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CLAY SEALINGS AND TABLETS FROM TELL ASMAR

An Ancient Mesopotamian Palace Reinvestigated

By Clemens Reichel, Research Assistant, Diyala Miscellaneous Objects Database Project
The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 159, Fall 1998, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


"Started work after lunch with 12 men from Shergat. Dug trench at north and south end of deep pit in order to find out: 1. whether that long low lying stretch of ground could be used anywhere for dumping; 2. with what the pit hangs together; 3. to get a baked brick building so that the men could be trained first on easy work." When Henri Frankfort made this entry into the excavation diary on 17 November 1930, describing the first day of work at the Oriental Institute's Diyala Excavations at the site of Tell Asmar, no one could have predicted that, in the years to follow, these excavations would turn into one of the most important archaeological undertakings of the Oriental Institute, with significant consequences for Near Eastern archaeology. In the six years following that day, hundreds of workmen systematically excavated four large sites, layer by layer, to 15 m in depth, uncovering large palaces, temples, and domestic quarters. Decades afterwards, scholars continue to use the pottery and other artifacts from these excavations to reconstruct and refine Mesopotamian chronology between the late fourth and early second millennia. Many of the finds, such as the famous Early Dynastic votive statues, made their way to the Oriental Institute where they have been - and soon will be again - on display.

Such success could hardly have been anticipated during the first day of work at Tell Asmar. Frankfort, director of the project, had arrived in Iraq three weeks earlier; the new on-site excavation house had only been completed on 10 November, and Frankfort's diary mentions many logistical problems still to be overcome, such as the water supply, diseases in nearby villages, and holdups by armed bands in this poorly-controlled area. Tell Asmar, a large site some 50 km northeast of Baghdad, had been chosen for excavation because many baked bricks, with inscriptions identifying the site as the ancient city of Eånunna, were found lying around in the central area of the site. Contrary to Frankfort's hopes for "easy work," however, the first day's progress indicated the presence of a monumental mudbrick building in this area. The excavations quickly expanded, and over the next two seasons the first large architectural complex in the Diyala region, a palatial building covering an area of almost 6,000 m2, was excavated. Several phases of this building, later named "Åu-Sîn Temple and the Palace of the Rulers" (ca. 2050-1850 BC), could be articulated.

Although systematic excavations were in their infancy at this time, great care was taken to record the archaeological provenience of all artifacts from this building. The presence of numerous building inscriptions in all building levels allowed the excavators to date each level fairly accurately and to correlate historical events with the architectural changes observed over time. By putting the archaeological and historical evidence together, the excavators were able to uncover the history of Eånunna, a forgotten but once mighty kingdom, and to observe its political vicissitudes in the archaeological remains of the palace.

The story begins around 2050 BC, when Eånunna was a provincial capital within the Ur III state. This powerful state, which controlled most of Lower Mesopotamia and the Diyala region at that time, was ruled by a series of deified kings from the city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. Around 2030 BC Eånunna's governor Ituria built a temple dedicated to Åu-Sîn, the fourth and penultimate king of the Ur III dynasty. Not long afterwards a palace was attached to this temple, probably by Ituria's son Åuilija, who succeeded him as a governor (see fig. 2a). Political fortunes soon changed when the Ur III state experienced a serious economic crisis due to a diminishing supply of grain. After 2026 BC the Ur III state appears to have lost its control over Eånunna and a new state, Warum (with its capital at Eånunna), emerged. Politics, however, continued to intervene. Shortly before 2000 BC a dynasty from Elam in southwestern Iran took control of the city. As the palace plan of this phase shows, the thirty intervening years had already left clear evidence in the archaeological record and the layout of this palace (see fig. 2b). Shortly after the end of the Ur III overlordship the temple to deified King Åu-Sîn had been desecrated and secularized, while under Bilalama, a ruler of the Elamite dynasty around 2000 BC, the former temple cella was turned into a workshop area with two big kilns. At the same time the palace was expanded by adding a substantial living quarter at its northwestern edge. Political instability continued, as shortly after Bilalama's reign (around 1970 BC), Eånunna was conquered and the palace destroyed by fire. After a period of limited power and resources, perhaps reflected in the patchy reconstructions of the palace, Eånunna's power surged again after 1900 BC, and over the next century it became a serious contender among the major Mesopotamian powers, a development clearly visible in the monumental rebuilding of this palace (see fig. 2c). The latest levels were unfortunately lost to soil erosion; external sources, however, help to recreate a picture of a powerful state which at times rivaled Babylon's power, engulfed itself in political conspiracies and thus greatly influenced politics between Elam in the southeast and Mari at the Middle Euphrates. Its powerful days ended in the mid-18th century, when it was conquered by Hammurapi of Babylon, after which it sank into oblivion for more than 3500 years.

