Sumerian temple records at the Australian Institute of Archaeology

Larry Stillman, State Library of Victoria

For Bill Culican, 1928-84, my teacher

Originally published in Buried History (1998), 34(1): 16-20. ('shin' is represented as 'sh'. Macrons and long vowel indications are ommitted. Subscripts readings of signs are also left in the regular text).

The Australian Institute of Archaeology possesses two interesting economic texts from the Neo-Sumerian or Ur III period (2112-2004 BC).(1) While these documents are not as well known as the myths and legends, letters, or historical texts discovered over the past century or more, more recently, a number of Assyriologists specialise in the reconstruction of the centralised and specialised ancient bureaucracy and 'temple economy' of sites like Drehem (ancient Puzrish Dagan), the origin of these documents. (2)

The documents discussed here are records of goods processed for religious ceremonies.

1. A Sumerian letter order for a ration of grain

The first document under discussion is concerned with the transfer of 3 kors of barley made for temple offerings from one individual (Lala) to another, Ribagada.

The letter is not dated, but from the script and language used it can be identified as a formulaic letter known as a 'neo-Sumerian letter order. The language used was not spoken Sumerian, but akin to the formulae found in business documents in English : 'bought of etc. (3)

In fact, Sumerian had probably died out as a spoken language by the Ur III period, when it was replaced as a spoken language by Akkadian. Tle latter language, in its major dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian, remained in use until the rise of Aramaic some 1500 years later. Sumerian was still studied, and sometimes written, down to Hellenistic times. (4)

Australian Institute of Archaeology inventory no 'X' (5)

AIA no. X


1. La-La-ra
2. u3-na-du11
3. she-sa2 du11-ku5-a
4. 3.0.0 gur-am3
5. Ri-ba-ga-da
6. he2-na-ab-sum-mu


1. na-mi-gur-re


[1] Say to (Mr) La-la

[3-4,6] "may he give 3 kors of sa2-du11-ku5 barley to Ribagada

[ reverse 1] He must not argue about it!"


The letter follows the straightforward formula outlined by Sollberger, of Address - Message - Exhortation - Date - Seal Impression. In this case, however, there is no date or seal impression.

Furthermore, in contast with Old Babylonian letters, there are no greetings or blessings (usually along the lines of "may the god keep you healthy".) In addition, the text was writen to be read aloud by a scribe to the illiterate 'customer' - thus we read 'say to Mr Lala' and 'he must not argue about it' - rather than 'read this and don't argue'. Even if the addressee was literate, the convention was always to write letters in this way.

Barley transfers were connected with the sa2-du11-ku5 (known in Akkadian as shatukku) system of religious offerings, part of the system of religious activity in temples. The principal beneficiaries of the offerings were the gods and the dead, though some offerings were directed at kings, adminstrators, and even animals. A full range of products were offered as part of shatukku, including reeds, wood, grains, and beers, all staples of the Sumerian economy.

In this text, we don't know to which god or individual the offering was made. The person named as the recipient of the order of grain, Ribagada, may also appear in other economic texts.(9)

The Sumerian gur measure (Akkadian kurru or Hebrew kor) equates to about 250 litres. The Biblical kor was about 230 litres.

2. Luxury shoes for the Temple

The second document under discussion (Australian Institute of Archaeology no. 133) is another rare and welcome addition to an ancient inventory of luxury shoes, which speak of the work of the shoemaker Lugula and other workers. Texts from the same archive are scattered in different collections around tile world and it is only by very remarkable chance that I recognised this 'Australian' tablet as similar to one read 15 years ago. Further texts from this archive may, of course, exist in other collections. (10)

While there is no direct indication from the Australian Institute of Archaeology text that the shoes and boots were prepared for temple offerings, we know from other texts that such luxury items were made as cultic offerings, which Goetze discussed many years ago. In the text discussed by Goetze, boots were used in connection with the ritual washing ceremony (Sumerian a.tuax.a, Akkadian rimku), and perhaps the same use can be suggested for the Australian tablet.(11)

The text is dated to the 9th month of the Drehent calendar, in the first year of the king Shu-Sin (2037-2029). Other texts also show that the same cobbler worked during the reign of the previous king, Amar Sin

As with a number of other documents in the arcive, the text records that it is a copy of the tablet of Nur-ili. Other tablets have a different formula which record through which official the objects were processed. Furthermore, on the edge of the tablet are two wedges which can perhaps be interpreted as meaning "two" or "duplicate" (12).

