Episode 1: Laith Hussein: Tell Harmal, heart of Eshnunna: transcript

[you can see a subtitled version of this episode on YouTube]

0:13 JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand. This episode, my guest is someone with a wealth of experience. He tells us about his work on an important site in central Iraq called Tell Harmal. His work sheds light on a fascinating period of history about 4000 years ago.

0:47 JT

In around 2000 BC, the empire that brought most of Iraq into a single unit and dominated the surrounding regions collapsed. Out of the ashes, several smaller kingdoms emerged. In the 1700s BC, a new power arose: Babylon. A remarkable statesman called Hammurabi, the king famous for his law code, founded a new Empire and ushered in what we call the Old Babylonian period. We sometimes also use this term to refer to the whole period from the fall of that first empire to the fall of the new one.

1:24 JT

During the couple of hundred years in between these great empires, rival kingdoms battled for dominance. Two of the fiercest rivals with the cities of Isin and Larsa, in southern Iraq, especially its name this period after this in last a period. Meanwhile, further north, a powerful Kingdom based at the city of Eshnunna exerted political and cultural influence across the region, Tell Harmal was a key centre in this kingdom of Eshnunna. We know far less about Eshnunna than we do about the southern kingdoms, making Tell Harmal particularly important.

2:02 JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.

2:16 JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you very much for joining us.

2:20 LH

Hello. I want to thank you, Jon, for giving me the opportunity to talk about one of the important sites from the Old Babylonian period. Thank you very much.

2:30 JT

It’s a pleasure. It’s good to have you on. Could you tell us please: who are you and what do you?

2:37 LH

My name is Laith Majid Hussein. I have a PhD in archaeology and cuneiform writings. And I am now assistant professor at the University of Baghdad.

2:50 JT

The site you’ve been working on is really interesting and important. Outside Iraq, though, I think many people may not have heard of it. Could you introduce us to Tell Harmal please? Where is it? How big is it? When was it excavated?

3:06 LH

Tell Harmal is one of the most interesting sites in the Diyala region. It’s a small size site, circa 1.8 hectares and circa four metres above the plain. And it’s nowadays situated in the Baghdad suburb of Baghdad al-Jadidah. Tell Harmal seems to have a fortified military stronghold and an administrative center. Excavations were started by the Iraqis in 1945 and lasted in turn to 1963. The first excavations were led by Taha Baqir and Muhammed Ali Mustafa, under the aegis of course of Seton Lloyd. In just two seasons, they unearthed earlier already above half of the settlements and found about 1300 tablets. The main result of this formal excavation was nearly completed clearing out the building levels two, and three, with a settlement of Isin-Larsa period. Many private houses, eight temples and a big public administration building were identified. The remains of upper level two shows traces of fire and destruction, probably dating back to the wars between the Eshnunna kingdom, the Elamite rulers and King Hammurabi of Babylon. One of the great excavators was Taha Baqir. Taha Baqir was born in 1912 in Babylon, was an Iraqi archaeologist, author, cuneiformist, linguist, historian, and former curator of the National Museum of Iraq. He is considered one of Iraqi most eminent archaeologists. Among the works he is remembered for are his Akkadian to Arabic translation of Epic of Gilgamesh, the Akkadian law code, he discovered, of course, and the excavation of ancient Babylonian and Sumerian sites. About the ancient name of Tell Harmal. It was Shaduppum. Many of the texts in Tell Harmal give us information about the name. They said, Bel-gasher. It’s the local god of Shaduppum. LUGAL SHA DUP PU UM or SHA DUP PI IM.

5:41 JT

That is, “lord of Shaduppum”, right?

5:44 LH

Yes. But we don’t have any explanation for the meaning of the name till today. Someone said it’s come from Sumerian SHADUBBA, the container of the tablets, but it’s not right.

6:00 JT

Some truly spectacular finds were discovered there, weren’t they?

6:04 LH

Yeah, we discovered two terracotta lions, very famous terracotta lions. We find it at the entrance of the main temple. At the beginning, they said it was the Nisaba and Haya temple. But it’s not. It’s not that because of course, they found the lexical tablets and the colophon. Everything is written there Haya and Nisaba or Nisaba and Haya.

6:30 JT

These colophons are short scribal notes made at the end of texts sometimes. And it’s not unusual for scribes of this period to invoke Nisaba, the goddess of writing, and Haya’s her husband.

