Survey of the Inscribed Objects Included in Part 1

Clay Prisms: General Introduction   Octagonal Clay Prisms   Hexagonal Clay Prisms   Stone Tablets with Historical and/or Building Narrative   Steles  

Clay Cylinders

Inscriptions of Sennacherib written on clay cylinders and prisms from Nineveh were among the earliest cuneiform texts published in the nineteenth century, three of best known texts being the Bellino Cylinder (text no. 3), whose popular name derives from the facsimile of the inscription that K. Bellino supplied to G.F. Grotefend for publication, the Rassam Cylinder (text no. 4), which is named after its excavator H. Rassam, and the Taylor Prism (text no. 22 ex. 2), which is named after the man who purchased it (Col. J. Taylor). During the first years of Sennacherib's reign, inscriptions were written on clay cylinders since those objects provided sufficient space for descriptions of both the king's military campaigns and building enterprises. Text was inscribed in long lines that ran along the horizontal axis of the cylinder, from one end to the other. However, when the surface area of a cylinder proved inadequate for the space required for the ever-growing number of military reports and for more elaborate building accounts, Sennacherib had his scribes write his res gestae on upright, multi-columned clay prisms, a medium well suited for long texts. The transition from cylinders to prisms occurred in 698, the king's 7th regnal year.

Inscriptions on clay cylinders fall into two categories: (1) texts with historical narrative followed by an account of construction at Nineveh (text nos. 1–9) and (2) inscriptions with no historical narrative, but only a report of work on a single structure at Nineveh (text no. 10, but probably also text nos. 11–13). The earliest known inscriptions were composed ca. 702, Sennacherib's 3rd regnal year. The First Campaign Cylinder (text no. 1), although not dated, likely comes from the first half of 702 and describes in great detail a campaign against Marduk-apla-iddina II (biblical Merodach-baladan), an account of the construction of the king's new royal residence, Egalzagdinutukua (the "Palace Without a Rival"; the South-West Palace at Nineveh), and the creation of a botanical garden and canals for irrigation. Later that same year (702), in the Elamite month Sibūti (= Araḫsamna [VIII]), two new texts appear: the Bellino Cylinder (text no. 3) and a text combining elements of the First Campaign Cylinder and the Bellino Cylinder (text no. 2). Both inscriptions contain reports of Sennacherib's first two campaigns and work on the "Palace Without a Rival"; the texts differ only in the building account. Two years later, in 700, a new inscription of the king's deeds was commissioned (text no. 4 = Rassam Cylinder and "Cylinder B") and produced in great number, which we know since several complete cylinders have been discovered and numerous fragments bearing this text have been identified. Building on previous texts, the Rassam Cylinder contains accounts of Sennacherib's first three campaigns, including his dealings with Hezekiah of Judah, a short passage stating that Sennacherib formed a large military contingent of archers and shield bearers from prisoners, and a new description of the king's palace at Nineveh. The amount of text inscribed on cylinders was proving difficult for the scribes as they attempted to write this ninety-four-line inscription with the exact same line divisions on each and every cylinder. The fully preserved copies have numerous erasures, dittographies, omissions, and cramped signs, attesting to the limitations the scribes faced as they wrote this edition of Sennacherib's res gestae on clay cylinders. Despite these problems, cylinders were used as the principal clay medium at Nineveh for one more year. Two fragments of clay cylinders (text nos. 5 and 8) are dated to 699 (the king's 6th regnal year) and another two fragments are thought to have been inscribed at that time (text nos. 6 and 7). Despite their poor state of preservation, we can surmise that these cylinders contained reports of Sennacherib's first four campaigns, a passage mentioning a large military contingent of archers and shield bearers being formed from prisoners, and an account of building at Nineveh. The building reports of two of the fragments (text nos. 5 and 6) are completely missing; the account of the third fragment (text no. 7) records work on the citadel wall; and the building report of the fourth cylinder fragment (text no. 8) describes the creation of a botanical garden and canals for irrigation and the construction of Nineveh's inner and outer walls, Badnigalbilukurašušu ("Wall Whose Brilliance Overwhelms Enemies") and Badnigerimḫuluḫa ("Terrorizer of Enemies"). The building report of text no. 8 probably also recorded the rebuilding of the "Palace Without a Rival."

