Ruins of the city of Umma. This photograph shows the extensive damage caused by looters since the beginning of the Iraq war.
The Library of Congress has not published the provenance of Tablet #36. So it's not known where the tablet was found or the archaeological context in which it was discovered.
The Library of Congress has Tablet #36 dated in the (late) Ur III period. The CDLI has it dated as (Early) Old Babylonian. When I was translating this tablet, I was unaware of the CDLI's dating, and had accepted the LoC's Ur III date. During my research, I didn't see any compelling reason to change my mind about it because I saw a lot of Ur III tablets that looked just like this one. But then again, some Early Old Babylonian tablets also looked the same, so from the beginning I’ve known that the tablet might be Early Old Babylonian (I love that expression, Early Old Babylonian). The truth is, there’s not a lot of difference in the writing between Late Ur III and Early Old Babylonian. Late Ur III is the period just before the fall of Sumer, and EOB is the period right after it.
When I first learned of the CDLI's dating, I wasn't very happy about it. I wanted the Ur III date which would make this tablet unequivocally Sumerian. I have to admit, I have something of an attitude towards the Babylonians. To me, they are the nouveau riche, the "Johnny-come-latelys", who didn't even show up until after 2000 B.C.
I always had one qualm, however, about the Ur III dating. It was my belief that the tablet may have been “preserved” when the city was destroyed, which leaves some doubt as to the fate of the scribe who wrote it (see cuneiform tablet in the Invention of Writing). If the tablet was indeed written in EOB times, it means the scribe had survived the fall of Sumer, and was perhaps writing of recent events. It’s a thought I find reassuring, so if the tablet is ultimately found to be Early Old Babylonian, then it’s fine by me (with a couple of provisos).
Tablet dated "The year Ur was besieged by the Elamites." The Sumerian civilization was destroyed by the Elamites and then later adopted by the Akkadians/Babylonians.
If Tablet #36 is EOB, that means it was written soon after the final collapse of Sumerian civiization (dated by historians as the fall of the city of Ur, at around 2004 B.C.). This tablet may even be a description of the turbulent events leading up to the Fall of Sumer, or it may be a description of the chaotic period of instability that immediately followed.
Although the tablet may be dated Early Old Babylonian, it is clearly Sumerian. Anyone writing in the early EOB period was most likely born and raised Sumerian, and doubtless thought of themselves as Sumerian, even after the fall of Ur. The tablet may be expressing a yearning for the return of the righteous Sumerian shepherd kings.
All speculation aside, however; there is still the tablet itself. Tablet #36 is written in the Sumerian language, not the Akkadian language. The crux of the tablet, "Lu-mah", is a pun on Sumerian words, not Babylonian words, and the story itself is distinctly Sumerian. The bullman is a common motif for Sumerians, but not for Akkadians. The hero of the story is a Sumerian shepherd king. The story of The Great Fatted Bull is quintessentially Sumerian.
When I first translated this tablet, I had not yet
discovered tablet BE 31,28, The Princess Wife, and tablet SEM 114, The Great
Fatted Jackass. All three stories are variations on the same theme. I believe
Tablet #36 was the original story, and it was probably derived from an
early Sumerian fable. Tablets BE 31,28 and SEM 114 came later. They are dated
in the Old Babylonian period; not Early
Old Babylonian, just Old Babylonian. I suggest that even if all three tablets were
dated Old Babylonian, more than a hundred years after the fall of Sumer, they
were still written by Sumerians
Being a scribe would be the natural occupation of many
Sumerians who survived the fall of Sumer. The written word still used the
Sumerian sign system. Administrative tablets continued to be written in
Sumerian. Literary and religious works were written in Sumerian, long
after Sumerian ceased to be a spoken language, and Sumerian compositions were studied
in scribal schools throughout the entire Old Babylonian period (1900 – 1600 B.C.).
The Babylonians co-opted Sumerian literature as their own. Most
of the examples of Sumerian literature that are found on the ETCSL were written
during the Old Babylonian period, hundreds of years after the end of Sumerian
civilization. Why is that? Why were the
great works of literature written in the Sumerian language rather than the
Akkadian language of the Babylonians?
It’s natural to assume that the scribes writing during the
Old Babylonian period were of course Babylonian. I suggest otherwise,
that most of the scribes were Sumerians. I’m sure scribal schools were the enclaves
of Sumerians and their descendants who took pride in their heritage and who sought
to keep the memory of Sumer alive. They continued to identify themselves as
Sumerians, not Babylonians.
The Sumerians scribes were very proud of their culture
(rightfully so). They cherished the memory of Sumer and tried to keep it alive
for as long as possible. As time went on, it became obvious that
the Sumerian civilization would not once again rise from the ashes, as it did
several times before. Although they outwardly conformed to Babylonian culture,
which was not too dissimilar from their own, they tried to maintain their
unique identity as Sumerians. In their hearts and minds, they were still
For hundreds of years the Babylonian kings continued to model
themselves on the shepherd kings of Sumer. Even if many of the Babylonian kings
were good kings, the Sumerians wouldn’t think so. They would disdain the Babylonian
kings as pale imitations of the original Sumerian kings, and therefore subject
to ridicule. The Sumerian scribes were irreverent outsiders, despite their assimilation
into Babylonian culture. They, not the native-born Babylonian scribes, were the
ones most likely to have a jaundiced view of the Babylonian god-kings. They
could not resist a king with weapons. This kind of resistance was out of the
question, but they could resist the king with words, with satire. I suggest the
three satires of The Great Fatted Bull, The Princess Wife, and The Great Fatted
Jackass, can properly be considered as “Notes from the Sumerian Underground.”
Perhaps the Library of Congress has some documentation that will help establish when and where this tablet was written. Meanwhile, the important thing to remember about the tablet is it’s Sumerian, not Babylonian.