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Medical Prescription from Ancient Mesopotamia

This medical therapeutic text, inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform on a clay tablet small enough to fit into one’s hand, prescribes various plants and herbs to treat an unknown illness. Many thousands of Akkadian medical texts that have survived from the second and first millennia BCE provide information about medical symptoms, illnesses, and treatments. These sources have allowed modern scholars to reconstruct aspects of medical knowledge and practice in ancient Mesopotamia.

Aššur, Neo-Assyrian, c. 911-612 BCE.

Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of CDLI.

Bowl Dedicated to the Goddess Inanna

An alabaster bowl dedicated by a merchant named AK-Enlil to the goddess Inanna, whose name is written in the far right column. The inscription is in Sumerian.

Inanna (or Inana) is the Sumerian name of the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, and one of the more complicated deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon. In the early period from which this vase comes, she is usually listed in the top tier of the pantheon after Anu and Enlil.

Nippur, Early Dynastic IIIa (c. 2600-2500 BCE).

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image from CDLI.

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Old Babylonian School Tablet: Wisdom and Math

This clay tablet from Ur, which would have been small enough to fit comfortably into the hand of a young scribe, has the typical round shape of a school tablet. On the obverse (top photo) is recorded a Sumerian proverb, which may have been intended to teach moral lessons to the students as well as help them practice writing, and on the reverse (bottom photo) is a mathematical calculation. Scribes would have had a diverse education to prepare them to compose and copy texts from a variety of genres, including mathematics and wisdom literature. (Source)

Old Babylonian, c. 1900-1600 BCE.

British Museum. Photo from CDLI.

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Neo-Babylonian Protective Amulet

The obverse of this stone amulet (top photo) shows an image of the demon Ugallu, the lion-headed storm-demon typically depicted with a lion’s head, donkey ears, and the talons of a bird. On the reverse (bottom photo) is an Akkadian inscription in cuneiform. 

Neo-Babylonian, c. 626-539 BCE.

Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva. Photo courtesy of CDLI.

Ancient Wisdom Literature: “The Counsels of a Pessimist”

Whatever men do does not last forever, / Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end. 

This short work, written in Akkadian, consists of life advice addressed to a reader, or perhaps a specific person whose identity is now lost. Although damaged, the surviving text preaches on the impermanence of human life and activity and the need to have a carefree attitude toward life in order to avoid bad dreams, among other advice.

Translation above from W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1996), p. 109. The full tablet is published in Lambert’s volume.

Nineveh, Neo-Assyrian, 911-612 BCE.

British Museum. Image from CDLI.

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A temple plan from the Ur III Period (c. 2100-2000 BCE) in Ancient Mesopotamia shows the plan for a temple building with cuneiform inscriptions that give the lengths of the walls drawn. Such architectural sketches are rare, so this find, which is now in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, is exceptional.

ca. 2100-2000 BCE

Source: The 100 Most Important Cuneiform Objects, “A Temple Plan”.

Royal Inscription on an Agate Bead

This beautifully preserved agate bead bears a royal inscription of the King Ibbi-Suen of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The inscription is dedicated to the moon god, Nanna, whose name appears in the first line and is preceded by the divine determinative. (Source)

Ur III, c. 2100-2000 BCE.

Louvre Museum. Image from CDLI.

Bilingual Seal of a Hittite King

In the center of this silver seal, an inscription in hieroglyphs (i.e., logograms) bears the name of Tarkummuwa, King of Mera, and the inscription is repeated in Hittite cuneiform along the rim. Discovered at the Turkish site of Smyrna, this bilingual seal provided one of the first clues to deciphering the hieroglyphic script native to ancient Anatolia. The language encoded in these hieroglyphs is, in fact, not Hittite, but Luwian. Both were Indo-European languages in use in ancient Anatolia during the second and first millennia BCE. (Source 1, 2)

Hittite, 1400 BCE.

The Walters Art Museum. Photo courtesy of CDLI.

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Old Babylonian “Spreadsheets”

Tabular book-keeping made its debut early in Mesopotamian history during the third millennium BCE. The earliest known table that displays headings and a horizontal axis of calculations comes from the Early Dynastic Period (Robson: p. 117). Tables were used to organise and store both quantitative and qualitative information, and provided an important tool for book-keeping. Both of the examples pictured above are Old Babylonian administrative tablets from Larsa that show tabular accounts (Sources 1, 2).

Source: E. Robson, “Accounting For Change: The Development of Tabular Book-keeping in Early Mesopotamia”

Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. Both photos from CDLI.

Sumerian Royal Inscription

This footed bowl made of stone schist has a royal inscription in Sumerian dedicated to the goddess Baba by Gudea, the governor (“ensi”) of Lagash. Baba was the patron goddess of the city of Lagash who was often invoked as a protective spirit and in later periods became known as a healing goddess. (Source)

Girsu, Lagash II period (ca. 2200-2100).

Louvre Museum, AO 29931. Image from CDLI.

Rare Sumerian Inscription on Gold

This royal inscription from the Early Dynastic IIIb period (ca. 2500-2340 BCE) bears an inscription dedicated to the god Šara (Shara), a Sumerian god and patron of the city of Umma, by the king Geshakidu of Umma. The god’s name appears in the 1st, 6th, and last lines of the inscribed gold sheet above and is preceded each time by the divine determinative, DINGIR, which represented a star and looks a bit like an asterisk. 

Umma, Early Dynastic IIIb, ca. 2500-2340 BCE.

Louvre Museum. Image from CDLI.

Property of the Mesopotamian Moon God

This alabaster goblet from Ur bears a simple inscription in Sumerian cuneiform that reads, “Property of Nanna”. Nanna was the Sumerian name of the moon god (Akkadian “Sîn”), the titular deity of the city of Ur whose name appears in the second line in each photo above. The greatest number of references to and indications of the worship of the moon god come from the Third Dynasty of Ur. (Source)

Ur, probably c. 2100-2000.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Image from CDLI.

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Disorders of Language and Speech in Ancient Mesopotamia

This tablet forms part of the second “Chapter” in the Akkadian Diagnostic Handbook, a canonical medical diagnostic treatise originally compiled in the 11th century BCE. In the second “Chapter”, symptoms observed on the body of the patient are listed from head to toe and are connected with a diagnosis or prognosis. This particular tablet lists symptoms relating to voice, language, and speech. For example, on the reverse of the tablet (the second photo), entries begin with a description of a patient whose speech constantly “changes”, and this primary symptom is observed with a variety of other problems, such as fever, vomiting, depression, and weeping. Scribes, scholars, and medical practitioners in ancient Mesopotamia compiled detailed observations of medical symptoms and diseases to generate this Diagnostic Handbook, and a separate series of therapeutic texts prescribed methods of treating many of the diseases described therein.

Neo-Assyrian, ca. 911-612 BCE.

British Museum. Images from CDLI.