Neo-Babylonian brick

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My brother-in-law, Dan Heitkamp, bought the following object at an estate sale in Seattle:

Although I immediately recognized the writing as basically cuneiform and could even read some of the signs (e.g., DINGIR ["god, deity"]), other signs looked suspicious (e.g., the first one in the second row, which did not appear to be cuneiform). Another thing that bothered me was that, though most of the signs were obviously meant to represent cuneiform, they didn't seem to have been incised with a stylus, a method of writing that I have several times seen demonstrated. Furthermore, the sheer improbability of obtaining a genuine cuneiform tablet at an estate sale, plus the fact that this wasn't even the sort of tablet with which I was familiar, led me to doubt the authenticity of the artifact. The regularity with which forgeries are encountered in the Chinese antiquities market also led me to doubt the authenticity of the object. Nonetheless, I offered to take the piece of hardened clay back to Philadelphia and have my colleagues in the tablet room at the University of Pennsylvania Museum take a look at it.

Much to my astonishment, as soon as Philip Jones and Jamie Novotny examined the artifact, they immediately determined that it was genuine. They could read most of it without difficulty, and after about ten minutes, they had completely and definitively deciphered all of the signs, and after ten more minutes, they were able to fill in all of the missing signs.

One of the things that makes cuneiform studies so hard is that later stages of the script frequently employ earlier, archaic forms and usages, with Sumerian and Akkadian getting mixed in with Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian. That is what threw me for a loop with the first graph in the second row, since it was an intentionally archaicized form.

Another aspect of reading cuneiform that seems mind-bogglingly difficult (at least to me as a specialist in Chinese writing) is that the signs have names that are often completely different from the sounds that they transcribe. Here are the names of the signs on the brick (prefixed lower case letters should be though of as superscripts, numbers as subscripts):

1. dAG-NIG2.D[U ] dAG = DINGIR as semantic classifier + AG

2. E2-SAG-I[L2 ]

3. ŠA2 d[ ]

And here is the transcription:

1. dNabu-kudu[ri-uṣur]

2. E2-sag-i[l2 ]

3. Ša d[ ]

English translation:

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, provisioner
(of) Esagila and Egida, foremost heir
of Nabopolasser king of Babylon

I must say that it was quite a thrill to hold in my hand part of a brick that was baked during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame, about whom I had read as a little boy in Sunday School. Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned c. 605 BCE – 562 BC, was king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Esagila was the temple to the supreme god Marduk.

Erle Leichty, emeritus professor of Akkadian, who was also in the tablet room while Philip and Jamie were examing the brick, brought out a large stamp of the sort that was used to make the inscription, so that explained why the signs looked like cuneiform without actually having been written with a stylus.

Through the writing that was stamped upon it, that clump of hardened clay transported me back in time 2,600 years, enabling me to experience the faith of Nebuchadnezzar, who built the grand temple to the god Marduk. But without the expertise of dedicated scholars like Philip, Jamie, and Erle, the signs on that fragmentary brick would remain forever mute.

[Any errors in this post are mine, and not those of my expert colleagues in the Penn Museum. Thanks to Ori Tavor for taking the photograph.]


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    I understand how the experts could recognize that the writing was authentic, but how did they know that the brick was authentic, and not a modern copy of an ancient brick or some such? Just curious—if you don't want to get into it, that's fine.

  2. GretchenJoanna said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    That is just too amazing, if it is real. I also wonder what Jerry does…

  3. Donna Yates said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    Hi Victor! It must have been a rush to hold a piece of the past like that. I do wonder though about where that piece came from. It appears as if it might be Iraqi and it is quite possible that it was illegally imported from Iraq quite recently.

    The illicit import of Iraqi antiquities into the United States is a complicated and controversial issue. While the trade in any illicit antiquities is devastating, both to the country being looted and to the general public who never get to know the contextual information associated with the object, Iraqi antiquities are tied up in post-war horrors.

    The country has been ransacked and stripped of its heritage. Artifacts associated with the post-invasion endemic looting of Iraqi archaeological sites have been hitting the art market ( If Dan's piece was brought into the country after 1990, it would be subject to emergency import restrictions that exist on Iraqi artifacts, meaning it cannot be legally owned. (;; "Objects covered by the import restriction may enter the U.S. only if they are accompanied by documentation that they left Iraq prior to August 6, 1990.") If it was brought in at an earlier date but without proper permitting and title, or after the date that the nation of Iraq laid claim to its cultural property, the object is illicit at the very least.

    I'd love to direct you to the website of the Trafficking Culture project at the University of Glasgow but it doesn't go live until next week. But when it does go live, there'll be a lot of apropos information there:

    Dr. Donna Yates
    Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research
    University of Glasgow

  4. Corvus said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    I want a .gif of your brother-in-law saying 'Who's Laughing Now, Antiques Roadshow?'

