Ur-Namma tablet commemorating the building of a temple dedicated to Nanna (the great ziggurat at Ur). It also announces the building of a defensive wall for the city.
It all started with a casual remark that I made to my girlfriend, Loring. We were at the Frist Museum looking at a display of cuneiform tablets. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own one of these tablets? I’d love to own something so ancient, when writing and civilization were first invented.” I didn’t give the remark a second thought until two months later when Loring gave me a cuneiform “tablet” for my birthday. It had an odd cylindrical shape with writing down the sides. I didn’t know what it was, neither did Loring, or the people she bought it from (which is perhaps just as well, if they had known what it was, she couldn't have afforded it). After some research, I discovered that it was a Gudean “foundation cone” from the temple of the war god Ningirsu. Gudea was a Sumerian ruler who reigned between 2140-2120 B.C. (see Gudea Translation). I was very happy with my gift. It is more than 4,000 years old, it's a part of ancient history, and it has Gudea’s “autograph”. It became my most prized possession.
Gudea foundation cone. Gudea's name is on the first readable column on the left.
As almost an afterthought, Loring had also given me a list of hand-drawn cuneiform signs that she had printed from the Internet. It was just a few pages, but it gave me the idea that maybe I could learn some of the Sumerian language. I thought I would write a thank-you note to Loring, in Sumerian, to show my appreciation for her sweet and thoughtful gift. I would draw a few signs on lined notebook paper (that would be clever). Just a few signs, nothing elaborate; how difficult could it be?
Little did I know what I was getting into.
I soon learned that Sumerian is a very difficult language indeed. Even the scribes had difficulty writing it. I also learned that it's a “language isolate”, which means it's not related to any other known language in the world, then or now. It's a collection of 700 complicated signs, most of which have multiple meanings, made up of several different languages, with very little clarifying grammar, that was constantly evolving over the course of 2,000 years. Not much is known about the language and even the experts don’t always agree on it.
It took me long time just to figure out which way was right-side-up on a tablet (even professional publications sometimes print tablets upside-down or in photographic reverse). I checked out every book about Sumerian writing and history that I could find at the local library (knowing Sumerian history came in handy when I was translating The Great Fatted Bull). At night and on week-ends I would pore through the books with a magnifying glass, trying to decipher the signs. I became completely obsessed by it. It was all I could think about. I stopped reading other books. I stopped watching TV. During any lull in a conversation, my mind drifted back to cuneiform symbols.
I could easily spend all day researching a single word or phrase, and at night have nothing to show for it. I was spending all my time on it, but I wasn’t making any progress. Then I discovered this thing called the Internet. I had once been a computer programmer (I had started on a card-punch, which shows how long ago it was). I had gotten out of the business and studiously avoided computers ever since. I had never sent an email or surfed on the web. Two software programs in particular were very helpful: the ePSD (electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (the first time I saw the ePSD, it was like the heavens opened up and the angels sang)) and the ETCSL (Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature). The programs are not very user-friendly, but both are essential for anyone learning the Sumerian language. So in addition to learning ancient Sumerian, I was also learning modern computers. One moment I was working on the computer and the next moment I was writing on clay.
I decided to write the letter on clay, not paper. After learning all these complicated signs, I wanted to be able to write them on a clay tablet like a true Sumerian scribe. But first I had to figure out how it was done. I started experimenting with different kinds of clay. I soon realized that I had to find a way to keep the clay moist over a long period of time. It’s not known exactly how the Sumerians did this, so I had to re-discover for myself the ancient technique of using plastic wrap and paper towels. I also had to design my own writing stylus, since nobody is quite sure what one looked like. I cut it to the right size and shape, which I determined by using trial and error. Most importantly, I had to learn the proper writing technique so the signs would look authentic. I would write some signs on a clay tablet, then roll out the tablet to “erase” it, then start all over again. It was actually a lot of fun. I basically re-invented writing. It was like my own personal voyage of archeological discovery.
