Archaic Lexical Texts

Archaic tablet, accounting for tools and other metal objects. View CDLI page of VAT 16763 with photographs, transliteration and bibliography. Line drawing adapted from original in ATU 6, Pl.37 (W 14265); © Robert K. Englund and Hans J. Nissen, 2005.

Writing was introduced in the late-Uruk period (around 3,200 BCE) in the deep South of what is now Iraq. Writing was invented as an accounting system; to record how much grain was delivered to whom, or who is responsible for how many vessels of beer. Consequently, archaic writing had little use for verbs; the accounts list commodities, followed by a name or a title.

The archaic lexical lists provide an inventory of the writing symbols. The list Archaic Metals includes many terms for metals and metal tools and those same tools are attested in account texts.

The signs and sign combinations encircled in blue in the first two columns of this archaic account refer to metal tools (drills, shovels, saws) and various metals that all appear in exactly this same form in the Archaic Metals list.

The account is subdivided by means of double vertical rulings, with at the end of the section the name or title of a person. The signs encircled in yellow refer to titles (of unknown significance) that appear in this form in the Archaic List of Professions, also known as Archaic Lu A

IM 23452,3 is an exemplar of the list of Vessels and garments: Theoretical signs. Line drawing adapted from original in ATU 3, Pl.58 (W 15919,c); © Robert K. Englund and Hans J. Nissen, 1993.

The lists Archaic Metals and Archaic Lu A (Professions) are both thematic lists that collect all words of a certain semantic class. Other such lists are Archaic Fish and Archaic Birds. One may easily see the utility of such enumerations in standardizing and teaching the new system of writing.

Other archaic lists, however, do not follow such a thematic pattern and are much more difficult to describe. The list Archaic Vessels and Garments includes symbols for foodstuffs, vessels of various kinds and clothing, as well as items that are badly understood. The section Vessels has many items that consist of the basic Vessel sign, inscribed with a symbol for some commodity (grain, pig, plant, nut, etc.). Many of these signs are never used in accounting texts and seem to be theoretical creations of the teachers of the time.

In addition to their usefulness for standardization and teaching, the sign lists also functioned as symbols of the identity of a new class in Uruk society: the scribes.

27 Dec 2019

Further reading

Niek Veldhuis

Niek Veldhuis, 'Archaic Lexical Texts', Digital Corpus of Cuneiform Lexical Texts, The DCCLT Project, 2019 []

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