pahlavi inscriptions found in the environs of Persepolis, which although dating centuries later than the Persepolis cuneiform inscriptions revealed a more or less stereotyped pattern that might be assumed to underlie the earlier monuments as well; this pattern was: X, great king, king of kings, king of … , son of Y, great king, king of kings …. Turning back now to the actual decipherment of the Persepolis inscriptions, the first serious attempt was made by Oluf Gerhard Tychsen, who is studying the first-class correctly identified four of the characters, recognized one of the frequently occurring signs as a word-divider-which made it possible to establish the beginning and end of each word-and made several other keen observations. But he erroneously assumed that the inscriptions dated from the Parthian dynasty, later by more than half a millennium than their true date, and his translations were pure guesswork and wrong throughout.

Tychsen published his results in 1798. In the same year, Friedrich Munter of Copenhagen submitted two papers to the Royal Danish Society of Sciences proving that the Persepolis documents belong to the Achaemenid dynasty, a fact that was of fundamental Significance for the decipherment of the inscriptions. But Munter himself made no further progress in his decipherment efforts. It was Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a teacher of Greek in the Gottingen Gymnasium, who succeeded where the others had failed and achieved fame as the decipherer of the Persian cuneiform inscriptions, that is, the first of Niebuhr’s three classes. He began by picking out those characters which occurred with the greatest frequency and postulated that these were vowels.

He took De Sacy’s Pahlavi inscriptional pattern and with it found the spots where it seemed most likely that the names of the king who had the monument put up and of his father would occur, as well as such words as ”king” and “son.” He then manipulated the known names of the kings of the Achaemenid dynasty, primarily according to their length, into the proper spots, and used the relevant words in Anquetil-Duperron’s studies of Old Persian to get at the readings for some of the other words on the inscriptions; he thus came up with the correct identification of ten of the signs and three proper names, and with a translation that contained numerous errors but nevertheless gave an adequate idea of its contents. An extract of Grotefend’s attempt at decipherment appeared in 1802, and three years later a fuller account was published.

His efforts were lauded and approved by Tychsen, Munter, and especially by Rich, who kept on sending him copies of the cuneiform documents he had obtained in the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh. But Grotefend overstated his achievements, claiming that he had deciphered many more signs than was the case, and giving complete but unjustifiable transliterations and translations which could only evoke ridicule among some of his colleagues. However, Grotefend was on the right track with his deCipherment, as was corroborated directly and indirectly in the course of the next several decades by the efforts of a number of scholars who kept on adding, subtracting, modifying: A. J. Saint-Martin, Rasmus Rask, Eugene Burnouf, and his close friend and collaborator, Christian Lassen, to name only the outstanding figures.

But for a real insight into the Old Persian language and for the conclusive deCipherment of all the characters, the Persepolis inscriptions were simply too short and did not supply a vocabulary large enough and meaningful enough for verification and control. This brings us to the dominant figure in early cuneiform studies, the brilliant, intuitive, and persevering Englishman, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, and the remarkable fact that a group of inscriptions were deciphered independently by two men using practically identical criteria. H. C. Rawlinson became interested in the cuneiform inscriptions scattered throughout Persia while in the service of the British army in Persia. He began to copy some of the trilinguals, especially the Mount Alvand inscription near Hamadan and the Behistun rock inscription about twenty miles from Kermanshah.

The former consists of two short trilinguals, which he proceeded to copy in the year 1835; and without knowing anything of the work of Grotefend, De Sacy, Saint-Martin, Rask, Burnouf, and Lassen, he succeeded in reading them by following practically the same method which Grotefend and his followers had used. But he realized that in order to identify all the signs on these inscriptions and read them adequately, it would be necessary to have a large number of proper names on hand. And these he found in the Behistun rock inscription, engraved on a specially prepared surface of over twelve hundred square feet that was filled in part by a sculptured bas-relief and consisting of a trilingual running into hundreds of lines.

Unfortunately, this monument was situated on the rock more than three hundred feet above the ground, and there was no means of ascent to it. Rawlinson, therefore, had to construct a scaffold to get to the inscription, and at times, in order to obtain as complete a copy as possible, had to be suspended by a rope dangling in front of the rock. In 1835, Rawlinson began to copy the Persian columns of the Behistun trilinguals, which were five in number and contained 414 lines of text. He continued copying the inscription on and off over the years until in 1837 he had finished about 200 lines, or approximately haH, and with the help of classical writers and medieval geographers managed to read a number of the several hundred place names that this inscription contained.

By 1839 he had become acquainted with the work of his colleagues in Europe, and aided by the new information which they provided, he succeeded in translating the first two hundred lines of the Old Persian inscription of the Behistun trilingual. His ambition was to copy every bit of writing on the Behistun rock; but his military duties interrupted his efforts, and it was not until 1844 that he was able to resume his labor of love. In that year he returned to Behistun, finished the entire Old Persian inscription of 414 lines, and copied, as well, all of the 263 lines of the second, or Elamite, version, as it has now come to be known. In 1848 he sent off his manuscript, consisting of his copies, transliterations, translation, commentary, and notes, from Baghdad to the Royal Asiatic Society, and thus put the decipherment of the Old Persian inscriptions on an absolutely trustworthy foundation, a fact that was further confirmed when, in the very same year, the brilliant Irish linguist, Edward Hincks, published a paper that he had read two years earlier, in which he anticipated quite a number of significant observations made by Rawlinson independently.