Admirable as the excavators' reconstruction was and still is, it remained unfinished work for several years. The architecture of this palace was published in 1940 as the first architectural Diyala volume in the Oriental Institute Publications series. Then World War II interceded, putting a hold on any major work on this material. After the war, an attempt was made to revive the publication project and, indeed, several Oriental Institute Publications volumes were prepared and in part published. In 1954 Henri Frankfort died, and other leaders of the excavation were no longer in Chicago: Seton Lloyd was teaching at the Institute of Archaeology in London England and Thorkild Jacobsen eventually left for Harvard, leaving most of the publication duties to Pinhas Delougaz. Virtually all of the architecture and some of the artifacts found in these excavations, such as statues and cylinder seals, have so far been published. However, the great majority of small finds, such as stone vessels, beads, tools, metals, or inlays, has remained unpublished to the present day. In 1995, the Oriental Institute revived its commitment to publishing these objects by launching the "Diyala Miscellaneous Objects Database Project." In this project, headed by Professor McGuire Gibson and coordinated by Research Associate Claudia Suter, all Diyala artifacts - published and unpublished - will be catalogued electronically in databases. The final publication, which should be available in book format as well as on CD-ROM, will contain descriptions and images of all 15,500 objects registered during the Diyala excavations.

The poor state of publication is all too apparent when looking at the artifacts from the Åu-Sîn Temple and the Palace of the Rulers. Of almost 2,000 objects coming from this building, only 420 have so far even been mentioned in print and only 203 have been properly published. It is all too well known from other excavations that material considered of "secondary importance" may be neglected or forgotten once the central pieces have been published. In this case, however, the unpublished material included not only 1,069 cuneiform tablets but also 205 clay sealings. These objects, all of which are stored in the Oriental Institute's tablet room, have been studied by the author since January 1997.

While the importance of cuneiform texts for the understanding of the political, sociohistorical, and socioeconomic developments is clear, the significance of clay sealings has been insufficiently understood (see fig. 1). However, long before the invention of cuneiform writing, clay sealings had were used as a form of administrative control. Once a container, such as a bag tied up with string (see fig. 3), was closed, a lump of clay was applied to the bag and the string. While still moist, this lump was sealed - in prehistoric times with a stamp seal, later with a cylinder seal. Once the clay was dry, only the person who held the seal could open this bag undetected. Controlled access to goods could therefore be guaranteed on a large scale, as jars, baskets, and boxes could be sealed in the same manner. A different level of control was exercised by a door sealing (see fig. 4). Once a door had been closed - here with a string wrapped around a wooden peg- the string was covered with a clay lump and then sealed. If the person sealing the door differed from the one sealing the containers, unauthorized access was made virtually impossible. Careful analysis of the reverse side of these sealings can help to reconstruct the nature of the object to which it had originally had attached. If a sealing and its frequency can be related to the archaeological context, i.e., to the provenience from a particular room, then a completely new level of understanding of how a building - in this case an ancient Mesopotamian palace - functioned. Additional information is supplied by the impressions on the front of the sealings. Most of the seals have a seal legend identifying the seal owner, his overlord, his father, and his profession.

