Proceed with Caution! Identifying Structures using Royal Inscriptions (Part 1)

I’m going to preface this post with a note that I am NOT an archaeologist. I have taken archaeology classes, and spent one, very memorable, field-season doing a surface survey in southern Turkey…but I am not an archaeologist. Any mistakes with regards to archaeological process are completely my own, and I’m very happy to be corrected! With that caveat, let’s get started.

Mesopotamia, for those who don’t know, is the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that corresponds roughly to the modern country of Iraq. The region has a long and rich history, and one of the major sources scholars use to reconstruct that history are the royal inscriptions. Royal inscriptions are textual compositions commissioned by Mesopotamian rulers and placed on a wide variety of objects, from vessels and beads to building materials and statuary.


Royal inscription of Amar-Sin placed on a brick. © The Trustees of the British Museum (BM 90813)

They have been found from all periods of Mesopotamian history, from the Early Dynastic (c. 2900-2350 BCE) through to the Persian empire (c. 559-331 BCE). These inscriptions cover a wide variety of themes, including records of military campaigns, royal construction projects, prayers, curses, and trade. This post will focus on a particular subset of royal inscriptions that have been termed ‘building inscriptions’ by Assyriologists, as they are both inscribed on building materials (such as bricks, door sockets, and foundation deposits), and record the construction of specific structures. The general formula of such inscriptions can be seen in the following inscription of Warad-Sin, king of the Mesopotamian city of Larsa (c. 1834-23 B.C.E):

For the goddess Inanna of Zabala, my lady,
(I) Warad-Sin, king of Larsa,
for my life and the life of Kudur-mabuk, the father who engendered me,
built for her the shining gigue, her residence of valor,
I raised its head there like a lofty mountain.
May she rejoice at my deed (and) grant to me as a gift a long life-span.

Frayne 1990: 218


Royal inscription placed on a clay nail. © The Trustees of the British Museum (BM 116421)

These inscriptions have been commonly used to identify excavated structures – if a building is excavated and contains 10 objects with the same temple name inscribed upon them, then it may be reasonable to assume that the building named in the inscriptions is the building in which those objects were found. For example, a Kassite period (c. 1370-1155 BCE) structure at the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur has been identified as a temple of the goddess Ningal on the basis of thirteen foundation cones found below the temple’s pavement (Clayden 1995: 63). Inscriptional evidence has also been used to hypothesize the existence of an otherwise unattested cult at Ur – the presence of a foundation tablet found in the fill of one of the main temples at the city led the editor of the inscription, Douglas Frayne, to suggest the presence of a cult of a deity at the city, as the tablet commemorates the construction of a temple to that deity (Frayne 1997: 112).

I am sure that, at this point, there are readers asking “But Megan! What does all of this have to do with Digital Humanities?”. Which is an excellent question, dear reader, and will be answered without further delay. Very basically, there are so many royal inscriptions known to Assyriologists that it has been virtually impossible to conduct any kind of research into the corpus as a whole. The burgeoning use of computer-aided methods and techniques in Assyriology (and the rest of the Humanities disciplines) allows for large amounts of data to be handled with relative ease – including the royal inscriptions. Using a relational database to identify and track correlations between object type, object find spot, and inscriptional themes, I am able to evaluate the corpus of royal inscriptions on a scale that has previously been incredibly challenging.

Another caveat: My database does not currently include examples of all royal inscriptions 😦 This is my dissertation project and, in the interest of graduating in under a decade I have restricted myself to only including inscriptions dating from the Early Dynastic to Old Babylonian periods (c. 1750-1595 B.C.E.).

Using this database, one can, for example, identify inscribed objects that are found in buildings other than those commemorated by their inscription.  Despite a paucity of reference to this phenomenon in scholarship, it is a relatively common occurrence. Indeed, copies of a single building inscription were frequently discovered in several different structures.  Accordingly, the discovery of a building inscription in a structure is not necessarily a reliable means of identification, problematizing the most widely-accepted method of identifying ancient structures in the archaeological record.

And, despite my personal dislike of novels that end on a cliffhanger, that is precisely what I am doing here! Further details on my methodology, and the results and conclusions of this investigation, will be forthcoming in my next blog post scheduled for the first week in October – so check back then to find out exactly how one decides whether an inscribed object is in the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ building, how many objects in my database were misplaced, and some specific examples of this particular problem.



Clayden, T. 1995. ‘The Date of the Foundation Deposit in the Temple of Ningal at Ur’, in Iraq, vol. 57 pp. 61-70.

Frayne, D. 1990. ‘Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC)’, Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Early Periods, vol. 4. Toronto.

Frayne, D. 1997. ‘The Ur III Period (2112-2004BC)’, Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Early Periods, vol. 3/2. Toronto.

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