Eventually, I got to be pretty good at it. I could compose my own sentences, say what I wanted to say, and not just lift phrases from Sumerian literature and string them together like beads. I could pun in Sumerian and write in a style that was grammatically correct for the period of Gudea (nothing "Babylonian" for me, the Babylonians are so nouveau).
I wanted to have the tablet ready for Loring’s upcoming birthday. I had time off from work, so I decided to devote myself full-time to completing the tablet. I shut myself in my apartment and refused to see anyone or talk to anyone for three weeks in a row; not friends nor family, not even Loring, the woman I was doing it for. She was very understanding about it. She thought it was cool that I was interested in cuneiform writing (everyone else thought I was just being weird). I still had to write the letter, research the language, do the transliteration, and last but not least, write the tablet. It would have been easy enough to write out a tablet in my normal “handwriting”, with all its erasures and its leftward scrawl, but Loring is a skilled artist, and I wanted the tablet to be “artistic”. (Cuneiform writing, like Chinese calligraphy, can be quite beautiful, even if you don’t know a single word it says). I wanted the lettering to be perfect, with no erasures (you can erase a sign by dampening the dried clay and then smoothing it over, but it always leaves a noticeable mark). I was using small print, which required great precision. It was like jeweler’s work. I had to wear magnifying glasses to do it. If I wanted the tablet to be perfect, I would need a lot more practice.
My kitchen was like a scribal work shop. It was so cluttered with wood, clay, tools, etc., I could barely get to my stove and refrigerator. I didn’t have a single hot meal in three weeks. My living room was like a carpenter’s workshop, because I was also making a clay “envelope” that would open up like jewelry box, in which to store the tablet (this project just kept getting bigger and bigger). I had never done this kind of work before, so I was experimenting with different kinds of molds and construction techniques. For some reason, this project seemed to require the use of every single tool in my possession – hammers and saws, sanders and screwdrivers, you name it. My apartment was a complete wreck. To top everything off, this was happening during a record-breaking summer heat wave and the central air conditioning in my building was broken. It would get hot enough in the apartment to actually affect the texture of the clay. I had only one small AC window unit that kept the bedroom moderately cool. This is where I did my computer work.
What had started out as a magnificent obsession had now become a grinding ordeal. I was working 18-20 hours a day. I would wake up after too little sleep and I would be at work while waiting for my first cup of coffee to brew. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I wasn’t bathing or shaving. My hair was long, my beard was long, my nails were long. I was like Howard Hughes.
It was the last day that I could work on the tablet. Later that afternoon I had to go to my mother’s house to mow the lawn. The next day I had to go back to my job. It was as simple as that; I had to return to my normal life. I had already spent too much time on this project.
During the past several weeks I made four attempts at writing the tablet. Each tablet was better than the last, all of them were “good enough”, but none of them were what I wanted. They weren’t anywhere near as perfect as I imagined they would be. This was to be my fifth and final attempt. I was down to my last bit of clay. I had just enough clay for one more tablet. I had just one last chance to get it right.
I was extremely irritated (furious, actually) at the way things had turned out. There I was, after months of effort, at the final hour of the final day, in a high-stress “do or die” situation. Being rushed and under pressure was not very conducive to the kind of work I needed to do. I was also under-slept, and tried to compensate for it by drinking way too much coffee, which only made me feel nervous and jittery. When I tried to write, I had to use both hands to steady my grip. I was starting to doubt that I could even finish the tablet, much less do it to my satisfaction. I was already scaling back my expectations. I decided that if this tablet didn’t turn out the way I wanted, then I would simply give Loring one of the other ones. I was sure she’d be happy enough with it, but I was disappointed that I had gone through so much effort, only to bring forth such a mediocre result.