The document also reflects the mixed ethnic background of the population of southern Mesopotamia. While this text was prepared during a period of Sumerian cultural renaissance, Lugula is a Sumerian name, while Nur-ill is Akkadian. In another text, part of the same archive, the conveying agent Puzur-ili bears an Akkadian name, and of course, the King Shu-Sin, part of a Sumerian dymasty, carries an Akkadian name.

Su-Sin, like other kings in the Akkadian and Ur III periods, was deified in his own lifetime. The determinative for 'god', dingir(abbreiated as d) was put before his name.

Australian Institute of Archeology, no. B3.

cunieformobverse reversecuneiform


1. 6 kush suhub2 gu-dim4-ma gada(?)

du8-shi-a e2-ba-an

2. 17 kush suhub2 gu-dim4-ma KUSH(?) A e2-ba-an

3. 7 kush suhub2 du8-shi-a e2-ba-an

4. 1 kush suhub2 kush u2-hab2 e2-ba-an

5. 15 kushe-sir2 du8-shi-a e2-ba-an

6. 10 kushe-sir2 du8-shi-a

Bottom edge

suhush6-gub-ba e2-ba-an


1. 4 kushe-sir2 gu2-dim4-ma KUSH A e2-ba-an

2. kin-ak Lu2-gu-la

3. gaba-ri-dub Nu-ur2-i3-li2

4. iti ezen dMe-[ki]-[gal] (overwritten by obverse 2)

5. mu dShu-dSin lugal

On left edge by obverse 2 - two small wedges.

Obverse translation

[1] 6 pairs of ... linen and green/yellow leather boots [2] 17 paris of ... boots [3] 7 pairs of soft green/yellow leather boots [4] 1 pair of gallnut dyed (?) leather boots [5] 15 pairs of soft green/yellow leather sandals [6] 10 paris of ...soft green/yellow leather sandals.

Reverse translation

[1] 4 pairs of ... leather sandals [2] the work of Lugula. [3] Duplicate tablet of Nur-ili. [4] Month of the festival of Mekigal (9th month at Drehem) [5] The year that Shu-Sin became king (first year of his reign)


Obv. 1 kush suhub2 . RLA, p. 539 'Stiefel', CAD SH III, shuhuppatu, boot (?); gada: CAD K p. 475, sub kitu, linen; e2-ba-an: Goetze, JCS 9 (1955), p. 21 "pair", and Steinkeller, Or Ant 19 (1980), p. 87 n. 15, where one text records kush suhub2 e2-ba-an, i.e. "one shoe (of a pair)"

Obv. 2 gu-dim4-ma. While this is a description of a type of shoe, its meaning is unclear to me. It is attested in other shoe texts, see RLA 6, p. 539. The meaning of KUSH A in line 2 is unclear to me; the signs are pretty clear. The same description is also applied in rev. 1.

Obv. 3 du8-shi-a. = dusu. Oppenheim, Eames Collection, p. 108; CAD D, p.200, "soft leather in brilliant green or yellow color of the dusu stone", and references to discussions in other literature. Steinkeller, Or Ant 19 (1980), p. 86ff discusses tug2-du8-a in a variety of contexts, including the padding or lining of shoes and sandals, and concludes that the fabric was "a (piece of) felt, made of goat hair and low quality wool.