From here on, only minor changes, additions, and corrections could be made; especially noteworthy were those of Jules Oppert, a student of Lassen, in 1851. Hincks, Rawlinson, and Oppert-cuneiform’s “holy triad” -not only put Old Persian on firm ground, but also launched Akkadian and Sumerian on the course to decipherment, and thus laid open the dusty pages of the clay “books” buried all over the ancient Near East. And so we come back to the large systematic excavations in Mesopotamia and the decipherment of the Akkadian and Sumerian languages to which they led. In 1842 Paul Emile Botta was ap-pOinted French consul in Mosul.

As soon as he arrived there he began excavations at Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus, two mounds covering the ruins of Nineveh. These proved fruitless, and he turned his attention to Khorsabad, a short distance to the north of Kuyunjik, where he “struck it rich,” archeologically speaking; for the Khorsabad ruins covered the palace of the mighty Sargon II, who ruled over Assyria in the first quarter of the eighth century B.c.-although this was unknown to the excavators, of course-and contained acres of Assyrian sculpture, friezes, and reliefs, many of which were covered with cuneiform inscriptions.

Only three years later, the Englishman Austen Henry Layard began digging first at Nimrud, then at Nineveh, and again at Nimrud. In addition to the royal palaces covered with bas-reliefs, he found at Nineveh the library of King Ashurbanipal, the great grandson of Sargon II, which consisted of thousands of tablets and fragments inscribed with the lexical, religious, and literary works of the ancients.

Thus by the middle of the nineteenth century, Europe had hundreds of cuneiform inscriptions, coming largely from Assyrian sites, which were crying for decipherment, as it were, but which presented difficulties and obstacles that seemed insurmountable at the time. And yet, primarily as a result of the genius and perseverance of Hincks, Rawlinson, and Oppert, it took no more than a decade or so for the decipherment to become an accomplished fact.

To be sure, the would-be decipherers did have one advantage. Long before Botta and Layard had begun their excavations, a limited number of inscriptions of one sort or another had found their way to Europe, especially from Babylonian ruins, and the writing on them had been recognized as resembling Niebuhr’s third class on the Persepolis trilinguals. But unfortunately, this third class, which could be reasonably assumed to be a translation of the first class, defied all efforts at decipherment. In the first place, the Persepolis inscriptions were far too brief for any insight into the language. Moreover, even a superficial analysis of the then extant Babylonian inscriptions revealed that they consisted of hundreds of signs, while the first class of the trilingual had only forty-two characters, which made it impossible to mark off the names or words that might be expected to be identical. Finally, within the Babylonian documents themselves the very same signs seemed to show considerable variation in shape and form. No wonder, then, that the first attempts at the deCipherment of the Babylonian writing proved to be futile.

In 1847 came the first Significant contribution; its author not unexpectedly was Edward Hincks. With the help of a copy of the relatively longer Old Persian version of the Behistun inscription, which contained a goodly number of proper names, he succeeded in reading correctly a number of vowels, syllables, and ideograms, as well as the first Babylonian word which was not a proper name, the pronoun a-na-ku-”I” -practically identical with its Hebrew counterpart. However, his major discovery, the one which proved crucial for the decipherment, did not come until 1850, and was based to some extent on the insight of Botta, who, not content with excavating alone, published in 1848 a study on the cuneiform signs that was extremely detailed.

Botta did not try to read a single word, although he succeeded in getting at the meaning of several ideograms; his most fruitful contribution concerned the variants. After careful study and detailed documentation, he showed that there were quite a number of words which, though evidently identical in reading and meaning, were written in different ways. It was this minute study of variant writings which paved the way for Hincks’s paper of 1850, in which at one stroke he was able to explain the seemingly incredible fact that the Babylonian script contained hundreds of signs, as well as give the reason for the existence of so many variants.

The Babylonian-Assyrian (or as it is now called, Akkadian) script, stated Hincks, was not alphabetical, but both syllabic and ideographic, that is, the signs might represent syllables (of consonant plus vowel, vowel plus consonant, or consonant plus vowel plus consonant) which were combined in various ways to make a word, or each sign might express an entire word. With this new insight into the Babylonian script, the decipherment could go on apace. But two major linguistic aids were still to come, both the result of the efforts and researches of the second of our triad, Rawlinson.

In the year 1847, Rawlinson traveled once again from Baghdad to Behistun and at the risk of life and limb succeeded in making paper squeezes of the Babylonian version, which gave him a long text of 112 lines that could be deciphered and translated with the help of the already deciphered Old Persian text on the same monument. In the course of this work, moreover, he discovered the other all-important feature of Babylonian writing, “polyphony,” that is, that one and the same sign could stand for more than one sound or “value.” As a result, Rawlinson could now read about 150 signs correctly; he knew the reading and meaning of about two hundred words of the language, which was now definitely shown to be a Semitic tongue, and he was even able to give a grammatical sketch of it. Rawlinson’s remarkable studies were published in 1850 and 1851.