Once a catalogue of all sealings had been completed and their archaeological provenience carefully re-established, they were cleaned, photographed, drawn if necessary, their seal legends read, and casts of the reverses made to establish their original functions. Although the results are preliminary, they have so far been promising. The quantitative distribution of sealing types seems to be far more plausible than those reported from many other sites. At the famous Mari Palace in Syria, for example, more than fifty percent of the sealings found were identified as door sealings. Since, however, one would expect to find far more container sealings than door sealings, the assemblage recovered at Mari cannot be considered a representative sample. In the assemblage from the Asmar palace, by comparison, container sealings by far outnumber door sealings. Forty percent of all sealings were originally attached to cloth or leather bags, eleven percent to boxes or baskets, and ten percent to jars. Door sealings comprise a moderate and perfectly credible ten percent of the total assemblage.

Even more encouraging is the spatial distribution of these sealings within the palace. Often enough, sealings are found either on trash dumps outside a building or concentrated inside at a single spot, making it difficult to use them for a functional analysis of the building. In the Asmar palace, fortunately, the situation is quite different, as exemplified in figure 5. Arrows in this plan (showing the palace at the time of Bilalama) point to the findspots of the sealings, listing the name of seal owners, their professions, patronymics, and the number of occurrences. A virtually even spread of sealings across the palace can be observed, which indicates that virtually all of this building was used for administrative or economic purposes.

Yet what do we learn about the people involved in the administration, their family relationships, or their social status? One findspot has given particularly interesting insights into this matter. A small room in the latest phase of the palace, dating to ca. 1850 BC, contained a drain in which a large number of tablets were found (see fig. 6). These tablets cover a period of about one hundred years; they are mostly legal texts dealing with land sales, in many cases land sold by women. Each of these texts mentions an official - apparently a kind of surveyor - who measured the land and also sealed the tablet with his seal. In most cases the seal legend identifies its owner as a scribe, but occasionally his title is elaborated as "scribe of the dur-åub-ba." The meaning of this term is as yet unclear but it is interesting to note that its occurrence is restricted to these land surveyors. A prosopographic study of the names on the tablets and in the seal legends has helped to reconstruct three families, each of which extend over four generations and each of which had family members holding the surveyor's office; family trees and office holdings are shown in figure 6. It appears that several persons could perform the surveyors' job at the same time; the title "scribe of the dur-åub-ba," however, seems to have been held by only one person at any given time. The earliest family attested in this function is the family of Abilulu, whose origins can be traced back well before 2000 BC into the Ur III period. Only slightly later the family of Dan-Tiåpak is attested for the first time; while they do overlap, it appears that the Dan-Tiåpak family gradually replaces the Abilulu family in the surveying function. Around 1900 BC the family of KÏnam-iådi appears for the first time in the person of KÏnam-iådi's son, Åu-Enlil. This glimpse into the relationships between the surveyors indicates that this office must have been strongly family-based. We do not know at present how the office changed from one family to the other, but intermarriage between these families seems a plausible suggestion, as it is otherwise attested in this palace. Certain limits to the level of nepotism involved were still observed. In cases where one family had a stake in a land sale, a member of the other family would function as the surveyor; however, as so often in past and present, the line between official and private interests appears to have been blurry if present at all.

Only a few examples of the discoveries made during the "re-excavation" of this palace can be presented here. Although work is still in progress, it is clear that a wealth of information can be recovered from a thorough study of these clay sealings. The focus of research has recently shifted to the 1,069 still-unpublished clay tablets from the palace. Their archaeological provenience has already been established, and about one third of them have been studied so far. Once these results are combined with the information gained from the clay sealings it will be possible to have a new understanding, unparalleled in detail, into the nature, function, and fate of an ancient Mesopotamian palace.


Clemens Reichel is a Ph.D. candidate in Mesopotamian Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. In addition to pursuing his studies, he has for the last three years been engaged as a Research Assistant for the Diyala Miscellaneous Objects Database Project, focusing on the clay sealings and tablets from the Diyala region.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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