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Many of the cuneiform treasures of the Böhl collection are still unpublished – something which holds particularly true for the Neo-Babylonian collection.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.


A seal is worth a thousand words

By Uzume Wijnsma

Anyone who is familiar with the NINO (Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten) knows how precious its collection of antiquities is. Ca. 3000 cuneiform tablets are stored in the institute – the largest collection of its kind in the Netherlands. One can also find a variety of seals, statuettes, and terracotta heads (et cetera) among its possessions. It is always exciting to open one of the drawers in the NINO vault to see what you can find among its tiny treasures. A few months ago, I did just that – and I found a few pieces that I immediately fell in love with.

The pieces I fell in love with are twenty-two small lumps of clay, nowadays known as LB 893 – 914. They are roughly triangular in shape. And none of them look particularly interesting at first sight. If one didn’t know any better, one could think that they were nothing more than tiny lumps of ancient mud. Or, as a friend of mine thought when I sent them a picture: a series of oddly shaped cookies. But I promise you they are more than that.

Image 1. The oddly shaped “cookies” from the NINO (LB 983 – 914).

The muddy triangles-cum-cookies are, in fact, bullae – a fancy word for inscribed or sealed tokens. If one holds the bullae under the lamplight, one can see traces of seals that were impressed into the clay many hundreds of years ago. The impressions in the NINO are particularly beautiful (if you ask me). One seal impression, for example, shows a lion whose jaws bite into the back of a tender stag. Another shows two men who are hunting a running boar. A third shows a man spearing another human being. Every image is vibrant and lively in its own specific way. And the style of the images indicates that they are Achaemenid in date (ca. 550 – 330 BC) – which probably explains why I, Achaemenid nerd, am so fond of them.

Image 2. A lion attacks a stag on a seal impression from LB 905. The photo stems from the article cited below.

I was fortunate enough to be able to study the seal impressions with Mark Garrison – expert of Achaemenid glyptic par excellence – ca. a week ago. We spent a rainy Saturday in an otherwise deserted NINO library, staring at the tiny images and trying to draw them as accurately as possible. A tail here, a nose there. A spear that drills into the back of a lion. A crown on that guy’s head. Hours and hours of looking at these wonderful pieces: drawing a line, erasing it, drawing it again, erasing it, trying it a third time – until you get it exactly right. It was difficult but lovely work. Copying an image by hand gives you an understanding of its details that a photograph just cannot. You begin to see every nook and cranny of a scene. Every tiny feature. Something that is indispensable, of course, for a correct interpretation of the image.

Image 3. Nothing’s better than drawing ancient seals on a rainy Saturday morning!

So where do these bullae come from? Well, we actually don’t really know. None of the pieces has a recorded find spot. That also applies to bullae in other collections: pieces of similar shape and with exactly the same seal impressions were found in collections in Germany, France and the USA. The NINO, with twenty-two different pieces, holds the largest single collection. But the original find must have consisted of more than forty tokens. What the bullae were used for remains equally obscure. It is possible that they used to seal papyrus rolls or storage devices. Or perhaps they served some independent administrative purpose of their own. As we lack an archaeological (or archival) context, we are left to guess. Frustrating as that is.

Image 4. Unfinished copy of seal RB 4: two men are attacking a lion, in distinctly Achaemenid style.

Whatever the original function of the bullae was, however, their seal impressions remain. And they are interesting in their own right. The images show us how people who lived ca. 2500 years ago imagined their own surroundings and society. They indicate what was important to them (ideologically or otherwise), and how they thought it should be represented. The seals, in other words, form tiny windows onto the world of the Achaemenid Empire. And they show us a world of dangerous animals, of royal hunting and of warfare.

To have that information preserved is treasure enough, I’d say. And to slightly paraphrase a cliché: a seal impression is worth a thousand words. Is it not? 😉

Bibliographical note:

The bullae from the NINO (and similar bullae from other collections) were published in 2004 by Wouter Henkelman, Charles Jones and Matthew Stolper. You can visit this link for their wonderful article: (with plenty of photographs; but, unfortunately, without modern drawings).

Do note that other specimens of the same corpus have popped up since then. The whereabouts of LB 914, for example, the twenty-second piece in the NINO, were unknown in 2004. But it is here now!