About the sources

Clay tablets

The Encyclopaedia is preserved on documents of a very unusual type. They are "tablets" made from "clay". The clay is actually silt washed down the river Tigris. During the spring, the Tigris would flood, leaving easily accessible deposits of fine mud along its banks. The scribes would collect this material, remove stones and vegetation, and knead it to make it ready for writing on. The clay was formed into "tablets": carefully made blocks of a specific size and shape. A tablet made for the Encyclopaedia was larger than normal. It's about the same size as a sheet of A4 paper, but much thicker, and much heavier. This was not something that a scribe would put in their pocket and carry around. It's a reference book. The clay would need to have been moist for the scribe to write on it comfortably. A completed tablet would be left to air dry, and perhaps even subjected to artificial heating to strengthen it. We don't know how long it would have taken a scribe to write a tablet, or how long tablet clay could be kept moist.


The Encyclopaedia was made for the library of King Ashurbanipal. Within a generation after his death, his empire was destroyed and his capital looted and burned. His library had been stored in his palaces. There, anything that wasn't taken away was smashed and burned by the invaders. The wooden writing boards and parchment scrolls were consumed in the flames. Any that survived the fire rotted away in the centuries that followed. Not a single example survives today. Clay tablets, like the ones the Encyclopaedia was written on, didn't suffer in the same way. A few examples show signs of bubbling and melting in the extreme heat. But fire tends to make clay tablets stronger, ironically preserving them better than if no disaster had befallen them. However, the invaders seem to have systematically smashed the library tablets to ensure that their contents could never be used again. Knowledge was power; smashing tablets was a way of hindering any Assyrian political recovery.

Re-joining fragments

What archaeologists found when they excavated the remains of the library in the mid-19th century was scattered dumps of broken fragments mixed together. In the 170 years since then, cuneiform specialists have been trying to identify the fragments and reassemble them back into their original tablets. This is done using several clues. Since the Encyclopaedia tablets were unusually large, they can sometimes be identified even in fragmentary form. Their shape can suggest which other fragment they belong with. Of course the text is important too, although not all medical tablets belonged to the Encyclopaedia. So it is not always possible to determine which group a fragment belongs to. It's like trying to complete thousands of jigsaws all at once, without knowing what any of the pictures are, and without having all the pieces.

Fragments being joined back into their original tablet

Sequence of images showing fragments being joined back into their original tablet. Images by Krisztian Simko. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Fragments being joined back into their original tablet

Sequence of images showing fragments being joined back into their original tablet. Images by Krisztian Simko. © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is usually quite easy to check whether two fragments belong together. The profile of the breaks in each tablet is unique. Any given fragment will share a profile with only one other fragment—the one that was once adjacent to it in the original tablet. When you hold them together, they fit snugly. Cuneiform specialists often talk of a "click" when the fragments are put together. Joining fragments are glued together by the Museum's ceramics conservators, and the connection is recorded in the collection database. Cuneiform specialists communicate these "joins" using the "+" sign. A number "K 1234 + K 5678" would mean that a fragment K 1234 has been checked alongside K 5678, found to belong with it, and stuck back together. You might also see "(+)". This means that a cuneiform specialist thinks that the fragments belong to the same tablet, but some clay is missing in between them; they do not join directly. These are therefore called "indirect joins".

Cuneiform writing

The Encyclopaedia texts were written using the cuneiform script. Cuneiform is not a language; it's a way of writing. You could theoretically write any language using cuneiform. "Cuneiform" means "wedge-shaped". The name comes from the shape left behind when the scribes pressed a reed stylus into the clay tablets. Cuneiform is read by looking at the shadows cast into these impressions when the tablet is held at an angle to a light source (in antiquity, the sun). Each of these stylus impressions is the equivalent of a stroke of an ink pen. Combinations of these wedge-shaped impressions made up the characters of cuneiform script. We call the characters "signs". They are analogous to the letters of an alphabetic script, but do not work in the same way.

Cuneiform used hundreds of signs. Each sign could be used in different ways. Some indicated the nature of the word to which they were attached: a deity, a city, something made of wood, for example. Some represented a whole word. These words would actually be Sumerian, a prestigious language unrelated to Akkadian, that had died out of normal daily use many centuries earlier. Scribes would learn long lists of Sumerian vocabulary. They were useful as a kind of shorthand.

Other signs represented a sound: a syllable. A feature of cuneiform is that any given sign could have multiple readings. The sign UR, for example, could be read as the sound "ur", "tesh", or "lik". A parallel feature of cuneiform is that a given sound could be written using different signs. For example, the sound "sha" could be written using the sign SHA or SHA2. Cuneiform had no fixed spelling. The system at first seems very complicated, but in practice it was not. The variation was limited by habit at any time, place, and type of text.


The Encyclopaedia was written in the Akkadian language. Akkadian is a Semitic language, related to Arabic and Hebrew, for example. It was widely spoken in ancient Iraq. By the 7th century, another language, Aramaic, was rapidly taking over as the common spoken language of Assyria. Aramaic was typically written in ink on parchment or sherds, using an alphabetic script. Scholarship was traditional, however, and had long been written in Akkadian, and therefore also in cuneiform.

As a Semitic language, we can use knowledge of the vocabulary of related languages to help work out what Akkadian words might mean. Sometimes words from other languages, including Aramaic, were borrowed into Akkadian.

Jon Taylor

Jon Taylor, 'About the sources', The Nineveh Medical Project, The Nineveh Medical Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/asbp/NinMed/aboutthesources/]

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