Then I stopped writing. I realized it wasn’t all about me. It wasn’t about my efforts to learn Sumerian or to create a perfect tablet. It was about Loring. I suddenly remembered my original intention, which was simply to thank Loring for the sweet and thoughtful gift she had given me. I calmed down after that. I finished the tablet and had just enough time to bake it in the oven. I took it out of the oven, and before the tablet had time to cool, I quickly headed out the door to go mow the lawn.
When I returned later that evening, I headed straight for the tablet. I looked at it carefully, making sure everything was correct. The signs sparkled when I moved the tablet around in the light. I was satisfied with how it looked. It wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was close enough. The tablet is quite small, it fits easily in the palm of the hand. Its color is a light golden tan. The tablet is very modest in appearance; to look at it, no one would ever guess that it represents a thousand hours of my life.
I gave it to Loring. I told her that if I had spent all this time doing "paying work", I could have bought her something really, really nice. She said she’d rather have the tablet. She said it was her most prized possession. That made everything worthwhile. We had given each other our most prized possessions.
So that was the end of my Sumerian adventure. I put away all my notebooks and writing materials. I had a clean apartment again. I had leisure time. I could do other things, I could think other thoughts.
Line drawing of a Gudea foundation cone like the one seen above.
Several months passed. I hadn’t done anything Sumerian. One day I was sitting around with nothing to do. My gaze happened to fall on the Gudea foundation cone, so I decided to translate it. I had never been satisfied with the other translations of it. I remembered that the Library of Congress had a Gudea foundation cone displayed on their website. They didn’t have a transliteration of it (a transliteration is the Sumerian signs converted to the Sumerian words, a translation is the Sumerian words converted into English) so I decided to send them a copy when I was done.
While on the website I just happened to notice another tablet. I looked down at the bottom of the page to read the translation. The tablet was labeled “Not yet translated”. I looked back at the tablet and realized that it was about Ur-Namma, a Sumerian king (see Ur-Namma Translation).
Ur-Namma tablet in the Library of Congress.
Several days later, after I had finished the translations of the Gudea cone and the Ur-Namma tablet, I went back to the Library of Congress website. This time I carefully scanned all of the tablets. There was a tablet that I had seen on my last visit, but had only glanced at. The first thing I noticed about it was “no numbers”. About 97% of Sumerian tablets are classified as "Administrative". They are accounting records, such as receipts, ledgers, inventories, and the like. These tablets are recognizable by numbers at the beginning of the lines to record the quantities of items on the list (5 sheep, 3 goats, 10 bushels of grain, etc.). This tablet was different. It was one of 3% of tablets that is classified as "Literature" (history, letters, proverbs, etc.). This tablet was "all narrative", the rarest kind of tablet. I looked down to read the translation. It was labeled “incomprehensible”. Not just “not yet translated”, but “incomprehensible”, which means the experts had already looked at it and decided it was unreadable. I looked back at the tablet. It seemed to me that someone had gone through a whole lot of trouble to fill up both sides of the tablet. The writing seemed very “purposeful”. That’s an expression we use at my job. I work for a company that scores standardized tests (it’s not as dull as it sounds). I spend my days evaluating narratives and I’ve read many papers that were thought to be “incomprehensible”. I decided I would try to translate the tablet.
So it all began again, the mania, the obsession. I had some more time off from work, so I did the same thing that I had done before; I locked myself in the apartment and dedicated myself full-time to working on the tablet. It was a very tricky translation. At first, the tablet does seem like a “word salad”, a jumble of words without any cohesive meaning. I could understand why someone would think it was gibberish. Here are some of the challenges that the tablet presented:
1) The missing context (subject) of the story: To put it simply, I had to know the context of the story in order to read the signs, but I had to read the signs in order to know the context! In the Sumerian language, context is everything. If you know the context of the writing, then you can eliminate the many alternative meanings of a sign that don't make any sense within the sentences. It's difficult enough to translate a tablet that has an unknown context; this tablet has two: bull and king. I know of no other tablet that has two simultaneous contexts.
