This week in our look through the objects in the CREWS exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, we’re shining the spotlight on one of our replicas, this Ugaritic tablet I made last summer. There are lots of reasons why we’ve included replica items in the exhibition. Partly it lets us show off writing systems for which genuine ancient examples are hard to come by and which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to include. But they also have an important research role.Traditionally, the study of writing and texts has been quite separate from the archaeological study of physical objects. People would think about the content of the documents, or the forms of the letters as topics in themselves, divorced from any material characteristics or physical contexts they might have. It wasn’t uncommon to see publications of inscribed objects where the actual object wasn’t described or illustrated at all, and the text was presented almost as an abstract.
This inscription was made on a silver bowl, but you’d never know it from this illustration!
The problem with this approach is that it omits important dimensions of meaning and significance. At a basic level, the nature of the surface you’re writing on will determine the tool you will use – with repercussions for the way the writing looks, or even its fundamental characteristics. Cuneiform is fundamentally designed to be easy to write in clay – you can very quickly and easily make marks by punching in the end of a stylus. When cuneiform writing systems are written on other materials, like silver in the example above, or carved into stone – making the marks is a very different proposition, and they can look quite different from what we’re used to. Even more different are scripts primarily written in ink or paint on materials like paper or parchment, or even pottery, with a brush or pen. These tend to be composed of continuous, sometimes flowing, lines rather than discrete stylus-impressions.
It doesn’t stop there, though. We have to think about the shape of an object – for example, if an inscription is on the handle of a jar, or high up on the pediment of a temple, how does that affect the circumstances in which it can be read? And the type of object plays a part too – the same string of text might have a very different significance when written on a wine-cup, for example, than it would on, say, a gravestone. And then there’s the question of the context of the object itself, in an archaeological sense. Where is it found, and with what other objects? What do these tell us about how they were used and the meanings people attached to them?
These kinds of questions are increasingly important in modern research, and are at the heart of what the CREWS Project’s about. If we don’t think about writing as a physical feature of actual tangible objects in the world, we miss out on so much of what can be important about it. We all know this instinctively: a treasured book we always keep on our bedside table has meaning far beyond the simple content of its words.
One of the best ways to help yourself consider the material qualities of an inscribed object is to try making one yourself. Anyone who follows this blog will know this is something we do a lot of, and we’ve made a lot of tablets in a pretty wide range of writing systems. I did this particular one last year as part of a seminar series on Ugaritic. It’s not perfect – it’s slightly bigger than the original and I made a mistake when I moved on to the back. I turned my tablet horizontally, like a modern page, but in Ugarit, like in Mesopotamia you turned it vertically, so the back would be written the opposite way up to the front. As you can see from the drawing below, they also commonly wrote on the sides and bottoms of tablets.
So that’s lots about why we thought it was important to represent this aspect of our work in the exhibition. But what exactly is this tablet, and what does it say?
As I’ve already mentioned, this is a tablet in the Ugaritic language and the Alphabetic Cuneiform writing system. I work on Ugarit full-time, so we’ve talked about it a lot on this blog; but here’s a quick recap. Standard Mesopotamian cuneiform is logosyllabic, with each sign representing a whole word, a determinative which tells you what kind of word follows, or a syllable. This means there are hundreds and hundreds of signs to learn, many of which are very graphically complex. Around 1250 BC, in the city of Ugarit on the coast of what’s now Syria, they decided to adapt the idea of cuneiform to a simpler system of just 30 signs, where each sign represented a single consonant (or, in three cases, a glottal stop followed by a particular vowel). In other words, even though it mostly didn’t write vowels, this was an alphabetic system, like modern Hebrew or Arabic. It wasn’t the first alphabetic writing to develop in the Levant, but it was the first one to be adopted at a large scale by a state, and it’s the first alphabetic writing in the world for which we have a substantial body of surviving literature.
