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The Archaeological uses of Cuneiform Documents: Patterns of Occupation at the City of Kish

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2014


It may be said for most Mesopotamian excavations that information contained in cuneiform documents has not been fully used to give cultural elaboration to the bare outline derived from architecture, artefacts, etc. In the era of large expeditions, ending in the 1930's, texts would often be collected, turned over to an epigrapher, and published separately from the main archaeological report. Most often, the epigraphic volume would contain little or no information as to the find-spots of the texts. Likewise, tablets with dates would be, and still are being, published with the notation “seal impression” but without a drawing or photograph of the sealing, thus depriving archaeologists of precise means of determining style change, regional variations, etc. Economic texts and other mundane, relatively simple documents are routinely published in hand copy, sometimes transliterated, but almost never translated. In this way, many details of everyday life, reflecting economic and social systems, remain unavailable to the archaeologist or non-philologist who would find the information extremely interesting and useful. In short, once inscribed material is given over to the epigrapher, the archaeologist seldom refers to it again other than to date a particular level, or identify his site. Rarely are tablets studied by the archaeologist as the most valuable artefact in relation to other artefacts. Likewise, the epigrapher loses the valuable information on context in the interpretation of his texts.

In this article, I hope to demonstrate that much information can be derived by the archaeologist from texts even without detailed content analysis. He need know only the date, the subject or class, and the locus of tablets in order to have at hand an extremely useful tool to refine judgments made on the basis of pottery and other objects. Such information also allows checks to be made on archaeologically derived hypotheses dealing with the function of various parts of a site.

Research Article
IRAQ , Volume 34 , Issue 2 , Autumn 1972 , pp. 113 - 123
Copyright © The British Institute for the Study of Iraq 1972

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1 The dissertation, The City and Area of Kish, was published by Field Research Enterprises, Miami, Florida, in 1972Google Scholar.

2 The Plano-Convex Building at Kish and Early Mesopotamian Palaces”, Iraq 26 (1964), 8398CrossRefGoogle Scholar; A Reconsideration of the Excavations on Tell Ingharra (East Kish), 1923–33”, Iraq 28 (1966), 1851CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cemetery A at Kish: Grave Groups and Chronology”, Iraq 32 (1970), 86129CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 For a brief report on the summer's work, see The American Philosophical Society Yearbook, 1970 (Philadelphia, 1971), 600602Google Scholar.

4 See Land Behind Baghdad (Chicago, 1965), esp. 119 ffGoogle Scholar.

5 Note that Mackay found Ubaid ware in a deep trench east of the ziggurat at Uhaimir, XK I, 67–68, and Pl. II, 3, VIII, 1. Mention of “painted ware such as at Ur and Ubaid”, and “fine black ware”, in a letter from Watelin to Langdon, and January, 1929, gives us an indication of Ubaid ware and perhaps Uruk grey ware found in Trench Y at Ingharra. Jemdet Nasr ware was plentiful in Trench Y.

6 On the basis of pottery, it is impossible for me to discriminate ED II as a separate, important subdivision of the Early Dynastic Period at Kish. The items that designated ED II in the Diyala do not appear diagnostic for Kish. If the chariot burials, and the kings of Kish, are to be placed in ED II, then we have to reassess the earlier portion of what we call ED III and redefine the subdivisions of the Early Dynastic Period. At Kish, ED II seems transitional at best.

7 Reported in unpublished notes of Mackay.

8 See Mackay, E., AM I, 2, p. 80Google Scholar.

9 Indicated by house remains in the upper portions of the C Trenches.

10 See Langdon, S., XK I, 1 ff., for a summary of the evidenceGoogle Scholar.

11 See Goetze, A., JCS 15 (1961), 105111Google Scholar.

12 The great majority of dated Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid texts from Mound W are addressed to or from Hursagkalama, almost never to or from Kish.

13 Determined from a survey of cards in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary files, published sources, and notebooks of I. J. Gelb.

14 E.g. OIP II, 25, i: 40.

15 For discussion and references, see The City and Area of Kish, Chapter 1.

16 VAB IV, 133: 38 ff.; 166: 60 ff.

17 For a discussion of the hydrological problems involved in the creation of the lake, and the probable location of the off-take of the Kish Canal from the river north of Babylon, see The City and Area of Kish, Chapter III.