In 1853, Hincks, with the help of Rawlinson’s studies, succeeded in adding more than a hundred new values to the Babylonian signs, so that he could now identify close to 350 values or readings. But the principle of polyphony, which this identification involved, aroused doubt, suspicion, and antagonism among scholars, some of whom attacked the Hincks-Rawlinson translations as prejudiced and worthless; it was difficult to believe that the ancient people would devise a system of writing in which one and the same sign could have numerous values, since this, presumably, would so confuse the reader as to make it useless. At this crucial juncture, Jules Oppert, the third of the triumvirate, came to the rescue.

In 1855 he gave a survey of the stage of decipherment reached at that point, showed the correctness of the Hincks-Rawlinson readings, and added a number of new signs that had more than one value. He was the first to make a thorough study of syllabaries prepared by the ancient scribes themselves, which were among the tablets excavated in the so-called Ashurbanipal library at Nineveh, and to utilize them extensively in his translation. His numerous treatises, text editions, and polemics helped to consolidate the new science, now generally becoming known as Assyriology-based on the fact that the earliest excavations were conducted in northern Iraq, the home of the Assyrian people -and to invest it with respect and high esteem.

The year 1857 was a fateful one for Assyriology, and it came through the ordeal with flying colors. It was a mathematician and inventor and not a professional Assyriologist who brought matters to ahead. W. F. Fox Talbot, who did research on integral calculus and helped lay the foundations for present-day photography, was also an amateur Orientalist; he had studied the publications of Rawlinson and Hincks and had even published translations of a number of Assyrian texts. Having obtained a still unpublished copy of an inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1116-1076), he made a translation of it, and dispatched it sealed to the Royal Asiatic Society on March 17, 1857, suggesting that the society invite Hincks and Rawlinson to prepare independent translations of the same text and send them in sealed, so that the three independent translations might be compared. The society did so and also sent an invitation to Jules Oppert, who was then in London.

All three accepted the invitation, and two months later the seals of the four envelopes containing the translations were broken by a specially appointed committee of five members of the Royal Asiatic Society. A report was issued stating among other things that the translations of Rawlinson and Hincks resembled each other most closely, that Talbot’s renderings were rather vague and inexact, and that Oppert annotated his translations extensively and often differed from his English colleagues. All in all the verdict was favorable for Assyriology as then practiced; the similarities between the four translations were reasonably close and the validity of the decipherment vindicated.

Two years later, in 1859, Oppert published one of his most important scholarly works, Dechiffrement des inscriptions cuneiforms; it was so lucid, comprehensive, and authoritative a statement of Assyriology and its achievements to date that all opposition ceased. In the decades that followed scholars by the score, especially in France, England, and Germany, wrote articles, monographs, and books on all branches of the new discipline: language, history, religion, culture, and so on. Texts were copied and published by the thousands. Sign lists, glossaries, dictionaries, and grammars were compiled, and innumerable highly specialized articles on grammar, syntax, and etymology were written. And so the study of Assyrian, which was first called Babylonian and is now gradually becoming known as Akkadian-a term deriving from one used by the ancient Mesopotamians themselves-devel-oped and matured, so that now in 1963, two separate, many-volumed dictionaries are in process of publication-one in English by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and the other in German under international auspices-a crowning achievement of more than a hundred years of cumulative scholarship. Babylonian I Assyrian! Akkadian I But not a word yet about Sumer and Sumerians, and after all this is a book about the Sumerians.

Unfortunately, up to the middle of the last century no one knew that a Sumerian people and language had ever existed. And so we must retrace our path a bit in order to follow the step-by-step developments that led to the rather surprising and unexpected realization that a people named Sumerians had once inhabited Mesopotamia. In 1850 Hincks read a paper before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he expressed some doubts concerning the general assumption that it was the Semitic inhabitants of Assyria and Babylonia who had invented the cuneiform system of writing, which they utilized. In the Semitic languages, the stable element is the consonant, while the vowel is extremely variable. It seemed unnatural, therefore, that the Semites should invent a syllabic system of orthography in which the vowel seemed to be as unchanging as the consonant.

The distinction between soft and hard palatals and dentals is a significant feature of the Semitic languages, but the cuneiform syllabary did not seem to express this distinction adequately. Then, too, if the Semites had invented the cuneiform script, it should be possible to trace the syllabic values of the signs to Semitic words. But this was rarely the case; the great majority of the syllabic values for the cuneiform signs seemed to go back to words or elements for which no Semitic equivalent could be found. Hincks thus began to suspect that the cuneiform system of writing was invented by some non-Semitic people who had preceded the Semites in Babylonia.

