The revival of the Sippar tablets in the Böhl Collection and the stories they tell

By Melanie Groß

Prof. F.M.Th. de Liagre Böhl

The Liagre Böhl Collection of the Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten (NINO) in Leiden comprises the largest collection of cuneiform clay tablets in the Netherlands. F.M.Th. de Liagre Böhl (1882–1976), Professor of Assyriology at Leiden University (1927–1952), had acquired more than 3,000 cuneiform tablets during his travels to the Middle East and at the European antiquity market. Shortly before the end of his professorship he sold the tablets to the NINO which still owns the tablets and keeps them safe in the so-called vault behind a thick metal door. In the Böhl collection one finds cuneiform sources from various different periods, including the Ur III, Old Assyrian and the Old Babylonian periods, and of various different text genres, including literary texts, school tablets, administrative documents and letters. About 700 tablets alone are Neo- and Late Babylonian legal and administrative texts.

Some of the tablets in the Böhl collection

Many of the cuneiform treasures of the Böhl collection are still unpublished – something which holds particularly true for the Neo-Babylonian collection. While the tablets have been filed by Böhl himself and partly studied by Govert van Driel (1937–2002), lecturer in Mesopotamian History and Archaeology in Leiden, the Neo-Babylonian collection is still largely unexplored. Only very recently, namely in the years 2018 and 2019, did Jeanette Fincke on behalf of the NINO establish a digital catalogue which systematically records every tablet of the collection, along with details and photographs. This catalogue will eventually be published online. In the second half of the year 2019 Lidewij van de Peut catalogued the entire Neo-Babylonian section. Thanks to Lidewij’s work it became clear that a great number of these records belong to one of two groups: administrative records from Uruk (primarily from the Eanna temple) and legal records from Sippar.

One of the texts under study, LB 1800 Obverse
LB 1800 Reverse

The cuneiform tablets of the Böhl collection share the fate of thousands of cuneiform tablets housed by numerous collections worldwide. As they came to light in the course of illicit excavations and were sold on the antiquity markets, we usually lack any archaeological information. It is but thanks to the systematic recording of the place of writing as well as the date of writing in legal cuneiform texts that we can classify and label the Neo-Babylonian Sippar tablets from the Böhl collection. While they were usually written in Sippar, they mostly date to the reign of the Achaemenid king Darius I, but there are also older documents (reaching back to the Neo-Babylonian period) and younger documents (dating to the early years of Darius’ successor Xerxes). The legal activities recorded in the texts concern payment obligations in silver and dates as well as investments of silver in business enterprises. Furthermore, they provide evidence for the lease of houses and the purchase of slaves and donkeys.

If we look into the people involved (the active parties to the transaction, the witnesses and the scribe), it becomes even more intriguing since the same people occur over and over in these texts. Entire families which are, in fact, already known to scholars, come alive. Remnants of their archives had been identified in the Lewis Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Babylonian Collection of the Yale University. These collections house a significant number of documents belonging to members of the Balīhû family, the Maštuk family and the Ṣāhit-ginê family (or branches thereof) who lived in Sippar. Being engaged in trading businesses, they were active as creditors, investors, buyers and lessors – in short, as entrepreneurs. The traces of their activities had surfaced in the Böhl collection already years ago, but the true extent only became obvious with the efforts undertaken by Lidewij.

The author taking photos for research

While my research on these families and their business archives began a few years ago by studying the tablets in the US, it is high time to look into the material in Leiden. It is currently pure adventure to dive into the (in times of Covid-19, the photographs of the) Sippar tablets in the Böhl collection and the stories they tell. A single document about, for instance, a loan of silver of Bēl-iddin from the Maštuk family might not be extremely telling in the first place, but to have in total about 60 tablets at hand documenting decades of business activities and family affairs of Bēl-iddin and his relatives, makes it possible to reconstruct the life of Sipparean traders during a period when the Achaemenid kings exercised control over the Babylonian territory.

 

100 jaar assyriologie in Leiden

By Caroline Waerzeggers

Op 13 december 2019 vond de conferentie “100 Years of Assyriology in Leiden” plaats in het Paviljoen van het Museum Volkenkunde Leiden. Dit was het laatste evenement in een reeks feestelijkheden rondom het honderdjarig bestaan van de leerstoel Assyriologie in Leiden.

Professor Veenhof opende de conferentie met een lezing over de vroegste geschiedenis van de leerstoel: wat zat er achter de beslissing van het college van bestuur om in de vakgebied te investeren? Veenhof vertelde dat Leiden wel de eerste universiteit in Nederland was om zich aan de assyriologie te committeren, maar internationaal gezien kwam die beslissing toch wel wat laat… Ook vertelde hij over zijn persoonlijke herinneringen aan zijn leermeester Kraus en aan zijn eigen tijd als hoogleraar Assyriologie in Leiden.

Na de opening door Veenhof kwamen vijf internationale sprekers aan het woord. Ieder van hen sprak over het onderwerp van de inaugurale rede van Leidens vijf hoogleraren Assyriologie. Dominque Charpin (Collège de France) sprak over koningschap in de Oud-Babylonische periode, het onderwerp van de rede van G.J. Thierry. Beate Pongratz-Leisten (NYU/ISAW) situeerde de rede van F.M.Th. Böhl in de onderzoeksgeschiedenis naar het Babylonische nieuwsjaarsfeest en besprak de impact van de vroeg-20e eeuwse discussie rond Babel und Bibel op deze geschiedenis. Stefan Maul (Heidelberg) reflecteerde op verandering en continuïteit in Mesopotamië en plaatste Kraus’ uitspraken over dit onderwerp in diens tijd. Hij pleitte voor een niet-teleologische benadering tot Mesopotamië, los van de vraag welke bijdrage deze beschaving geleverd heeft aan de Judeo-Christelijke tradities. Mogens Larsen (Kopenhagen) sprak over de spijkerschriftarchieven uit de Oudassyrische handelsnederzetting Kanesh in Anatolië, een interesse die hij deelt met zijn goede vriend Klaas Veenhof. Hij had een ontnuchterend verhaal over de uitdagingen waar de onderzoeker mee te maken krijgt bij het bestuderen van deze archieven. Tot slot sprak Yoram Cohen zijn waardering uit voor het veelzijdige onderzoek van Wilfred van Soldt die verschillende nieuwe trends in de assyriologie mede vorm heeft gegeven.

We sloten deze inspirerende bijeenkomst af onder het genot van een drankje in het Museum Volkenkunde. De conferentie werd mogelijk gemaakt dankzij de financiële steun van het Leids Universiteitsfonds, het NINO en het LIAS.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten en Stefan Maul in gesprek op de conferentie 100 Years of Assyriology in Leiden in het Paviljoen van het Museum Volkenkunde, 13 december 2019.

* Deze tekst is ook gepubliceerd in de NINO-nieuwsbrief van december 2019.