Assembling the Library

A key problem facing scholarship is how what survives from Ashurbanipal's Library relates to the collection as it stood in antiquity. What are the different groups in each case? How many tablets do they contain, and what proportion of the collection does that represent? How can the ancient groups be identified among the modern groups? The situation is very complicated. But the colophons can help make some sense of it.

Sources for Ashurbanipal's collecting

Old royal collections

It is clear that Assyria's kings held tablet collections. A writing board from Nimrud bears an inscription noting that it belonged to Ashurbanipal's great grandfather, Sargon. And documents from his father, Esarhaddon's reign detail the production of many new tablets.

Ashurbanipal's personal collection

Several tablets clearly belonged to Ashurbanipal before he became king. They are either written by the man himself, or bear an inscription recording that they were written for him. How many tablets did he own before becoming king?

The 648 BC acquisition

Ancient lists record the arrival at Nineveh of many hundreds of tablets and writing boards. They cite the name of the person to whom they used to belong, and detail their textual content. The date on them falls shortly after the Assyrian capture of Babylon, which brought the long civil war to an end. Therefore, these lists have often been interpreted as loot from Babylon. It is plausible that the date is meaningful; this could be material that was not previously accessible to Ashurbanipal. The manner of the acquisition is not clear, however. And the details of the individual acquisitions are interesting. Typically the texts listed belong to fields that fall outside the main area of expertise of the original owner. And often the numbers of tablets are low, either in absolute terms (just one or two, or a handful) and/or in relation to the number that the person could be expected to hold.

Later tradition

Two sets of tablets found in Babylonia attest to long-lasting traditions about the tablet collecting habits of Assyria's kings. Two date to a century or so after Assyria's fall. A further two date to several centuries later than that. They take the form of correspondence between an Assyrian king (in one case at least, Ashurbanipal) and Babylonian scribes. The king requests all sorts of tablets, and the scribes assiduously comply. It has been suggested that these are literary productions in response to Hellenistic library collecting.

Groups among the surviving tablets

Tablets with Library colophons

It has long been known that many tablets bear colophons marking their status as part of Ashurbanipal's collection. Some of these colophons were clearly added secondarily. An important sub-group of Library colophons should be distinguished here. Some tablets are marked as having been donated by Ashurbanipal to the library of the temple of Nabu in Nineveh.

Tablets with individual colophons

A smaller number of tablets bear a colophon naming an individual scribe, and make no mention of Ashurbanipal. In most cases, each individual scribe is found only once. The largest group belonged to a royal scribe named Nabu-zuqup-kenu. Further tablets contain a colophon containing technical information about the production of the tablet, but name neither Ashurbanipal nor an individual scribe.

Tablets with no colophons

Very few tablets have been found so far that can be shown not to have a colophon. Even in these cases, however, we must consider the possibility that the colophon had once been added in ink that no longer survives.

Script groups

There are two main types of script found on the Library tablets. These are the two main groups found on tablets of this period generally: Assyrian and Babylonian script. We might assume that tablets in Assyrian script were written locally. The Babylonian script tablets could have been written in Babylonia, or by Babylonian scribes in Assyria.

A second distinction can be made, although this is less clear cut than that between Assyrian and Babylonian script. Within Assyrian script, a distinction has long been made between Type A, and Type B (among which further sub-groups could be made). Type B is a form known from earlier texts. Type A is a more contemporary script.


Exact findspots do not exist for tablets from the 19th century excavations. And in most cases it is not possible to determine which came from the Southwest Palace and which from the North Palace. The Nabu temple library material is not clearly differentiated from the North Palace. It is possible that strays from elsewhere on the site may have been mixed into these larger groups. And it is also possible that some strays from other sites were later mixed in with them.

More detail will be available soon in the following publications:

Further publications are underway. These will address the colophon system in detail, the acquisition lists and other tablet lists, and tablets with individual colophons.

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor, 'Assembling the Library', Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal, Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG and Institut fuer Assyriologie und Hethitologie, Ludwig Maximilian University, Geschwister Scholl-Platz 1, 80539 Munich, 2022 []

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Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, 2013.