So much for Hincks and his suspicions. Two years later, in 1852, according to a note published by Hincks, we learn that Rawlinson, after studying the syllabaries excavated at Kuyunjik, had come to the conclusion that they were bilingual and that the Semitic Babylonian words in them explained corresponding words in an entirely new and hitherto unknown language, which he designated “Akkadian” and which he considered to be “Scythian or Turanian.” Here, then, we learn for the first time of the possibility that there had existed a non-Semitic people and a non-Semitic language in Mesopotamia.

In 1853, Rawlinson himself delivered a lecture before the Royal Asiatic Society in which he stated that there were unilingual cuneiform inscriptions on bricks and tablets from sites in southern Babylonia that were written in the “Scythian” language. And in a lecture before the same society two years later, he discussed in some detail the Kuyunjik bilingual syllabaries, which “were nothing more or less than comparative alphabets, grammars, and vocabularies of the Assyrian and Scythic dialects. The Babylonian Scyths, whose ethnic name is Akkad, may be assumed to have invented cuneiform writing.” It was these Akkadians, Rawlinson continued, who “built the primitive temples and capitals of Babylonia, worshipping the same gods, and inhabiting the same seats as the Semitic successors; but they appear to have a different nomenclature, both mytholOgical and geographical.” As for the language of these Babylonian Scyths, the Kuyunjik tablets, said Rawlinson, “furnish volumes of comparative examples and interlineary translations.” As a result of his study of this new “primitive” language from the bilinguals, he concludes that “it is doubtful if any close linguistic affinities are to be traced between the primitive tongue and any available dialect of modern times. The pronominal system approaches nearer to the Mongol and Manchu type than to any other branch of the Turanian family, but there is little or no resemblance of vocabulary.”

In short, Rawlinson had definitely discovered the Sumerians and their language, except that he deSignated them quite erroneously first as Babylonian Scyths and then as Akkadians, the very term now used for the Semites of the land. The correct naming of the non-Semitic people who invented the cuneiform script we owe to the genius of Jules Oppert, whose contributions to all facets of ASSyriology, and especially to the study of the syllabaries, were so outstanding.

On January 17, 1869, Oppert delivered a lecture before the ethnographic and historical section of the French Society of Numismatics and Archeology in which he declared that these people and their language should be called Sumerian, basing his conclusions on the title “King of Sumer and Akkad” found in the inscriptions of some of the early rulers; for, he argued quite correctly, it was the name Akkad that applied to the Semitic people of Assyria and Babylonia, while the name Sumer referred to the non-Semitic inhabitants. Oppert even went on to say in this lecture that an analysis of the structure of the Sumerian language had led him to conclude that it had close affinities with Turkish, Finnish, and Hungarian-a brilliant insight into the structure of a language which only twenty years earlier had been non-existent as far as world scholarship was concerned. The deSignation “Sumerian” was not followed immediately by the majority of cuneiform scholars, and the term “Akkadian” con-tinued to be used for several decades. In fact, there was one famous Orientalist, Joseph Halevy, who, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, denied the very existence of both the Sumerian people and language.

Beginning with the 1870’s and for more than three decades thereafter, he published article after article insisting that no people other than the Semites had ever been in possession of Babylonia, and that the so-called Sumerian language was merely an artificial invention of the Semites them-selves devised for hieratic and esoteric purposes. For a very brief period he was even supported by several eminent Assyriologists. But all that is now only a matter of historical curiosity; for not long after Oppert’s perspicacious conclusions about the non-Semitic people of Babylonia and their language, two excavations were begun in southern Babylonia which put the Sumerians on the map, as it were, with the discovery of statues and steles which revealed their physical features, and innumerable tablets and inscriptions significant for their political history, religion, economy, and literature. The first significant excavation on a Sumerian site was begun in 1877 at Telloh, the ruins of ancient Lagash, by the French under the direction of Ernest de Sarzec.

Between the years 1877 and 1900, De Sarzec conducted eleven campaigns and succeeded in excavating numerous statues, primarily of Gudea, steles-the Stele of the Vultures is one of the more important of these-the Gudea cylinders, and thousands of tablets, many of which dated to the dynasty of Ur-Nanshe. In 1884 the publication of Leon Heuzey’s magnificent volume, Decouvertes en Chaldee par Ernest de Sarzec, was begun, with the collaboration of two outstanding epigraphists, Arthur Amiaud and Fran~ois Thureau-Dangin. The French continued to dig intermittently at Lagash: from 1903 to 1909 under the direction of Gaston eros, from 1929 to 1931 under Henri de Genouillac, and from 1931 to 1933 under Andre Parrot. All in all the French conducted twenty campaigns in Lagash; and the results are summarized briefly in Andre Parrot’s most valuable reference book, Tello (1948), which also gives a complete and detailed bibliography of all publications relating in one way or another to these excavations. The second major excavation on a Sumerian site was that conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the first American expedition to excavate in Mesopotamia.

