Mesopotamian history tends to be phrased in terms of stages: Early Dynastic city-states replaced by imperial Akkad, bureaucratic Ur III replaced by the more individualistic Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods thanks to the influence of the Amorites, etc. Lost in this process is a sense of the longue durée of Mesopotamian civilization, the basic and largely unchanging aspects of its society, economy and politics. In this paper I will explore one of these transitions, that between Ur III and Isin-Larsa/Old Babylonian times, by examining the nexus between the cuneiform and archaeological records.
My aim is to explore the circumstances that resulted in the unearthing of the textual record upon which our understanding of the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods is based. Where did these tablets come from and what were the circumstances that both led to their preservation and allowed them to be recovered so that we could read them? To answer these questions, it will be necessary to look at the interconnections between the survey data, excavated data and the written record.
The broad sweep of settlement and abandonment provided by the survey data collected and analysed by Adams and his students and colleagues (Adams 1965, 1972, 1981, Adams and Nissen 1972, Gibson 1972, Wright 1981) has a direct impact on our understanding of the archaeological contexts of the cuneiform texts. Sites are subject to forces of erosion so that periods of abandonment — even if temporary relative to Mesopotamia's four-thousand-year history — still selectively remove parts of the archaeological record. Since all texts derive from archaeological contexts they are by no means immune. Indeed unbaked clay tablets are some of the most fragile of the artifacts recovered from Mesopotamian sites, only surviving to the present when buried rapidly at the outset and remaining so until uncovered by the spade of the archaeologist or, more often unfortunately, the looter. Then there is also the issue of accessibility. In most instances both archaeologists and looters dig from the top of a site down, and generally not that far down. Thus most of our data, both archaeological and textual, derive from those levels closest to the exposed surfaces of archaeological sites.