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Table in a library with a variety of books on ancient clothing spread across it cover-up

Entrance to the Fachbibliothek Atrium, North Wing, Universität Innsbruck. Photo by Sean Manning, February 2015.

Despite some health difficulties, I have been slowly making sense of the Gadal-iama contract and updating my transcription and further reading in an earlier post. Perhaps “making sense” is not the right expression. Because while historians happily quote translations of this text into fluid English or French, the original Babylonian is full of rare words, technical phrases whose meaning is not fully understood, and intricately nested sub-clauses. After the book by Guillaume Cardascia in 1951 and the article by E. Ebeling in 1952, both of which discuss the difficult points of this tablet and argue how to resolve some of them, translators have chosen to hide the uncertainties. Debate continues, but in philological venues where squeamish historians don’t always look. I am having trouble reconciling many of the details in the translations which I have read with the Babylonian original. So this is not the sort of text which you can read in translation with a light heart.

I find it comforting that when I look up difficult words in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (the sort in 25 volumes which fills an entire bookshelf) I almost always find a short entry which cites this contract and perhaps one or two others. The specialists in cuneiform have trouble with this text too. And the three people who have transcribed the tablet almost completely agree about which signs are written on it. But I wonder how many other optimistic translations of ancient texts I am innocently relying on.