All through the eighties of the nineteenth-century discussions had been going on in American university circles about the feasibility of sending an American expedition to Iraq, where both the British and French had been making such extraordinary archeological finds. It was not until 1887, however, that John P. Peters, professor of Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, succeeded in obtaining moral and financial support from various individuals in and about the university for the purpose of equipping and maintaining an excavating expedition in Iraq. Nippur, one of the largest and most important mounds in Iraq, was chosen, and four campaigns, long and grueling, were conducted there between the years 1889 and 1900 first under the direction of Peters, then under J. H. Haynes ( Originally the photographer of the expedition), and finally under the noted Assyriologist, H. V. Hilprecht, who had also been an epigraphist in the first campaign.

The hardships and handicaps were severe and discouraging. One young archeologist died in the field, and there was hardly a year in which one or another of the members of the expeditions did not suffer from a serious illness. In spite of the obstacles, however, the excavating continued, and the expedition achieved magnificent, and in some respects unparalleled, results, at least in the inscriptional field. The Nippur expedition succeeded in excavating some thirty thousand tablets and fragments in the course of its four campaigns, the larger number of which are inscribed in the Sumerian language and range over more than two millenniums, from the second half of the third to the last centuries of the first millennium B.C. Publication of some of this material began as early as 1893 in accordance with a farsighted and long-range plan conceived by Hilprecht in which numerous scholars were to participate in addition to himself.

Not all of the volumes that were planned have seen the light of day; like most grandiose plans, unforeseen obstacles and difficulties arose which prevented its complete execution. But quite a number of volumes have appeared, and these have proved to be of the greatest value to cuneiform scholars. This brings us back to Sumerology and its progress in the period following the days of its three great pioneers, Hincks, Rawlinson, and Oppert. Up to the time of the excavations at Lagash and Nippur, practically all the source material for the study of the Sumerians and their language consisted of the bilingual syllabaries and interlinears excavated in the Ashurbanipal library in the ruins of Nineveh, which were being published in various sections of the five superb folio volumes entitled Cuneiform Inscriptions of West-ern Asia, edited by Rawlinson. But this material dates from the seventh century B.C., more than a millennium after the disappearance of the Sumerian people as a political entity and of the Sumerian language as a living tongue.

To be sure, there were some inscriptions from Sumerian sites available in Europe, but these consisted primarily of a small group of bricks, tablets, and cylinders from the Sumerian and post-Sumerian periods which had found their way into the British Museum and from which little significant data could be gleaned. The excavation at Lagash and Nippur put at the disposition of scholars thousands of unilingual Sumerian inscriptions, which they could now try to translate and interpret with the help of whatever grammatical rules and lexical data had been obtained from the Kuyunjik bilingual syllabaries and interlinears. The vast majority of the inscriptions from Lagash and Nippur were administrative, economic, and legal in character, consisting of inventories of all types and sizes, promissory notes and receipts, deeds of sales, marriage contracts, wills, and court decisions; and thus from them some idea could at last be had of the Sumerian social and economic structure. These documents also contained hundreds of names of persons, deities, and places which were of some value for learning about Sumerian religion. Even more important were the hundreds of votive inscriptions on statue, stele, cone, and tablet which were of fundamental value for the study of Sumerian political history. Especially from Nippur came numerous lexical and grammatical texts, the Sumerian forerunners of the later Kuyunjik bilinguals, and these proved to be invaluable for the study of the Sumerian language.

Finally, in Nippur there were found thousands of tablets and fragments inscribed with Sumerian literary works; and although these remained rather unintelligible for many a decade after their discovery, Hilprecht, who handled and cataloged many of them, realized their Significance for the history of religion and literature. It is not too much to state that it was as a direct result of the Lagash and Nippur excavations that Fran,¥ois Thureau-Dangin could publish in 1905 his epoch-making Les Inscriptions de Sumer et Akkad and Arno Poebel his equally epoch-making Grundzuge der sumerischen Grammatik in 1923.

To be sure, both these scholars built on the efforts and contributions of their predecessors and contemporaries; there is no other way for the progress of productive scholarship. To name only some of the more outstanding figures: the Englishman A. H. Sayce, who in 1871 edited the first unilingual Sumerian document, a Shulgi inscription of twelve lines, and sketched in a detailed philological commentary a number of important characteristics of the Sumerian language; Fran,¥ois Lenormant and his monu-mental Etudes accadiennes (begun in 1873); Paul Haupt, who copied a large number of Sumerian bilinguals and unilinguals in the British Museum and who made some notable contributions to Sumerian grammar and lexicography; R. E. Brunnow, who compiled a list of Sumerian signs and readings and an exhaustive glossary of Sumerian words from the bilinguals known in his day which proved of fundamental importance to all lexicographers from the time it was first published, 1905-7, to the present, al-though it took a number of supplementary glossaries prepared by other scholars to keep it up to date; J. D. Prince, who published the first important Sumerian lexicon in 1905; and Friedrich Delitzsch, who compiled both a Sumerian grammar and a Sume-rian glossary based on word roots rather than signs and their readings.

