Object: Cuneiform cone

C/1943/1/1
Cuneiform cone or nail
Babylonian
Isin-Larsa, Babylonia (modern day Tell es-Senkereh, Iraq)
ca. 1930 BCE
Materials: ceramic

This object is a baked clay cuneiform cone, or nail, from the “House of Justice” built by the Babylonian king Lipit-Ishtar near the ancient city of Isin-Larsa. Lipit-Ishtar is best known for writing a code of laws. This code was similar to the better known Code of Hammurabi, but written nearly 200 years earlier. The code of Lipit-Istar included laws on theft, inheritance, slave ownership, land ownership, and other topics. This code was studied and used for more than a hundred years after the death of Lipit-Istar but today only parts of the code are known and preserved.

Cuneiform cones, or nails, were commonly buried under the foundations, or built into the walls, of important public buildings and temples as ritual dedications. This type of inscription was mass produced, typically more than 100 cones were used for each structure. They were usually inscribed with the name of the person who commissioned the building, the name or purpose of the building, and sometimes a prayer or request for a divine blessing of the building. The translation of this cone (taken from Classical Antiquities: The Collection of the Stovall Museum of Science and History) says,  “I am Lipit-Ishtar, the humble shepherd of Nippur, the upright farmer (of Ur), the tireless one of Eridu, the fitting lord of Uruk, king of Isin, king of Sumer and Akkad, the favorite of Inanna. When he had established justice in Sumer and Akkad, in Namgarum, the eminent place of the gods, the house of justice, he built.”

Here is a video that shows how cuneiform tablets were made.

Today, cuneiform tablets and cones are sought after by collectors and museums alike. Unfortunately, their desirability, combined with the unstable political situation in the middle east has led to looting of ancient archaeological sites. The looting of ancient sites is a world wide problem and irreparably damages thousands of sites throughout the world each year.

Credit: John Russell

The photo at the left was taken at the site of Isin-Larsa around 2003 and shows the devastating effect of looting on archaeological sites. In order to discourage looting the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has put together a “Red List” for highly volatile areas like Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and others. The Red List describes the general types of artifacts that are thought to be most at risk for looting, so that these may be identified and detained wherever they surface. These objects are protected by legislation, through UNESCO, UNIDROIT, and others. As a result they are  banned from export and may under no circumstances be imported or put on sale. An appeal is being made to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors not to acquire them. If you would like to see cuneiform tablets or cones in person please visit one of the many museums around the world that have legally collected examples for you to enjoy. For instance, cuneiform tablets are part of the permanent collections of: the Sam Noble Museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Arizona State Museum, the Oriental Institute, and the Kelsey Museum, just to name a few. Additionally, a digital library of cuneiform inscriptions is currently being developed by the University of California to help make cuneiform more accessible to everyone. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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