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A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of graph-paper and bubble-wrap

Tablet HS 643 in Jena. On the graph paper in the background each small square is 1 mm wide.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.

This tablet is a short note dated by an illegible King of Babylon, King of the Lands (so anyone from Cyrus to Xerxes, with Darius most likely on the basis of the length of his reign). The scribe who wrote it was in a hurry, and his clay was drying out. Have a look at the centre and lower left, where groups of overlapping wedges have compressed the surrounding clay. Many signs are written with fewer wedges than they ‘should’ be, the boundaries between signs are not always clear, and the scribe did not bother to draw a series of parallel lines to guide his writing. Like many tablets, the surface is not flat, and writing extends onto the edges (the bottom edge made a convenient place to record the date, and continuing a line onto the edge of a tablet let a scribe who was running out of space finish a word). The first two lines on the recto are some of the most clearly written, so lets have a closer look at them.

Closeup photo of a cuneiform tablet

Closeup of the first two lines of tablet HS 643.

A sketch of two rows of cuneiform signs with a transcription in Latin letters below DUMU.DU3 ša2 ina IGI-šu-nu / {m}ŠEŠ-šu-nu A-šu ša2 {m}Ki-din-{d}AMAR.UTU

Spend a while comparing the photograph of the first two lines and the sketch of the characters redrawn the way they appear in handbooks of cuneiform scripts, even under late informal forms. Many horizontal and vertical wedges are missing their tails, and ša2 (three wedges pointing down over one wedge pointing down) is often reduced to three wedges pointing towards the lower right like the signs ḪI or DIN. While DUMU.DU3{meš} “the citizens”, šunu “their,” and ina IGI “before” are very common expressions, the only way to read the beginning of this tablet is to be generous with the scribe and see what he is trying to say if only the clay had been more sensitive or the scribe had taken the time to include every wedge. After all, the tablet is witnessed, so was presumably legible to its writer. In further lines reading this tablet becomes even more difficult, and I have trouble agreeing with the transcriptions I have seen.

A line drawing of one side of a cuneiform tablet in the Hilprecht Collection, Jena

The most optimistic sketch of one side of this tablet which I can bear to draw. Another copyist might include more wedges on the ground that the tablet has simply not clearly absorbed every stroke of the scribe’s reed.

Sketching tablets is a balancing act between honestly representing what is there, and representing what you think the scribe wrote or meant to wrote (not all of the scribe’s pokes with his stylus ‘took’ on the clay!) Some sketchers are optimistic about including what the scribe ‘should have’ written, which can be a problem if a reader does not have the original tablet to compare. In addition, some tablets are slowly crumbling, or have been damaged in storage, so that sketches from before the Second World War can show signs or wedges which no longer exist. But given the difficulty of reading tablets from photos, and the expense of travelling to visit them, sketches are still important.

Further Reading: A sketch and transcription of this tablet is probably published somewhere in
Oluf Krückmann, Neubabylonische Rechts- und Verwaltungstexte. TMH 2-3. Leipzig 1933. I do not know the publication number, just the catalogue number.