2) "Encoding": The scribe deliberately disguised the meaning of the text, making it difficult (if not impossible) for anyone (ancient or modern) to read this tablet. But he did leave one important clue, the sign mahX; see the Transliteration.
3) The lack of clarifying grammar: These are the prefixes and suffixes that are attached to a word to indicate its meaning and to provide information about person, number, gender, verb tense, etc. Tablet #36 is almost completely devoid of these clarifying "grammar particles". This kind of writing is called "nonformulaic", and it's much more difficult to translate.
4) The “compressed” writing style: The signs are “folded” back on themselves to save space on a line. The signs therefore looked very different from the classic cuneiform script that I was used to. I had to spend a long time verifying each of these signs on the ePSD. This is explained below in greater detail.
5) Wordplay: The hidden and double meanings, along with the dialogue, made this tablet doubly difficult to translate. In addition, the scribe throws in some Akkadian words, just to keep the reader off balance.
This is what it was like trying to translate this tablet: Imagine translating a sentence written in a foreign alphabet. The context of the sentence isn't known. The handwriting is not always legible, and some of the letters are worn, damaged, or missing. There is no capitalization, punctuation, or spaces between the words, so it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another one begins. It is just one long string of letters. Now consider that each letter may be just a letter, part of a larger word, or it may be a whole word by itself. In this way even a simple word like “cat” can have multiple permutations (e.g., c-a-t, C a-t, c-a T, C A T, etc.). As if that weren’t hard enough, each letter has multiple meanings! Each letter can stand for several, or a dozen (or more) different things, with different pronunciations! I swear, it’s enough to drive a man insane.
KA: It can mean kag mouth; dug4 speak; gu3 voice; inim word; kir4 hyena (!); kiri3 nose; zu2 tooth; or zuh steal. KA also has many other definitions and it's known by many other sign names. Or it may mean none of these things. It may just be part of a multi-sign word, or it may be just a syllable that sounds like ka. Because of these multiple meanings, I dread seeing this symbol on any line of cuneiform that I am trying to translate. So of course it shows up a lot on this tablet; a total of ten times; and it's used in six different ways.
I spent hours and hours and hours just looking at the tablet, or working on the computer. I would think I had translated a key phrase, only to have it fall apart in the next sentence. I had to change my mind a hundred times about this tablet as I eliminated one possible translation after another. I would go to bed at night elated over the progress I had made, only to wake up the next morning filled with doubt. I also had to deal with numerous computer problems. My friends had given me their old computers to replace my Stone Age Tandy 1000. Each of the computers broke down in turn. At one time I had four different computers in my apartment, with none of them working. I finally had to go buy a new one. I didn’t care about the cost, nothing was allowed to get in the way of my singled-minded pursuit of the translation. I was busy night and day.
Many times I thought about quitting, but I pressed on, like a man possessed.
One day I was shocked by my own reflection in the mirror. I had lost weight, my skin was pale, and I had dark circles under my eyes. My hair was wild and I hadn’t shaven in a week. I once again was Howard Hughes.
One of the things that gave me great difficulty was the compressed signs. To tell the truth, I didn't even know such things existed. When I was writing my own tablet, I had limited my research to tablets dated no later than Lagash II, so that my tablet would be "Gudean", and therefore strictly Sumerian. Compressed signs were not commonly used until the following Ur III time period. I thought I knew the signs well enough. I had not memorized all of them, but I knew if I had seen a sign before, and I knew how to look it up (I would start with the sign a on the PSD sign list, then flip through all 700 signs, until I reached the sign zur). When I first saw Tablet #36, I was thinking, "What the. . .?" Since the PSD sign list doesn't show compressed signs, I had no way of knowing the definition of the sign, even though it may represent a "normal" sign that I already knew. It was like trying to find a word in the dictionary when you don't know how the word is spelled or even how it is pronounced. I usually found one of these signs when looking for something else. I would be checking on one sign, and amidst a hundred other complicated signs on a tablet, my eye would instantly be drawn to one of the compressed signs that I had been looking for. I was able to do this because my mind was so thoroughly attuned to cuneiform symbols. Other people, who are more learned or intelligent than I am, could have found an easier way to do it, but I was able to do it only by being completely obsessed with the translation. Tablet #36 was especially challenging in terms of "sign recognition" (as it's officially called) so I'm particularly proud of my efforts in this regard. Click here to see how compression changes the appearance of the signs.