6:42 LH


6:43 LH

And Taha Baqir said, okay, is this the temple of Haya and Nisaba? No, it’s not the temple of Haya and Nisaba. It’s the temple of Bel-gasher, the local god of Shaduppum. And we have many gods there, because there were many temples there, like Shamash like Arhanitum. And they said, the main temple of it, it was the Bel-gasher Temple. And, of course, the lions at the entrance, we find the two lions, at the entrance of the temple, and inside the temple, we find two lions too, as watchers for the temple. And, therefore … unfortunately, it’s in the war … It’s … it was in the museum, and they destroyed the two lions there, unfortunately.

7:30 JT

Do I remember correctly that the conservators were working to restore those lions?

7:35 LH

Yes, they have, or they’re able to have the reconstruction of them. And it’s, I think it’s reconstructed now.

7:44 JT

That’s good news.

7:47 JT

You’ve been working particularly with the texts from the site. Roughly how many texts were found and what kind of texts are they?

7:54 LH

Circa 3000 tablets of all types have been found there in Tell Harmal. The sheer majority of texts remain unpublished, or were studied an unpublished theses by Iraqi scholars, and among them are nine MA and PhD, dissertation and theses. Till today, the published texts are: we have 105 letters, 345 legal and administrative texts, two tablets of the Laws of Eshnunna, two date lists, and 23 literary texts, two of Gilgamesh Epic, and two of the geographical lists, and six of lexical lists, and 29 mathematical texts, and 107 round school texts. In my PhD, I have the main building, administrative building, the serai. I studied all the texts there. And I made a new edition of all the texts from the Harmal and I make a catalogue of them. Of course, many years I spent in this catalogue. And I hope in the future, all of the text will be published, because I give now my students. As I said, till now we have 600, maybe more–it’s published, but the rest of them it’s not published. Therefore, I give my students now for PhD and MA, the tablets from Tell Harmal and they studied and will be published, I hope soon as possible. I hope in the future, it will be published. And many of the books … of course, many of the scholars they don’t have copies or samples from these theses, but we hope in the future it will be published as books.

9:57 JT

That sounds excellent. How long do you It will take before all of the Tell Harmal texts are published like this?

10:05 LH

It will, I think, take many years because you know, it is a long process. But I hope soon it will be finished because I make or it will be published in the future in Germany, a catalogue of all the cuneiform tablets — 3000 cuneiform tablets, all information of each tablet, that I spent many years to collect the information from the administrative books and the journals, excavation journals in Arabic and I’ll translate it in English and in German language, and I gather every information about each tablet and it will be published soon. It will be at the end of this year. It will be published, this catalogue, and my PhD about Tell Harmal. Text from the serai administration building and about archaeological finds, and it will be published too. And we hope will be another books from the series — we will make a new series called Tell Harmal one and two and three, and it will be considered about all the material from Tell Harmal.

11:14 JT

That will be a fantastic resource. You mentioned it will be available in German, will it also be available in Arabic?

11:23 LH

Unfortunately, not. It will be … I hope it … I … I want that, but it will be more work. It will be in German, of course … language, but I hope it will be in Arabic because, you know, I want to make a huge book and in the future, of course, when we have time for it, I hope it will be better when we gather all the texts, and we make a new edition of these texts, because most of them, it was studied in the old times without … they don’t have more references there and books. One of them are famous articles from Goetze 1958. And he make a very interesting publication of 50 letters from Tell Harmal. And we need to re-write these texts. And we make a huge volume catalogue from all the texts from Tell Harmal with their context. It will be a very, I think, nice and useful work.

12:26 JT

In the next section, Dr. Laith mentions several texts that are well known to specialists. Among these are something called “lexical texts”. They were scribal training tools, listing countless words for different kinds of animals, objects, people and places. If you think of them as ancient dictionaries, you won’t be far wrong. He also mentions the Laws of Eshnunna. These are like Hammurabi’s famous laws, but even older. We know them through copies found at Tell Harmal.

12:53 JT

From these excavations, is it possible to use the archaeological context to understand better the nature or the use of these texts?

13:02 LH

I think so. Because we have many examples there like the lexical lists, and where do you find it? And the round school tablets–where do you find it? You said, okay, maybe it will be a small school here. Or something like a small educational institute here. Because we find many of the lexical tablets there. And my … I will have a project in Germany, in Jena, and I will publish more than 45 lexical tablets from Tell Harmal–they don’t publish it until now; it’s new one–and with the new readings, of course. And I hope it will be soon published: what we found in the temple, what we found in the houses, you can see, or we can say okay, it’s belong to the educational issue or not. One of the important things we find in house “Tonbullae”.

