Clay “envelopes” found with cuneiform tablets in Iraq

Archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of cuneiform tablets and rare pieces of the clay “envelopes” once used to encapsulate such tablets at the ancient site of Marad in central-south Iraq. They found about a hundred cuneiform tablets, eight of them fully intact, dating to the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. and almost 100 more cretulae, ie, the clay blocks with seal impressions or strings used to wrap and secure the cuneiform correspondence and records.

The ancient city of Marad, known Tell as-Sadoum today, was on a branch of Euphrates and was occupied for 2,000 years. Archaeological remains indicate it was founded in the Early Dynastic period (ca. 2900–2350 B.C.), when urban centers like Ur 250 miles to the south emerged as influential regional powers, and lasted into the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 B.C.). The excavation focused on a temple precinct at the top of the city’s main hill, a residential area and a commercial one. The tablets and envelopes were found in the manufacturing district. (We learned to write to do business. The first recorded personal name in history belonged to an accountant.)

“In general, the tablets bear witness to the wealth and the lively economic and administrative life of the ancient city in Mesopotamia and often tell of business transactions as well as administrative and judicial issues,” explains Anacleto D’Agostino, contract professor of Archaeology of the Near East at the University of Pisa, who coordinated the project. “The tablets we found, from the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian Periods, which are currently under examination, contain purchase agreements, letters and date formulas and also mention the names of sovereigns as well as references to a few cities.”

“The tablets could also be enclosed in ‘envelopes’, of which we found dozens of fragments,” continues D’Agostino. “The ‘envelopes’ are containers modeled out of thin layers of clay with the subject of the message printed on the surface along with names or images, used to authenticate and guarantee the contents.”

The cretulae are older than the tablets, dating to the 3rd millennium B.C. They are highly decorated, engraved with scenes of the hunt, heroes in combat and animals. They are fragmentary now, but when originally made they were frequently embossed with gemstones as indicators of the prestige, wealth and rank of the person making or authorizing the record.

The team, led by archaeologists from the University of Pisa in collaboration with the University of Siena and the Iraqi University of Al-Qādisiyyah, plan to return to Marad next year to continue the excavation.


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Comment by Dogmatix
2019-12-05 01:45:15

Although indicated in the text, this I had to look up:

cretula=‘white clay, used for sealing’


Comment by Jim
2019-12-05 04:24:32

Is that an extremely well-modeled head of a bull or ox bottom-center of the third photo?
And what scale are the black-and-white indicators indicating?

Comment by Trevor
2019-12-05 04:39:54

Well, if they are fingermarks on the clay, I would say the indicators comprise 3 x 1 centimetre blocks.

Comment by Jim
2019-12-05 08:27:52

Thank you…please point-out what you are seeing as “fingermarks”; I’m missing them!

Comment by Felix
2019-12-05 22:26:47

Last picture, upper left, looks like fingerprints, but my inexpert mind thinks it is only a resemblance,not real fingerprints.

Comment by John and Yoko
2019-12-06 10:58:45

Last picture, upper left, looks like a fishing scene with “nets” (real fingerprints or not).


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