There was an occasion that illustrates the hallucinatory nature of this tablet and the importance of context in Sumerian writing. I was about half way through the translation. I had figured out the bull context of the story, so I was beginning to understand the many references to grain that I had been seeing. I was thinking that the tablet might be a "Ferdinand the Bull" kind of story. Ferdinand the Bull is a cartoon character that is strong and stubborn, but also very gentle. I was trying to translate line o15. There was the sign (bad3) that means "wall", like the kind of wall that goes around a city, so I was thinking of a "corral" or a "bull pen". There was another sign (geme2) that means "a female servant". The sign was written twice in a row, meaning it's plural, so I figured it was young servant girls because they were there with their brother. There was also the sign for "hand" and another meaning "to drag". I could picture the scene perfectly in my mind, with the sisters and their brother comically trying to drag a young bull into his pen. It was like a scene painted by a Sumerian Norman Rockwell. Later on, after I had figured out the Big Bad King context of the story, I was able to translate line o15 correctly: That's not a wall, it's a fortress (bad3: wall, fortress), and those aren't servant girls, they're slave women (geme2: a female servant or slave). If they're "hired on", they are servants; if they're taken in war, they are slaves. And it wasn't the brother who was dragging the bull, it was the other way around!
Like I said: in Sumerian, context is everything.
Which brings us to mahX, the secret context of the story. As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, I had already figured out the “bull” context of the story, but I still wasn’t making any great progress on translating the rest of the tablet. Usually, when the context of a tablet is known, it is “easy enough" to translate the story completely. Even though I couldn’t translate the rest of the writing, I could tell that it didn’t have anything to do with a barnyard bull. Early in the translation, I had seen that mah2 (which usually means ”dairy cow”) was used as an alternative sign for mah (meaning “great”). I wish I could say that it was a “Eureeka!” moment and that the tablet was suddenly made clear to me. The fact is, I didn’t think I could use the sign in this way. It was used only once in the 2,000 year history recorded on the ePSD, it was in the wrong time period, and it was probably a “scribal error” (to use a sign definition in a translation, it is necessary to show that it was used on tablets of the same time-period and in the same context). Since the usual definition of the sign mah2 is “cow” (it's used in this way 1,000 times on the ePSD), I did what any ancient Sumerian or any modern Sumerologist would have done, I discarded the sign as “nonsensical”. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I thought, “Okay, wonder if mah2 really does mean mah?” Although I was still having some difficulty translating the sentences, at least they were no longer so ridiculously nonsensical. One day, it finally occurred to me; I thought, “lu-mah [which I suspected was the name of the protagonist of the story] literally means 'man-great', and lu-gal (king) also literally means “man‑great”; I wonder if there's a king in this story?" (at the time I didn’t realize that the bull and the king were one and the same). After that, I started making real progress in the translation. I still had a long way to go, but at least I knew what the story was about; I knew what I was “reading to”. In this way, I was able to discard all the definitions of the signs that didn’t fit the "king" context of the story, and I could focus only on the ones that might actually make some sense.