But it was Thureau-Dangin’s Les Inscriptions de Sumer et Akkad of 1905-appearing only two years later in a German translation under the title Die sumerischen und akkadischen Konigsin-schriften-which proved a milestone in the progress of Sumerian studies. It is a superb compendium of straightforward translation and tersely worded notes revealing a masterful distillation of the accumulated Sumerological knowledge of that day, not a little of which could be traced to Thureau-Dangin’s own original contributions; after some five decades of cuneiform scholarship, it is still far from superseded, and in some respects never will be. And Poebel’s Grundziige der sumerischen Grammatik did for Sumerian grammar what Thureau-Dangin’s book did for political history and religion. Based on painstakingly thorough and minutely de-tailed studies of the Sumerian inscriptions-both bilingual and unilingual and from all periods from the “classical” language of the third millennium B.C. to the late “book” Sumerian of the first millennium B.C. (the translations of inscriptions 1 through 35 in the Appendix are based primarily on several of these studies)-Poebel’s Grundziige set down with compelling logic the fundamental principles and rules of Sumerian grammar, illustrating them pertinently and, wherever pOSSible, profusely. Subsequent grammatical studies prepared by Poebel himself as well as by other scholars, especially Adam Falkenstein and Thorkild Jacob-sen, have resulted in a number of additions and corrections, and future studies will no doubt result in further modification of some of the grammatical details sketched in the Grundziige; but by and large, Poebel’s work has stood the test of time, and in spite of the current passion for changes in terminology and nomenclature, profound and otherwise, it will long remain the cornerstone of all constructive Sumerian grammatical efforts. Poebel’s grammar, however, is not organized pedagogically but logically and cannot be readily used by novices who would like to learn Sumerian on their own.

A little book that is quite useful in this respect is C. J. Gadd’s A Sumerian Reading Book; it was first published in 1924, however, and a revised and up-to-date version is urgently needed. Another useful grammar, pedagogical-ly speaking, is Anton Deimel’s Shumerische Grammatik (second edition, 1939), although it suffers no little from a rather superficial treatment of the problems involved in the translation of Sumerian texts. In the field of lexicography, the same author’s Shumerisches Lexikon, based largely on the compilations by Brunnow and others, is indispensable to the scholar, although it has to be used with considerable critical caution and discrimination.

The most far-reaching and fundamental lexicographical works now in the process of preparation are the M aterialien zum sumerischen Lexikon: Vokabulare und Formularbucher of Benno Landsberger, the dean of Assyriologists. Eight volumes consisting of the most up-to-date compilations of the later syllabaries, vocabularies, and lexical bilinguals, as well as their earlier Sumerian forerunners, have already appeared under the auspices of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, an institution to which all cuneiformists owe a debt of profound gratitude for the Sumerological studies it has fostered over the past fifty years. Let us now leave Sumerian linguistic research and return to archeology in order to sketch briefly the results of some of the more important excavations on Sumerian sites, which had begun so auspiciously with Lagash and Nippur.

In 1902-3, a German expedition under the direction of Robert Koldewey worked at Fara, ancient Shuruppak, the home city of the flood-hero Ziusudra, and unearthed a large number of administrative, economic, and lexical texts dating from the twenty-fifth-century B.c.-older, therefore, than the inscriptions of the Ur-Nanshe dynasty found at Lagash. The economic texts included sales of houses and fields, which indicated that private ownership existed in Sumer, a feature of Sumerian life that has long been a matter of controversy among Orientalists. The Fara lexical texts, too, were of rather extraordinary importance for the history of civilization, since they pointed to the existence of Sumerian schools as far back as the twenty-fifth century B.C. and perhaps even earlier. The excavators also unearthed a number of private and public buildings and tombs, numerous vases of stone, metal, and terra cotta, and many cylinder seals. In 1930, a University of Pennsylvania expedition under the direction of Erik Schmidt returned to Fara, but the new finds did not differ materially from those made almost thirty years earlier.

It was my good fortune-young and inexperienced as I was-to be the epigraphist of this expedition. Most of the Fara tablets have been studied and published by Anton Deimel and the French Sumerologist R. Jestin. In 1903, an expedition of the University of Chicago conducted by E. J. Banks excavated at Bismaya, the site of Lugalannemundu’s capital Adab. Here, too, there was discovered quite a number of archaic tablets resembling those of Fara in form and content. Banks also unearthed the remains of several temples and palaces, numerous votive inscriptions, and a statue bearing the name Lugaldalu that dates from about 2400 B.C. The major publication resulting from this expedition is an Oriental Institute volume of texts copied by D. D. Luckenbill, which is of particular value for the history of Sargonic and pre-Sargonic Sumer. From 1912 to 1914, a French expedition under the direction of the eminent cuneiformist Henri de Genouillac carried on excavations at Kish, the first city to which kingship had descended after the Flood. The First World War put an end to these excavations, but in 1923, an Anglo-American expedition returned to Kish under the direction of another eminent cuneiformist, Stephen Langdon, and worked there for ten consecutive seasons.