14:10 JT

These are small labels made out of clay.

14:13 LH

Yes. Many of them speak about brick production. And it was difficult to understand the bullas, but I publish it in one of the articles in Kaskal, in Italy. It talks about the production of the bricks or the transport of the bricks from or to sites.

14:37  JT

What are these bricks being used for?

14:40 LH

I think, I think, I tried to make a connection between the building of the wall, the huge wall of Tell Harmal, because it’s surrounded with a wall there. Oh, and I make a connection with this many quantity of the bricks they brought to the city and I said in this article, maybe it was to use for the building of this wall.

15:06 JT

How many bricks are in that wall like that?

15:09 LH

I think many scientists, they tried to make suggestions about this one. But it’s very complicated. And I think it’s difficult because I think they say it in one or two articles. They talk about it. But it’s not easy to make any suggestion about this issue in Tell Harmal. Maybe someone will come after me and he make this.

15:30 JT

Yeah, but it’s a, it’s a lot, isn’t it?

15:32 LH

Yes, yes, it is. Yeah. It’s a lot. It’s a lot.

15:38 JT

We need a student to go and count the bricks in a certain stretch of wall.

15:41 LH

Yes, yes, it will be very, very difficult for them.

15:46 JT

Can you give us a flavor then of some of the other texts? What kind of things do these documents say. What language are they written in?

15:54 LH

Of course, the language of the lexical lists, for example, is Sumerian as we see it, or we have it from Nippur. Some of the mathematical problems deal with the abstract methods such as triangles and rectangles, with no reference, of course, to daily life. On the contrary, the letters, legal, and administrative texts were the mirror of the daily life. It’s deal with the economy and private issue. And written, of course, were written in Akkadian language, like the transportation of loads of bricks, and size of vessels, and the number of men needed to build a wall. And the questions of oil and lard. Of course, there was a letter, a very interesting letter, talk about someone he need workers to come to him to Shaduppum to make bricks. Of course, it’s a very interesting thing. We can make a connection with this, but I don’t think so it will be helpful for us, because the bricks it’s come outside, and the bullas, it comes from outside from Tell Harmal. But the majority of the language, of course, the majority of the language of it’s Akkadian. Of course, we have the Laws of Eshnunna. It’s written in Akkadian. We have the lexical lists, the most of them, in Sumerian. And many of the administrative contracts and receipts are in a mix from Sumerian and Akkadian.

17:36 JT

What do the Tell Harmal texts tell us about life in ancient Iraq?

17:41 LH

We examined the administrative archives from Tell Harmal and specifically agricultural administration. We were able to form an image of the society of that period, as it was dominated by agricultural and called and addition of grain, in addition to commercial business, as well as the large number of school and lexical texts, indicating because there’s of many schools of education in addition to being the administrative center of the Eshnunna kingdom. As they said from the beginning, Tell Harmal was the administrative center of the kingdom of Eshnunna. It’s very important. It was very important for Eshnunna because of the letters there, the mayor of Tell Harmal speak directly to … in the letters speak directly to the king of Eshnunna and the king of Eshnunna sent letters to him. And it was a very agricultural society. It talks about grains and grain delivery there. And of course, have many of the management there. And as I said, through the many of the school tablets there, we thought some of them said it was the first college in the world. Of course not, it is not, there’s no colleges there. No, no. Many of them, it’s not published, you know. We have more than 2000 [inscriptions] of course, many of them. As I said, in many of them are breaks, and I see hundreds of the tablets. You can’t read it [all], of course, but we try our best. job.

19:32 JT

Yeah, sometimes it can be really difficult to read these fragmentary, sometimes eroded tablets. can’t it? I appreciate the difficulties you’re facing there. Now the kingdom of Eshnunna, it’s an important kingdom, but it’s perhaps one that many people won’t know very much about.

19:48 LH

Yes, it’s very important to the Diyala region. Of course, we don’t know many information about that. You know, the Americans excavated in the last century in Tell Asmar and many of the ancient sites there. And they discovered magnificent finds there, and artifacts. And many of the very good tablets–letters from Tell Asmar. And in the Diyala region have hundreds of the uncovered sites. But till now, unfortunately, we don’t know more information about them. But it was a very, very, very important time and kingdom, because we sometimes earlier cooperate with Elam.