    Or 'Treasures in the Attic'. What an extraordinary thing. But now what happens to it? Auction? On loan to a museum? Paperweight?

  5. marie-lucie said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

    I am amazed that so few written syllables, on a piece of clay which gives an appearance of perhaps being broken (on the right side), correspond to so many words, including long names, in English. Are cuneiform texts normally so terse and economical?

    [(myl) I suspect that the situation is something like this one:

    Only five syllables are visible in that sign, but you can probably guess the rest.]

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 8:56 pm


    Mark's rejoinder is exactly correct, and that is precisely how Phil and Jamie were able to fill out what is missing. They are pros. Reading that broken brick is for them almost as easy as it is for us to read the mutilated sign in Mark's comment.

  7. Mark Mandel said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

    I suspect also that the text they reconstructed is a formula that they have seen (or read of) whole many times. Following marie-lucie's example:

    I ple
    the fl
    of A
    to t
    and j

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    Whoops, Mark's example! Sorry.

  9. Maureen said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 5:53 am

    Re: Donna Yates —

    Given that the brick was acquired at an estate sale (ie, from a dead person), and given that there was no suggestion in the backstory that this was a young dead person, there's no reason to assume that it was acquired recently. People have been traveling from the US to various Middle Eastern areas for as long as there's been a US. There are also plenty of people who have traveled there on business over the course of the last hundred or hundred and fifty years — particularly during the course of UK and US oil ventures in the middle of last century. Since Iraq and Iran come into the Bible as well as being ancient and interesting places, a great many of those people have come home with souvenirs, or bought pieces in an entirely legal fashion without even having gone to the Middle East.

    In fact, for all you know, this brick may have been kicking around Europe and US for the last five hundred years, although admittedly its nice condition would be a miracle if so.

    Entertaining as it might be to accuse every single person on the UK's Antiques Roadshow of having ripped off someone to get their forgotten Constable, seeing as the Brits are all notorious imperialists and thus thieves and thus obviously all guilty by association, it would be a stupid, cruel, and factually untrue thing to do. Similarly, there's no reason to assume that every Middle Eastern piece in the US is the result of war looting. Unless you also randomly accuse, say, Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan of obviously having looted rather than having had legitimate digs, because their country was in a war there during their time.

    Furthermore, that's not the way to get real war looters to give stuff to museums. I counsel you to learn about flies, honey, and vinegar.

  10. Moudhy said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 5:57 am

    Mark is absolutely right. The brick inscription is a formulaic one, and given how many building projects Nebuchadnezzar II undertook, the inscription is found over and over again on the many bricks set down during his reign (for a complete brick, see for e.g.,

    To answer Marie-Lucie's question, cuneiform texts can be terse and economical, but this depends on the "genre". There are hundreds of thousands of cuneiform texts and fragments — from short building inscriptions on bricks to much longer works of literature that span hundreds of lines, letters, law codes like that of Hammurabi, and many more.

  11. Maureen said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 5:58 am

    Especially since, if you scare people who really are guilty of war looting, they would be liable to decide that it's a great idea to throw away or smash up that nasty dirty crumbling old brick. And then where will you be?

  12. JW Mason said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    Maureen, are you saying that it is not wrong to buy and sell stolen antiquities? Or that is is wrong, but we shouldn't say so to avoid upsetting the traffickers?

  13. Maureen said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    I'm saying that it's wrong to call someone a thief, and a brick illegally trafficked, without any shred of proof or knowledge of the circumstances.

    As an aside, I'm saying that it's a lot easier, and more tempting, for someone who's a thief to destroy clay evidence, rather than gold. Thus were I someone tasked with tracking trafficked items, who really believed in the thievery of this particular old brick, I'd be a lot more careful about what I said. Very rarely do people throw away gold or jewels, but there are a lot of old bricks that meet their demise.

    So my aside is that either the prof really doesn't believe this particular brick was stolen, or hasn't bothered to put much thought into how to bring in both the thief and the evidence. The police do tend to think about these things. If someone is going to get involved with law enforcement activities, perhaps that person ought to study up a tad.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    Thanks to the people who answered my comment and question. The relatively sharp right edge of the table suggested to me that it was broken and the text therefore incomplete, but I had not thought that it might only contain (parts of) a formulaic expression which had been reproduced on hundreds of similar fragments. The post said that the specialists had rapidly and easily translated the text, without indicating that it was incomplete and that they had reconstituted the missing characters by analogy with many similar texts they had seen. That's why I was puzzled by the shortness of the "text" compared to the translation.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

    @Jerry Friedman and GretchenJoanna

    I cannot presume to speak for the experts, but I suppose — apart from deciphering the inscription — they swiftly concluded that the brick itself was genuine on the basis of such factors as the following: they had previously held in their hands dozens of similar bricks and were intimately familiar with their appearance and composition; the color and hardness of the clay; the particles mixed in with the clay; the nature of the lines enclosing the inscription; the style of the stamped signs; etc.