18 See XK I, Pl. XXXI.

19 According to R. D. Biggs and I.J. Gelb.

20 These stone inscriptions will be published by Gelb. For some of the tablets see XK IV, 34 ff., 59 ff. It should be noted that the loci for some of these items are in doubt. The tablets shown, XK IV, 36, are supposed to be from YW, below the Flood Level, but at least one, Ash. 1930.409A, was found by a boy in debris. Ash. 1929.836 is from Y, 2 metres below the Red Stratum, which agrees more or less with Langdon's statement, ibid., 37. Ash. 1930.339c, shown ibid., 38, is from Trench C–6, Plain Level, to be more precise. The tablets discussed, ibid., 59 ff., are from YW, locus not precisely specified. Of special note is Ash. 1930.4091, which Langdon took to be a stamp seal. The holes he saw as drill holes are, in reality, worm holes. Most of the tablets from below the Flood Level were bored through by worms, a phenomenon that occurred also at Abū Salabikh and Fara. The tablets, ibid., Pl. XLIV, can be more precisely located. Ash. 1930.352 is from C–5, Plain (3), and Ash. 1930.349a is from C–6, Plain (3), not from the Red Stratum as Langdon says, ibid., 61 ff. Ash. 1930.363g, an Old Babylonian school tablet fragment, could not have come from the Red Stratum except by an intrusion. In the publication cited, the numbers are prefixed by a W, standing for Weld-Blundell, the principal English backer of the expedition. This designation has been subsumed under “Ashmolean”.

21 Tablet dated by R. D. Biggs. See Porada, E., “The Relative Chronology of Mesopotamia. Part I. Seals and Trade (6000–1600 B.C.)”, in Ehrich, R. W., editor, Chronologies in Old World Archaeology (Chicago, 1965), 161Google Scholar, for the dating to Early Dynastic II. See AM I, 2, Pl. XXXVI, 10, for tablet.

22 I. J. Gelb, MAD V. See Appendix to this article for new locus information for some of these items.

23 MAD V, no. 2.

24 See The City and Area of Kish, Chapter IV, and Moorey, P. R. S., “A Reconsideration of the Excavations on Tell Ingharra (East Kish), 1923–33”, Iraq 28 (1966), 2829CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for the dating of this building. For a section through the mound, see Lloyd, S., “Back to Ingharra”, Iraq 31 (1969), Pl. VIICrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 XK I, 32 f.

26 See Simmons, S. D., “Early Old Babylonian Tablets from Harmal and Elsewhere”, JCS 14 (1960), 7587Google Scholar, for a summary of evidence on these kings.

27 See XK I, 14 f.

28 Porter, Robert Ker, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia … during the years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820 (London, 1820), Vol. IIGoogle Scholar, Pl. 44h. See XK I, 15, for mention of the Ashmolean fragments.

29 E.g. hymns to Nidaba, Eanna; Instructions of Shuruppak, Gilgamesh and Huwawa.

30 See XK I, 87 ff.

31 Private communication.

32 See XK I, 16.

33 XK I, 16 f.

34 See Genouillac, , RA 10 (1910), 83Google Scholar, for discussion; and cf. XK I, 17.

35 XK III, 17 ff., Pl. XI.

36 Genouillac, PRAK, Text Series B, no. 136.

37 For arguments on this view, see The City and Area of Kish, Ch. IV.

38 XK I, 88–89, note.

39 See The City and Area of Kish, Appendix I. Cf. R. McC. Adams, Land Behind Baghdad, where Seleucid is combined with Parthian, and glazed wares are considered characteristic of both periods. In my survey, and in the present article, Achaemenid and Seleucid are combined, since I was aware that the pottery of the two periods was more closely related than Seleucid was with Parthian. I could not, at the time of the survey, separate the Achaemenid from Seleucid types.

40 For some substantiation of these notions, see the discussion of late pottery from Ur, in UE IX, 88 ff.

41 MAD V, xxviii.

42 Ya designated the north-western half of Trench Y, dug in 1927–28, and sunk below Plain Level to a depth of only 3 m.

43 Y 2 m. or Ya 2 m. are measured from the Plain Level down. These would equal Y 12 m. or Ya 12 m. as measured from the original height of the mound, the datum point. See The City and Area of Kish, Ch. IV for details.