20:34 JT

These are their eastern neighbors in what is nowadays Iran.

20:37 LH

Yes, yes. And King Hammurabi. He was, I think, he was the reason for the destruction on the end of the Eshnunna kingdom. And we have many of the very important kings there: Ipiq-Adad. And for many of the local rulers like Hammi-dushur and Sin-abushu.

21:00 JT

You explained earlier about your plans for the publication of the text from the earlier excavations. There are still a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the history of this period. Do you have any plans for new excavations to find new material to fill those gaps?

21:15 LH

About new excavation, you ask? We make … as I was in Germany, for my PhD, we make two excavation campaign at 1997 and 1998, as a joint archaeological project between Baghdad University and the German Archaeological Institute. course, it’s supported from the director of Department of Antiquities and Heritage. We examined the site in the western corner of the city. We make two soundings on both sides of the city wall, and the upper building levels from the second millennium, of course, it was found there. Tried through the … during the excavation or through excavation, try to find out about the situation in the eastern part of the city. And the same period, of course, the city shows a great differences of settlement between the level two and three and level four. The most important buildings of the site, of course, the city wall, was its gates, the administration building, the main temple and the new excavation. One, and maybe also the other temples, which were founded during the last occupation phase of the Isin-Larsa period. We want[ed] to prove something. You know, from the time–old time, from the excavation of Taha Baqir–it’s not all the report is published. It’s very difficult to have the excavation reports from the old time. I tried to gather everything from there from the museum. And it was in Arabic, of course, with the notes of everything. And I gather it and I translate all of … every information from that old time to English and then to German, because many of the plans there … we have one plan, we don’t find the number of the rooms there. And it’s very difficult. You know, when you read this tablet it was find in room 100. Well, you see the map and you don’t find the room 100, where is it? And there is no description for this room. And it is very, very difficult for us at the beginning to find where is this room. But many years, of course of work with Peter Miglus in Germany, in Heidelberg. We gathered, as I said, I gathered everything, all the reports, not published reports, of course, unpublished reports, and we try to make something real. And after years of work, we think we have something new about the rooms and about the houses and we find the archives there. And as I said it will be published soon as a book about the archaeology and finds from Tell Harmal. I hope so.

24:21 JT

That’ll be a tremendous work. That would be incredibly useful.

24:26 LH

Till now, the actual publication of the texts from Tell Harmal was, I said, it’s slow. Less than 623 texts till now it’s published. The most important publication of this … this number it was from Goetze, the 50 letters published by Goetze in 1958, about. There is no information about hundred … 150, illegal excavation. It was there, illegal excavation, at 1931 in Tell Harmal. And they send these texts to Yale, and we find it there. And it was published by [UNCLEAR] Simmons, you know, and de Jong Ellis, has published a few tablets from Tell Harmal. Of course, the student from Goetze. And then the Iraqis’, van Dijk was there and published some of them. And then al-Fouadi published the round school tablets. And Suleiman has in his PhD, many of the tablets that publish it, and, of course, the Iraqis. Like, Khalid al-A’dami. And Ridha al-Hashimi, Abdulkarim Abdullah, Amir Suleiman, Basima Jalil, Ahmad Majeed, Menshed Menshed Mutlaq, Saad Salman, and Ahmad Kamil. All of them. The last time of the last century, we have texts from Tell Harmal. And they published many of them, of these texts. Well, as you … as I said, it is … it’s not easy. Of course, many of the tablets, you know, you ask in the museum, I need these numbers, these tablets, they … they searched it, and they don’t find it. I don’t know where are they. Because of many of them, of course, wars there, and many of the closing there, many of the tablets are not in their shelves, there. It’s not easy to have them, but we try our best. And it’s very interesting. Through the tablets, we find many private archives and for many important rulers, like Hammi-dushur, as I said, and Sin-abushu. And we hope this is the first step, I think. We give our students now the texts. I have two students now, they publish their PhD and MA about the Tell Harmal texts. I give them an room or an house. With the tablets there, which … which we find and they make their PhD and MA. And they hope in the future it will be a end of the publication of all the texts, all the tablets from Tell Harmal.

27:19 JT

Thank you very much, Laith. I really appreciate your time. You’re doing incredible work. It’s such a service to the field. Thank you again.

27:27 LH

You are welcome.

27:30 JT

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