Obv. 4 kushu2-hab2. Oppenheim, Eames Collection, p. 28, n. 50 1eather bottle", but in this context it must refer to the type of shoe being produced. Hallo, HUCA 29 (1956), p. 82, concludes that it is "galinut dyed" leather, based on Crawford's unpublished PhD on the Terminology of the leather industry. Sigrist, JCS 33 (1981), p. 161 notes that in the Ur III and Isin periods, u2-hab2 designated a colour, often contrasted with gi6(black) and babbar2 (white). See also Landsberger, JCS 21 (1967), p. 169

Obv. 4 kushe2-sir2 See CAD S 11, p. 290, sub senu "shoe"; RLA 6, p. 539 kushe2-sir2

Obv. 6/edge e2-ba-an "Ein Paar Sandalen"; also P. Steinkeller, AfO 28 (1981/82), pp. 140-4 1; suhush6-gub-ba. See also RLA 6, p. 539 under (a) for other examples applied to kushe2-sir2, though what this describes is unclear to me.

Rev. 2. kin-ak. See CAD 111, p. 73. for lexical entries to epshu and shipru.

Rev. 3. gaba-ri-dub. See Sollberger, op.cit., p. 118, "copy", and also the discussion in Eames Collection, p. 92. CAD M II p. 54, notes gaba-ri = mihru, "copy of a written document".

Rev. 5 mu dShu-dSin lugal . This is an abbreviated formula for the first year of the king's reign. Regnal years were commonly named after major events.


1. Thanks to Peter Linaker and Garry Stone for bringing the texts to my attention, and the AIA for permission to study these texts, which will be subject to more extensive study with Marcel Sigrist of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem. The discussion here is the sole responsibility of the current author. References in the text, unless otherwise indicated, follow abbreviations of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD).

2. Jones, T. B. (1975). 'Sumerian Administrative Documents, an Essay'. Sumerian Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jakobsen. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: pp.40-61. The so-called 'Temple Economy' has been subject to considerable debate. For three perspectives, see Diakonoff. 1. M. (1982). 'The Structure of Near Eastern Society Before the Middle of the Second Millennium B.C.' Okumene 3: 7-100, Gelb, 1. J. (1969). 'On the Alleged Temple and State Economics in Ancient Mesopotamia.' Studi in onore di Edoardo Volterra. 6, Oppenheim, A. L. (1977). Ancient Mesopotamia, Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

3. The most comprehensive study of these documents is Sollberger, E. (1966). The Business and Administrative Correspondence under the Kings of Ur JCS 1). Locust Valley, NY, J.J. Augustin.

4. Cooper, J. S. (1973). 'Sumerian and Akkadian in Sumer and Akkad.' Orientalia 42: pp.239-246.

5. The copy is based upon a plaster cast of the original which is still to be unpacked due to the AIA relocation.

6. Sollberger, op.cit., p.2ff for details of sterotypical commands and variants, and p. 127, copula type Ba7, Product Amount-gur-am3 (verbal copula).

7. CAD S, sub sattukku, "food offering, regular allowance".

8. See Marcel Sigrist: Les sattukku dans l' Esumesa durant la periode d'Isin et Larsa. Malibu: Undena Publications, 1984, pp. 185-188.

9. Keiser, BM 3, 197 1.

10. Texts referring to Lugula include the Harvard text HSM 7782 (now Owen, MVN 11: 186), read with Piotr Steinkeller, and Stevenson 10 = Langdon, Babylonaica 7 (1923) 2371717, which refer to kin-ak Lu2-gu-la, "work of Lugula". In the Harvard text, the conveying agent for the work is Puzur-ili, but this additional datum is missing from the tablet under discussion.

11. Goetze, A, (1955). "A Drehem Tablet Dealingwith Leather Objects." JCS9: 19-21.

12. The other formula is : Personal Name -mashkim ki Personal Name -ta ba-zi "So-and-so, the magkim (a functionary), received the products from so and so". Variations in formulae between the texts in the archieve deserve further study, along the lines developed by Goetze in his study.

13. See Cooper, op.cit.