A few clay cylinders with no historical narrative, but only a report of work on a single structure, are known from Nineveh. Although three of the four known texts in this category (text nos. 11–13) are not well preserved, the format of these inscriptions is similar to that of an inscription written on stone horizontal prisms discovered at Aššur (including VA 8254). These texts recorded (1) Sennacherib's titles and epithets (which deviate from those found in texts with military narration), (2) an account of the rebuilding of a single building (most often a temple), (3) an appeal to the building's foundation to speak favorably to the god Aššur (or the deity whose temple was being rebuilt), and (4) advice to future rulers (concluding formulae). The best preserved Nineveh example (text no. 10) records work on a temple of the god Ḫaya, the god of scribes. Since these texts are not dated and since they do not contain historical references, it is not known when these cylinders were written.

Clay Prisms: General Introduction

Beginning in 698, Sennacherib's 7th regnal year, the writing of inscriptions with historical narrative on clay cylinders was abandoned in favor of a medium with more surface area, one conducive to the narration of lengthy reports of military successes and accounts of construction: hexagonal and octagonal prisms. Contrary to popular belief and despite the fact that the earliest extant hexagonal prism comes from 695 (the king's 10th regnal year), six-sided prisms and eight-sided prisms were both used as foundation documents for the first time in 698.[4] We can be certain about the date of transition since there is one known prism (text no. 14) dated to that year, the eponymy of Šulmu-šarri. Unfortunately, nothing has been published about the object or the text inscribed upon it except for the date the prism was written. Based on the latest editions of Sennacherib's res gestae on cylinders (text nos. 5–8) and the known 697 edition on octagonal prisms (text no. 15), we can surmise that that inscription contained a short prologue, reports of the first four campaigns, a short passage stating that Sennacherib formed a large military contingent of archers and shield bearers from prisoners deported from conquered lands, a building report, and concluding formulae.[5]

Octagonal prisms are presently attested for 697–694 and 691 and these inscribed objects, as evident from the concluding formulae, were deposited primarily in Nineveh's city walls. Hexagonal prisms are presently attested for 695, 693 (or 692), and 691–ca. 687. Some of these foundation records (text nos. 22–23 and 25), those inscribed in 691–688, were placed in the armory, as indicated by their building reports and concluding formulae. Presumably, six-sided prisms were commissioned and deposited in other buildings constructed anew or rebuilt at Nineveh, for example the "Palace Without a Rival." We assume that texts were written on octagonal and hexagonal prisms every year from 698 to 689 and conjecture that these media were used until the end of Sennacherib's reign (681).

Late in his reign, probably sometime after 689, Sennacherib had his scribes write his res gestae on decagonal clay prisms. These are very poorly attested, as this medium is represented by only two small fragments (text nos. 31–32). It is possible that ten-sided prisms replaced octagonal prisms sometime after 689 as foundation records deposited in Nineveh's walls. Of course, this is just conjecture.

In addition, short texts of Sennacherib comprising only his titles and epithets and a short statement about the god Aššur supporting him as king are written on small 'triangular' prisms (text no. 27). It is not known if these curious prisms had some functional purpose (foundation deposit, site marker, etc.) and/or if they were scribal exercises written on practice prisms.

Octagonal Clay Prisms

The earliest attested eight-sided prisms (text no. 15 = so-called "Cylinder C") were inscribed in the king's 8th regnal year (697). That edition of Sennacherib's accomplishments contains descriptions of his first four campaigns, a short passage stating that Sennacherib formed a military contingent from prisoners, a lengthy building report, and concluding formulae. As for the building report, it comprises: (1) an introduction to Sennacherib's building program at Nineveh; (2) an account of the rebuilding of the palace Egalzagdinutukua and the planting of a botanical garden; (3) a report of the construction of the city walls Badnigalbilukurašušu and Badnigerimḫuluḫa, with their fourteen gates; (4) a general statement about other building activities at Nineveh; (5) a passage recording the building of a bridge and aqueducts; and (6) reports of the creation of gardens, orchards, a game preserve, and a marsh, and the digging of canals upstream and downstream of the city to irrigate those areas. Over the next two years (696–695), scribes of the king inscribed prisms with a text (text no. 16 = so-called "Cylinder D") containing reports of his first five campaigns, the same passage summarizing the formation of a large military contingent of archers and shield bearers, and a building report that was nearly identical to that of the 697 edition (text no. 15). In Sennacherib's 11th regnal year (694), inscriptions intended to be deposited in the city walls of Nineveh were updated once again. The historical narrative (text no. 17 = King and Heidel Prisms) now contained reports of the first five campaigns and military expeditions that took place in the eponymies of Šulmu-Bēl (696) and Aššur-bēlu-uṣur (695), a passage summarizing the king's spoils of war, and an updated account of the construction of Sennacherib's palace, the creation of a botanical garden and canals for irrigation, and the building of Nineveh's walls, which were now reported to have fifteen gates. No octagonal prisms for Sennacherib's 12th (693) and 13th (692) regnal years are presently known, but presumably new texts were composed during those two years. The 693 edition(s) would have contained reports of the first six campaigns, while the 692 edition(s) would have had accounts of his first seven campaigns.[6] The latest certain eight-sided prism dates to his 14th regnal year (691). Although that inscription (text no. 18) is very fragmentarily preserved, this 691 edition would have been one of the longest inscriptions written under the auspices of Sennacherib, as it would have been more than 800 lines long. Despite the many lacunae in the text, we are certain that that inscription contained reports of eight campaigns and a very detailed account of Sennacherib's numerous building activities at Nineveh.