They unearthed several monumental buildings, ziggurats, and cemeteries and a large number of tablets. A number of publications have been issued both by the Field Museum on the archeological material and by Oxford University on the epigraphic material. A small contingent of this Kish expedition also worked briefly in nearby Jemdet Nasr, a mound covering the ruins of a town whose ancient name is still unknown. This relatively minor excavation at a rather small site was fortunate enough to uncover several hundred tablets and fragments inscribed with semipictographic signs which dated back to about 2800 B.C. and were thus the earliest Sumerian inscriptions of any sizable quantity known at the time. These tablets, copied and published by Stephen Langdon, marked a milestone in Sumerian epigraphic studies. We now come to a place called Warka by modern Arabs, Uruk by the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians, and Erech in the Bible, where at this very day a most systematic and scientific excavation is being conducted, one that has proved fundamental for what might be termed the “stratigraphic” study of Sumerian history and culture. Systematic excavations were first begun there by a German expedition under the direction of Julius Jordan. Following the inevitable interruption caused by the First World War, the expedition returned in 1928 and continued its excavations until stopped by the Second World War in 1939.

Throughout the years the expedition has had on its staff a number of outstanding epigraphists, including Adam Falkenstein, who has been a prolific and outstanding contributor to Sumerian studies over the past three decades. It is the Erech expedition that created a kind of relative dating for all Sumerian finds by sinking a large test-pit through some twenty meters of stratified occupation down to virgin soil and carefully studying and typing the finds of the numerous levels and periods, beginning with the very first settlers and ending with the middle of the third millennium B.C. It laid bare Sumer’s earliest monumental buildings known at the time, dating from about 3000 B.C. Among its innumerable smaller finds, there was an alabaster vase, close to a meter in height, that was decorated with cultic scenes highly revealing for early Sumerian rite and ritual; there was also a life-sized marble head of a woman dating from about 2800 B.C., which indicates that early Sumerian sculpture in the round had reached unsuspected creative heights. In one of the early monumental temples more than a thousand pictographic tablets were unearthed, which made it possible to trace the cuneiform system of writing back to its earliest stages; many of these tablets were published in a superb volume prepared with great care and after much study by Adam Falkenstein. In 1954, the German expedition returned to Erech under a new director, H. Lenzen, and is carrying on its careful and methodical excavations, which will no doubt make Erech-the city of Sumer’s great heroes-the keystone of Mesopotamian archeology in all its aspects: architecture, art, history, religion, and epigraphy.

From Biblical Erech we tum to Biblical Ur, or Urim as it was known to the Sumerians, the city which was excavated from 1922 to 1934 with skill, care, and imagination by the late Sir Leonard Woolley. Woolley has described his discoveries at Ur time and again, both for the scholar and for the layman-we need mention here only his latest work, Excavations at Ur (1954). Through his writings, its royal tombs, ziggurat, and “Flood-pit” have almost become household words. Less well-known, but equally significant, contributions have been made by the epigraphists on the expedition, C. J. Cadd, Leon Legrain, and E. Burrows, who have copied, studied, and published a large part of the written documents discovered at Ur-documents which have shed new light on the history, economy, culture not only of Ur, but of Sumer as a whole. Close to Vr, some four miles to the north, lies a small low mound known as al-Ubaid which, in spite of its size, has played a large role in Mesopotamian archeology. First explored by H. R. Hall of the British Museum in 1919, and later excavated methodically by Leonard Woolley, it was found to be in part a prehistoric mound containing evidence of the earliest immigrants into the land. These people, who have come to be known as Vbaidians, produced and used a special type of monochrome painted ware and tools of flint and obsidian, which were later found in the lowest layers of several Mesopotamian sites.

Woolley also laid bare at this site a small temple to the goddess Ninhursag which, in addition to providing us with a vivid picture of what one of the smaller provincial temples looked like in the middle of the third millennium, proved beyond all doubt that the so-called First Dynasty of Ur, which scholars had tended to look upon as legendary, actually did exist; this discovery thus helped to reorient the prevalent overly skeptical attitude to the all-important King List, which in turn gave a clearer insight into Sumerian political history. In the extreme northeast of Sumer east of the Tigris and some-what off the beaten path, Sumerologically speaking, lay a series of mounds which attracted the attention of Henri Frankfort, one of the world’s great archeologists, a perceptive art historian and philosophically oriented scholar whose untimely death was an irretrievable loss to Oriental studies.

Between the years 1930 and 1936 he conducted careful and methodical excavations at the tells Asmar, Khafaje, and Agrab and unearthed temples, palaces, and private houses, tablets, cylinder seals, and a most exciting series of sculptures in the round, some of which reach back to about 2700 B.c.-only a century or so later than the famous head from Erech. Among Frankfort’s fellow-workers were Pinhas Delougaz, an archeologist of long experience who is now director of the Museum of the Oriental Institute; Seton Lloyd, who became advisor to the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities and who has probably participated in the excavation of more Sumerian sites than any other living archeologist; and Thorkild Jacobsen, the rare scholar who is at home both in archeology and in epigraphy. The results of these excavations are appearing in a series of magnificent Oriental Institute publications that are outstanding for their detailed and profusely illustrated treatment of architecture as well as of artifacts and inscriptions.