So what does this particular tablet say? My replica is based on a real Ugaritic tablet known as KTU 2.13 or RS 11.872. It was found at the western entrance to Ugarit’s Royal Palace, which is a fitting place since it’s a letter from the king to his mother.
The original tablet, and drawing. Both from Bourdreuil and Pardee 2009 – A Manual of Ugaritic
In Ugaritic it reads:
l . mlkt ʾumy . rgm tḥm . mlk bnk .
l . pʿn . ʾumy qlt . l . ʾumy yšlm . ʾilm tǵrk . tšlmk
hlny . ʿmny kll . šlm ṯmny . ʿm . ʾumy
[It continues on the lower edge:]
mnm . šlm (13) w . rgm . ṯṯb . ly
[And then the back:]
bm . ṯy ndr ʾiṯt . ʿmn . mlkt w . rgmy . l [?] lqt . w . pn mlk . nr bn
The dots between words represent word-dividers, marked in the original by little vertical wedges on their own. ʾ stands for a glottal stop, ḥ is a kind of emphatic, breathy ‘h’, š is ‘sh’, and ṯ is ‘th’, like in English ‘thin’.
Of course, no-one would have actually pronounced it as the consonant soup above. We have a few ways to reconstruct the vowels in Ugaritic – there are occasional texts in the language written in Akkadian syllabic cuneiform, and we can extrapolate from related languages like Phoenician, Hebrew or Arabic – but ultimately this is educated guesswork and isn’t entirely certain. The Ugaritologists Pierre Bourdreuil and Dennis Pardee suggest the following vocalisation for this letter:
lê malkati ʾummiya rugum taḥmu malki biniki lê paʿnê ʾummiya qālātu lê ʾummiya yišlam ʾilūma taǵǵurūki tašallimūki halliniya ʿimmānîya kalīlu šalima ṯammāniya ʿimma ʾummiya mannama šalāmu wa rigma ṯaṯībī layya bima ṯayyi nadarū ʿiṯṯata ʿimmānu malkati wa rigamiya la laqa<ḥ>at wa panū malki nārū binū
If you speak Hebrew or Arabic, you might recognise some of these words, like ‘wa’ for and or ‘šalāmu’ for to be peaceful or well. For the rest, here’s what it says in English:
To the queen, my mother, say: Message of the king, your son. At my mother’s feet I fall. With my mother may it be well! May the gods guard you, may they keep you well. Here with me everything is well. There with my mother, whatever is well, send word (of that) back to me. From the tribute they have vowed a gift to the queen. My words she did indeed accept and the face of the king shone upon us.
To understand this, you need to know that Ugarit was a vassal state of the Hittite Empire. This seems to have been sent home while the king of Ugarit was away visiting his overlord at the Hittite capital, Hattuša, in what’s now Turkey. He begins with the kind of formal greetings and good wishes that are thoroughly standard in Bronze Age Near Eastern letters. It’s not unusual for them to take up more space than the actual message! He begins with the instruction ‘To the queen, say:’ because this would presumably have been read out by a messenger or scribe rather than the recipient reading it directly. Kings and queens may well not even have been literate. The queen he refers to near the end is probably the Hittite queen, and the reference to the face of the king shining is telling us that he actually had an audience with the Hittite Great King. There were only a few great kings on the international stage at this time – they varied from time to time, but they usually included the Egyptian pharaoh, the Hittite king and the king of Babylon, as well as one or two others. It was common for the pharaoh and Hittite king to be called as ‘the Sun’ or ‘my Sun’ by their vassals, and this is clearly what Ugarit’s king has in mind.
All in all, this letter home from the king to his mum is quite an appropriate inscription to look at this Mother’s Day weekend!
I hope this has helped you understand some of the many interesting issues wrapped up in this unassuming little replica tablet. Why not download the Ugaritian sign list from our resources page and have a go at reading it for yourself, or making your own?
~ Philip Boyes (CREWS Project Research Associate)