Hexagonal Clay Prisms

Only three fragments of hexagonal clay prisms (text nos. 19–21) are known from the period prior to 691 (Sennacherib's 14th regnal year) and these come from prisms that were inscribed in 695–693 (or 695–692). Because only a very small portion of those inscriptions is preserved, little can be said with certainty about those editions of Sennacherib's res gestae. It is certain, however, that the military narration of these inscriptions duplicates that of Smith Bull 4, an inscription written on a bull colossus stationed in Court H, Door a of Sennacherib's palace (the South-West Palace),[7] and that the military narration of the 695 edition (text no. 19) ended with an account of the fifth campaign and a short passage stating that Sennacherib formed a large military contingent of archers and shield bearers from prisoners deported from conquered lands. As for the building reports, they may have described work on the "Palace Without a Rival" (as suggested by the similarity of the military narration to texts inscribed on bull colossi stationed in that building), the armory, or some other structure at Nineveh.

Most of Sennacherib's inscriptions on hexagonal prisms come from the period between 691 and 689; certainly the best known texts of his — the Chicago Prism (text no. 22 ex. 1), the Jerusalem Prism (text no. 23 ex. 1), and the Taylor Prism (text no. 22 ex. 2) — date to this time. During Sennacherib's 14th–16th regnal years, two nearly identical texts (text nos. 22–23) were inscribed on prisms deposited in the armory, which is located south of the citadel, along the western wall, in the mound of Nebi Yunus. Both inscriptions include a short prologue, reports of Sennacherib's first eight campaigns, an account of the rebuilding of the armory (the "Rear Palace"), and concluding formulae. Because the month during which the Jerusalem Prism (text no. 23 ex. 1) was inscribed is not preserved, it is not known with absolute certainty which edition of this king's res gestae is earlier: text no. 22 or text no. 23. The fact that the building report of text no. 23 is shorter than that of text no. 22 and that it describes the construction of only one wing of the armory, rather than two wings of that building, may suggest that the text inscribed on the Jerusalem Prism is earlier in date than the one written on the Chicago Prism and the Taylor Prism.

After the capture and subsequent destruction of Babylon in late 689, Sennacherib continued to have texts inscribed on hexagonal prisms (text nos. 24–26). Like the period prior to 691, very few fragments of six-sided prisms have been identified for the post-689 period and those that are extant are fragmentarily preserved. When complete, text nos. 24 and 25, both of which were written ca. 688, would have included a prologue, reports of Sennacherib's first eight campaigns, an account of the conquest of Babylon in 689, the building report, and concluding formulae; one or both texts may have also included a passage describing the king's Arabian campaign. As for the building reports, it is not certain what the building account of text no. 24 commemorated, but that of text no. 25 recorded the rebuilding of the armory (the "Rear Palace").[8] A fragment of a prism that was inscribed ca. 687 (text no. 26) contains an inscription that summarizes Sennacherib's many accomplishments on the battlefield and describes one of his building projects at Nineveh. The text, as far as it is preserved, duplicates (with variations) several summary inscriptions that were written on stone tablets, text nos. 34–35. It is not known where prisms inscribed with that text were deposited since their building reports are completely missing. Based on similarities with inscriptions on stone tablets, the building report of text no. 26 may have recorded work on the armory.