    I had originally written the names of the signs as follows:

    1. dAG-NIG2.D[U ]

    2. E2-SAG-I[L2 ]

    3. ŠA2 d[ ]

    My intention in adding all that extra space within the brackets was to indicate that there were things missing. Unfortunately, when the post went up, the extra spaces disappeared. {Well, I tried to add a lot of extra space within the brackets here too, but it just disappeared.}

    I was also going to give the complete reconstructed transcription with English translation, but was uncertain of some of the letters, so I omitted that part of the post. Now, to clarify matters, I will provide the entire reconstructed transcription, but ask for forgiveness and understanding if several of the letters are wrong.


    dNabu-kudurri-uṣur šar babiliRi za-ri-in (the Ri are meant to be superscripts)

    e2-sag-il2 u3 e2-zi-da ibila sag

    ša dNabu-apal-usur šar babiliRi (the Ri are meant to be superscripts)


    Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, provisioner

    (of) Esagila and Egida, foremost heir
    of Nabopolassar king of Babylon

  16. marie-lucie said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    Thank you, Victor Mair! This clarifies things.

  17. H Klang said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    The looting and destruction of old archeological things in Iraq, now Syria, and so many other places is a deep shame and it bothers anybody whose spirit leads them to love these things. It is kind of empty to think you absolutely know whether Western museums, third world culture ministers, anonymous chippers and collectors, or the U.S. Department of State are the best keepers of these things — they've all had plenty of bad moments even while claiming the moral high ground. What matters is preservation, not precinct.

  18. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    "I'm saying that it's wrong to call someone a thief, and a brick illegally trafficked, without any shred of proof or knowledge of the circumstances."

    Yes, and luckily no one here made such an accusation, with or without proof.

    On the other hand, someone here very strongly implied that someone here called someone a thief when no one, in fact, did.

    So if you're very delicately sensitive about the possible negative implications of things people write, you might look to your own writing and its implications and, also, perhaps dial-down the supercilious combativeness, because that will help, too.

  19. Heidi Mair said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    The brick was owned by a University of Washington librarian who displayed it on her desk for over 40 years. So, it was not obtained recently. The people selling her estate thought she had travelled to the Middle East in the early 1960's. That is all we knew about the origins. I had assumed it was a copy made for the curio trade. This is astounding!

  20. Pete Frey said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    any idea what the stone is worth?

  21. Harry said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    @Donna – when I was visiting Ur during Hussein's time, my official "minders" decided to search the rubble for cuneiform examples to give to me. It was almost as if they were in competition. Should this happen again, how do you suggest I refuse a gift from usually-surly men with guns, who have the power to make me leave the site or the country?

  22. Mandy said,

    August 14, 2012 @ 12:51 am

    @Harry — is that a genuine question or an attempt at humor at Donn's expense? If it's the latter, I don't find it funny at all – but I really can't tell what you're driving at (I am not a native English speaker).

    But if it's the former, here is the solution (if this is what you were asknig): if and when you visit Iraq again, perhaps you can solicite advice from Penn Museum's Brian Rose, who's been to Iraq and Afghanistan on several occasions to educate US soldiers on cultural heritage issues. I'm sure that he's seen plenty of usually-surly Middle Eastern men with guns, and can show you how to refuse cuneiform brick(s) that is being "forcefully" given to you as gift. Problem solved.

    Donna may have over-reacted a bit (i.e. Victor Mair and Dan Heitkamp are NOT antique dealers or collectors, and Mair was asking a legitimate scholarly question), nevertheless, I can understand where she's coming from, as antiquities trade (legal or illegal) is what caused the looting of sites and illicit export of cultural property out of source countries. And the fact that antiquities trade reflects the history of western colonialism. Legal issues aside, sometimes things are not always so black and white.

    @Maureen — I'm not entirely sure if I understand your logic…but that's a different issue altogether. The situation has less to do with who the "thief" is and whether or not the "buyer" is aware of the history of the object. The National Stolen Property Act law (as it ties to the export law of the source countries) targets the object, not the person; therefore, in theory, the object is subject to seizure regardless of the buyer's intention, and statue of limitations, in this instance, may not apply. But of course, the actual law and its legal applications are extremely convoluted – this is why civil lawsuits/seizures of this kind are not very common, and there have only been few successful cases (all high profile) so far. If seizure happens so easily, then all western "encyclopedic" museums would be empty by now!

    @Peter Frey — it is actually not a stone…you may want to know the difference between a stone and a baked brick before inquiring how much it's worth.

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