What is the Library?

"The Ashurbanipal Library" (commonly referred to as "The Kuyunjik Collection") is a convenient label given to around 32,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments from the British Museum's excavations at Nineveh in the 19th and 20th centuries. The reality behind the label is not easy to discern at present. We do not understand what constituted a library, how many there may have been, and which tablets belonged there. The label thus applies to a wide variety of document types, excavated in locations across the mound of Kuyunjik. Most are thought to have been collected or produced on the orders of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria 669-c. 630 BC, but others are earlier. In any case, it was Ashurbanipal who earned a reputation in antiquity as a collector of tablets.

An imagining of the scribes at work in the Library

An imagining of the scribes at work in the Library. Private collection

First impressions

Almost immediately after their discovery, the tablets were interpreted as having belonged to a royal library. This was based on consideration of several features:

A typical example of the high quality work in the library collection

A typical example of the high quality work in the library collection. K 162 [https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_K-162]. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 [https://www.britishmuseum.org/terms-use/copyright-and-permissions]

A royal collection

The vast library of clay tablets owned by King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668 - c. 630 BC) remains a find of unique importance. A combination of dedicated scholar and supremely powerful ruler, he gathered at Nineveh an unrivalled wealth of specialist knowledge accumulated over many centuries. This learning directly powered and sustained Ashurbanipal's kingship. Ashurbanipal's collection was the largest, broadest and most important library ever assembled over 3,500 years of cuneiform culture. Until the Library of Alexandria, it was the most significant library of antiquity. Almost 32,000 tablets and fragments survive. They encompass scholastic (including divinatory, magical, medical, literary and lexical texts) and administrative texts as well as local historical inscriptions. They preserve the wide sweep of traditional Mesopotamian lore as it was known at the end of the seventh century BC. The sudden fall of Assyria, and the burning of this clay library at the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC ensured its survival for us today.

The modern discoverer of the Library, Austen Henry Layard (1853) p. 347, assessed the Library's significance like this:

We cannot overrate their value. They furnish us with materials for the complete decipherment of the cuneiform character, for restoring the language and history of Assyria, and for enquiring into the customs, sciences, and, we may perhaps even add, literature of its people. The documents that have thus been discovered at Nineveh probably exceed all that have been afforded by the monuments of Egypt. But years must elapse before the innumerable fragments can be put together, and the inscriptions transcribed for the use of those in England and elsewhere may engage in the study of the cuneiform character.

These tablets have indeed furnished us with a major proportion of the literature, learning and intellectual achievements recorded on clay in the cuneiform script. Its contents remain a gold mine for scholars in other fields and a source of fascination to the general public. Building on 170 years of scholarship, the British Museum's Ashurbanipal Library project is making the priceless fruits of Ashurbanipal's lifetime of collecting fully and freely available.

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor, 'What is the Library?', Ashurbanipal Library Project, The Ashurbanipal Library Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2021 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/asbp/whatisthelibrary/]

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