From 1933 to 1956, interrupted only by the Second World War, a Louvre expedition under the direction of Andre Parrot, the archeologist who in a sense closed the book on Lagash, excavated at Mari, a city situated on the middle Euphrates considerably to the west of what is usually considered Sumer proper; and the results were both extraordinary and unexpected. Here is a city whose inhabitants were probably Semites from very early times-to date practically all the inscriptions discovered at Mari have been in Akkadian-and yet, culturally speaking, it can hardly be differentiated from a Sumerian city-the same types of temples, a ziggurat, sculpture, inlay, and even a statuette of a singer in-scribed with the good Sumerian name Ur-Nanshe, the very name borne by the founder of the earliest known Lagash dynasty. The leading epigraphist with the Louvre expedition was the Belgian cuneiformist Georges Dossin, who, with Parrot, is jOintly editing a most important series of volumes on the Mari inSCriptional material in which a number of French and Belgian scholars are participating. With Lagash and Mari to their credit, the French are again taking top rank in Mesopotamian archeology and scholarship. During the war years, when foreign expeditions were neither practical nor possible, the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities, which has grown from small beginnings to a fine department of archeologists, epigraphists, registrars, and restorers, and which is keeping Mesopotamian archeology on a scientific keel, branched out on its own and made three excavations that are of particular relevance and importance to Sumerian studies.

In a tell called Uqair, the ruins of a town whose ancient name is still unknown, an expedition under the direction of Fuad Safar unearthed in the years 1940 and 1941 the first known Sumerian painted temple, with colored frescoes covering the inside walls and the altar. It also laid bare some Ubaid houses as well as a number of archaic tablets. In tell Harmal, a small mound some six miles due east of Baghdad, Taha Baqir, then director of the Iraq Museum, conducted excavations from 1945 to 1949 and, to the surprise of scholars the world over, uncovered more than two thousand tablets, among which were some excellently preserved lexical and mathematical “text-books,” and a temple. And down at the southern tip of Sumer, in ancient Eridu (the seat of Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom), Fuad Safar conducted excavations in the years 1946–49, uncovering the earliest Ubaid pottery, an Ubaid cemetery, and two palaces from the middle of the third millennium B.C. Enki’s temple was followed down to its very first building phase, of about 4000 B.C. Sad to say, not a single tablet was discovered in Eridu; a strange state of affairs indeed for a city whose tutelary deity is the god of wisdom. Following the war years, there have been only two major foreign expeditions excavating in Sumer: the Germans have returned to Erech; and the Americans, primarily as a result of Thorkild Jacobsen’s efforts, have returned to Nippur and in alternate, sea-sons have cleared the Enlil temple, unearthed over a thousand tablets and fragments (about five hundred of which are literary), and begun to lay bare a temple to the goddess Inanna.

But the future of Sumerian excavations in Iraq lies in the hands of the Iraqis themselves, and there is every reason to hope that the Iraqi scholars and archeologists will not abandon or neglect their fore-fathers of the distant past who did so much not only for Iraq but for man the world over. So much for the bird’s-eye view of decipherment and archeology relevant to Sumer and the Sumerians. Before turning to the history of Sumer, the subject of our next chapter, however, the reader should have at least an inkling of one of the more vexing problems besetting the Near Eastern archeologist and historian-the problem of chronology. Nor has this problem been solved by the carbon-14 method of dating; because of purely physical and mechanical factors the results of this method have often proved to be ambiguous and misleading, not to mention the fact that in the case of Lower Mesopotamia, the margin of error allowed is too large for comfort. In general, the dates assigned in the past to Sumerian rulers and monuments were far too high.

To some extent, this was due to the very understandable inclination on the part of archeologists to claim high antiquity for their particular discoveries. But in the main it was due to the available source material and in particular, to the several dynastic lists compiled by the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian scribes themselves; for these frequently treated as consecutive dynasties of rulers which are now known from other documents to have been contemporaneous in whole or in part. While there is still no unanimity of opinion, the Sumerian dates have now been lowered very considerably from those found in earlier histories and handbooks, in some cases by as much as half a millennium. The two key dates for Sumerian chronology are the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur, when the Sumerians lost their predominant political position in Mesopotamia, and the beginning of the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon, when to all intents and purposes the Sumerians ceased to exist as a political, ethnic, and linguistic entity.

The latter date, it is now generally agreed, is approximately 1750 B.C., plus or minus fifty years. For the time span between this date and the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur, there is enough inscriptional material available to show by dead reckoning that it was approximately 195 years in length; the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur may therefore be placed at 1945 B.C., plus or minus fifty years. From this date backward, there are enough historical inscriptions, date-formulas, and synchronisms of various sorts to carry us back to approximately 2500 B.C. and a ruler by the name of Mesilim.

Beyond this, all dating depends entirely on archeological, stratigraphic, and epigraphic inferences and surmises of one sort or another and the results of carbon-14 tests, which, as already said, have not proved to be as decisive and conclusive as had been anticipated.

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