Library colophons

What is a colophon?

In assyriology, "colophon" means a scribal note added to the end of a tablet. It describes the circumstances in which the tablet was produced. Usually, this includes information like the name of the scribe, the date, the nature of the original tablet being copied, and maybe a protective formula. Colophons are found throughout the period in which cuneiform was written. Not all tablets were given a colophon. It's not clear how the choice was made whether or not to write one.

Ashurbanipal's colophons

Ashurbanipal's colophons differ from those found elsewhere in the Mesopotamian tradition. Firstly, they are standardised; each appears word-for-word in multiple exemplars. As many as 30 different library colophons are known. Secondly, none contains either a date or the name of the scribe who wrote it. They all contain the same property mark: "Palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the Universe, King of Assyria." Following this comes praise of the king's divinely endowed abilities.

A library tablet with a colophon

A tablet with one of Ashurbanipal's library colophons (bottom left corner). K 39 []. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 []

Almost immediately after excavation in 1850s, Edward Hincks and Henry Rawlinson read these colophons and recognised the tablets as belonging to the Library of Ashurbanipal. In 1916 Maximilian Streck published editions of the colophons within his wider study of Ashurbanipal inscriptions. In 1968 Hermann Hunger revisited them within his wider study of colophons from Mesopotamia generally. Since then, apart from Riekele Borger's review of Hunger's work, the Library colophons have largely been ignored, and their potential left untapped. There is not even a simple list of fragments containing colophons. The Reading the Library of Ashurbanipal project is now addressing this problem.

You can read more about the Library colophons here.

Which colophon was attached to which texts?

It has long been noticed that a given colophon type can correlate with the text contained on the tablet. Streck (1916: lxxi–lxxxii) noticed that certain types were more common on manuscripts of some genres than on others. He found type "b" to be particularly common on lexical lists, type "c" on bilingual texts, and type "k" on astrological treatises. Meanwhile types "l" and "q" were only attested on tablets devoted to extispicy and medicine, respectively. Types "n" and "o" mentioned the library of the temple of Nabû in Nineveh. Such correlations are highly promising. They have the potential to reveal information about the organisation of the Library and about the Assyrian classification of the Mesopotamian tradition.

A century later, how valid are the conclusions suggested by Streck's pioneering work? We will study the entire corpus systematically to explore the significance of each colophon type. Which tablets received any colophon at all? Of those that did, which were they given and how might we understand the reasoning behind that choice?

Gabbay (2014: 253, 276–279) recently noted that type "o" is restricted to lamentation poems. Meanwhile, most colophons found on tablets containing the word list called "ḪAR-gud" are type "a". Yet the distributions are not determined simply by textual content. Andrew George (2003: 382–383) has observed that when more than one manuscript of any particular chapter of the Gilgamesh Epic survives, they bear different colophons. Ulla Koch (Koch-Westenholz, 2000: 28–29) suggests that Ashurbanipal once held a complete copy of the extispicy series with colophon "b" and another with colophon "l". It can also be said that there is a very strong correlation between tablets with colophon "l" and those containing so-called "firing holes". Our project partners at the LIBER project [] are analysing firing holes in detail.

The analysis of the distribution patterns of colophons within a genre should prove useful. It seems reasonable to assume that certain subgroups of the Ashurbanipal collection could have stemmed en bloc from discrete Assyrian or Babylonian collections. Jiménez's recent study of an inventory tablet from the Library suggests that all disputation poems reached there from a discrete Assyrian collection.

Our preliminary results can be found here.

Origins and the circulation of knowledge

Ashurbanipal colophons usually contain references to the originals from which the Nineveh copy was produced. This information helps us understand the flow of material into Nineveh. Babylonia was the traditional home of cuneiform scholarship. Nineveh was at the heart of Assyria, and so in a region peripheral to that. Knowledge was certainly mobile, and with Babylonia being part of the Assyrian empire, there were easy opportunities to source Babylonian tablets. We usually assume that most Nineveh tablets were copied from recently acquired Babylonian originals. Yet a preliminary study by Jeanette Fincke of the colophons on tablets written in Babylonian script shows that more nuance is required. More than a quarter of the tablets whose colophon refers to an original had been copied not from a Babylonian original but from an Assyrian one. This suggests a significant transmission of Babylonian texts within Assyria.


Not all colophons on Library tablets mark them as having belonged to Ashurbanipal. Almost a quarter record the names of individual scribes. Most of the scribes are found in only one tablet each. The most important among them is Nabû-zukup-kēnu, who was active in royal service around fifty years before Ashurbanipal. Around 140 tablets from Nineveh bear colophons identifying Nabû-zukup-kēnu, or a relative, as their owner. We will explore the content of these tablets signed by individual scribes, and how they relate to Ashurbanipal's main body of texts. It is clear that the "Library" corpus has not been contaminated through mixing in the private libraries of scribes found elsewhere by early excavators. And there is no evidence to support the suggestion that the corpus contains private scribal collections looted wholesale by Ashurbanipal.

Further reading:

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor, 'Library colophons', 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.