Gradually the tablet became clearer to me. It was like doing a crossword puzzle (albeit a giant three-dimensional crossword puzzle, given the fact that every sign has multiple meanings). At first it was difficult to fill in even a few words, but the more words I got right, the easier it became to fill in the others. When I first started the translation, I would have been perfectly happy if it turned out to be a chatty letter between friends. Little did I realize that I would find soon myself in the bizarro world of the Great Fatted Bull, with lords and ladies, shepherds and slave women, in a Sumerian court that's filled with violence and palace intrigue, where nobody is who they pretend to be. The more I translated the tablet, the more I realized what a great story it was. I would correctly translate a passage, then doubt myself because it seemed too funny, or too wild, or just too good to be true. It was like that for every single line. Despite all of my protests about what an "ordeal" it was, I really enjoyed doing this translation. It was a lot of fun. It was like being let in on a really good joke, a little at a time.
Eventually I finished the translation. I have to admit, I was very proud of myself. Not only had I taught myself ancient Sumerian, but I had learned it well enough to translate a tablet that could have stumped even the most experienced Sumerologist. To translate even a simple administrative tablet would have been a major accomplishment for an amateur like me, and I had translated a literary tablet, which is much more difficult. Not only that, I had translated a literary tablet with an unknown context. Not only that, I had translated a "non-formulaic" literary tablet with two unknown contexts. Not to mention the fact that it was written in compressed print, and it was deliberately encoded so that not even another Sumerian could easily read it. I sent a copy of my translation to the Library of Congress. I wrote to them, all excited; “Great news!” I was saying, “Of great historical importance!” “A masterpiece!” After a couple of weeks I got a laconic reply that said they're currently rebuilding their website and that it would be ready in the spring. That was all. It seemed to be a polite way of saying “Thank you for your interest, drop dead.” I haven’t heard from them since. Perhaps they are working on their own translation.
I was very disappointed. I had spent hundreds of hours and a couple of thousand dollars working on this tablet. All I wanted out of this was to have my name associated with this tablet in the Library of Congress forever. I guess that’s not going to happen, so I’ll just have to get over it. I do have the satisfaction of knowing I was the first person in 4,000 years to read this tablet. I had also made several new friends along the way. Me and Gudea, me and Ur-Nammu, we’re big buddies now (because of the translations I did for them). But first and foremost is a nameless scribe who lived so long ago. I always felt that we were kindred spirits. I knew I had done right by him the first time I heard someone laugh out loud when reading his story, after more than 4,000 years. That made everything worthwhile.
Note: I have since received a nice letter from the Library of Congress, acknowledging the receipt of my translation and thanking me for the trouble I had gone through. So apparently the game is still afoot. I will post any developments as they occur.
December 15, 2008
I recently sent a copy of my translation to several prominent Sumerologists. I eagerly awaited their reply. For several days I didn’t hear anything. I wasn’t too surprised at the delay. I assumed they were carefully checking my translation. I was nobody they had ever heard of, and I had sent them a translation unlike anything they had ever seen. So if they were somewhat skeptical, then I could hardly say I blame them. After several more days, I heard it through the grapevine (email) that a couple of Sumerologists disagreed with my translation. When I read this, I just sat there for a moment, filled with happiness.
I was happy because no one had claimed my translation. During the long ordeal of translating this tablet, I had often worried that someone else had already translated it. I was also relieved that no one had declared “The Great Fatted Bull” to be a copy of a known work. In either case, it would have meant that I had gone through a lot of trouble for nothing. Until that day, December 7, 2008, I could only hope that I was the first person in 4,000 years to read this tablet. After that day, I was sure.
September 8, 2013:
After five years, The Great Fatted Bull continues to be the only proven translation of Tablet #36.
January 17, 2014:
The CDLI has accepted my transliteration for Tablet #36. The CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) at UCLA, in association with the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute, is the central authority for cuneiform studies in the world. On the CDLI page for Tablet #36, sumerianshakespeare is listed as the Secondary Publication. That's because Primary Publication is reserved for works originally printed in scholary publications that are subject to peer review. As an amateur, I am not eligible for peer review. Nonetheless, it is a rare distinction for the CDLI to credit the work of an amateur Sumerologist.