Stone Tablets with Historical and/or Building Narrative

In addition to smaller clay foundation deposits and inscribed bricks built into the superstructure of buildings and walls, Sennacherib's scribes and craftsmen wrote out and engraved texts on a variety of large stone objects, including foundation tablets. Only a handful of stone tablets from Nineveh are known (text nos. 34–37). Each tablet was inscribed in a single column of text, on both the front and back faces. In the 1929–30 campaign of R.C. Thompson at Nineveh, a small, broken stone tablet (text no. 36) was discovered in the area between the Nabû and Ištar temples. This piece likely dates to ca. 702, the same time as the Bellino Cylinder (text no. 3). When complete, the text included an invocation of gods (beginning with Aššur and ending with Ištar and the Sebetti), reports of the first two campaigns, an account of the rebuilding of numerous dilapidated temples located in Nineveh's citadel (which are said to have been last built by Ashurnasirpal II), and concluding formulae. This inscription is one of the few contemporary pieces of evidence for Sennacherib working on existing temples at Nineveh.

The other known texts written on tablets from Nineveh with historical and/or building narratives were all composed ca. 691–689. The largest and best preserved of these (text no. 34 = Constantinople Inscription, Memorial Tablet, and Nebi Yunus Inscription) was reported to have been discovered at Nebi Yunus in 1852 (or 1854?). That inscription contains summaries of Sennacherib's first eight campaigns and military expeditions that took place in the eponymies of Šulmu-Bēl (696) and Aššur-bēlu-uṣur (695) and a detailed description of the rebuilding of the armory. Two fragmentary exemplars of another text with historical narrative (text no. 35 = Ungnad and Winckler Stone Tablet Fragments Inscription) preserve a text similar, but not identical, to text no. 34; one significant difference is that this inscription includes a report of a campaign against the Arabs. As the building report is not sufficiently preserved and since nothing is known of the original find spots of the tablet fragments, nothing can be said with certainty about where Sennacherib had tablets bearing this text placed. Based on the approximate date of composition (ca. 690–689) and the mention of the king reviewing valuable enemy booty (reading not entirely certain), these objects may have also been placed in Nineveh's armory.

A small limestone tablet discovered at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh in 1992–93 is inscribed with a text (text no. 37) concerning work on an akītu-house (a temple for the celebration of New Year rituals) at Nineveh that Sennacherib had built outside the newly constructed wall of the city. Although only the beginning and end of the inscription are preserved, it is certain that this text did not include reports of military narration. The tablet is dated to the eponymy of Nabû-kēnu-uṣur (690) and the text gives some insight into political-religious reforms that were initiated in Assyria: at Nineveh the former akītu-house, which had last been built by Sennacherib's father and which was now situated inside the expanded circumference of Nineveh's wall, was abandoned and replaced by a new building located outside the city, north of the Nergal Gate.[9]


As part of his urban renewal and expansion of Nineveh, Sennacherib created a royal road. To ensure that no one would build a house that would encroach upon that royal road, the king had round-topped steles (each with an image of the king standing before symbols of his tutelary deities) erected on both sides of the road. Three of the steles (text no. 38 = Inscription from the Royal Road) lining this road, which may have run from the Aššur Gate in the south wall to the Sîn Gate (formerly the Gate of the Garden) at the western end of the north wall, are extant today, while several others are reported to have been broken up and burnt into lime in the nineteenth century. The steles, although not dated, may have been inscribed ca. 693–691.


4 Cf., for example, Reade, JCS 27 (1975) pp. 189–196; and Frahm, Sanherib p. 65.

5 See the commentary of text no. 14 for further information.

6 The numbering of this king's campaigns follows the designations given in Sennacherib's inscriptions. Therefore, the sixth, seventh, and eighth campaigns are respectively his campaigns against the Chaldeans living in Elam, against Elam, and the battle of Ḫalulê. The military expeditions of 696 and 695, which were led by his officials, are referred to by the eponymy in which they were conducted. Although the campaign of 696 is technically Sennacherib's "sixth" campaign, that event is never referred to as such by Sennacherib's scribes since the king did not personally lead his troops on campaign.

7 For a copy of Smith Bull 4, see 3 R pls. 12–13.

8 E. Frahm (Sanherib p. 107) suggests that the building report of text no. 24 may have described the rebuilding of the Sebetti temple in Nineveh. For further information, see the commentary of text no. 24 and the on-page note to vi 17'–18' of that inscription.

9 At Aššur, Sennacherib also rebuilt an akītu-house outside the city. For details on the two akītu-houses at Nineveh, see Frahm, NABU 2000 pp. 75–79 no. 66.

A. Kirk Grayson & Jamie Novotny

A. Kirk Grayson & Jamie Novotny, 'Survey of the Inscribed Objects Included in Part 1', RINAP 3: Sennacherib, The RINAP 3 sub-project of the RINAP Project, 2019 []

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