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Remembering Ebla

While cleaning out old file drawers, we came across an interesting pamphlet. The title was in Italian, and had been written by Professor Ron Veenker of WKU with Professor David I. Owen. It was presented at the 3rd International Ebla conference in 1987…and to our surprise, the pamphlet was about one of the cuneiform tablets in our collection!


What is Ebla?

Ebla, in what is now Syria, existed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (called “Ur III”) between 3500 BCE and 1600 BCE. At the time, the region consisted of wealthy city-states, though the relationship between those city-states and the larger Sumerian empire was unclear. Veenker’s discovery of the tablets in our collection provided one of the first substantial pieces of evidence to link Ebla to Ur III—but not as part of the empire.

In looking at current evidence on Ebla, we found that the city was one of the earliest kingdoms in Syria, located about 34 miles southwest of modern-day Aleppo. It was an important trade center for two centuries, and today is considered to be the first true world power! Ebla had its own language and culture, and brought trade goods from various kingdoms in Sumer, Cyprus, Egypt, and what is now Afghanistan. Ebla’s women also enjoyed a special status, with the queen having a leading role in state and religious affairs.

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Clay cuneiform tablet containing references to Megum, the governor of Ebla, other government officials, and livestock. Held by the Kentucky Museum. See artifact record here.

The Tablets

Our three tablets were acquired by archaeologist Edgar J. Banks, who sold the tablets to enthusiasts after World War I. Among the enthusiasts was Allan Trout (1903-1972), a legislative journalist with the Louisville Courier-Journal, who acquired the three tablets in our collection. Trout later donated his collection, including the tablets, to the Kentucky Museum. In his honor, the tablets are called the “Trout Tablets.”

Fun Fact: Edgar J. Banks is considered the inspiration for the fictional composite figure of Indiana Jones! He is known for trying to find the Ark of the Covenant, climbing Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark, starting two film studios that employed Cecil B. DeMille, and excavating many Middle Eastern sites.

In translating the tablet, Veenker and Owen realized it described Ebla as the home city of an ensi (“governor” or “ruler”) named MeGum. The tablet details a messenger of ensi MeGum who was given 3 fattened sheep and 2 fattened, mature goats for the ensi’s kitchen. It also details gifts of livestock to other men, including ambassadors from other cities and empires.

The tablet is the first mention of the ensi’s name and one of the last examples of the Eblaite language, written in cuneiform in the decades before the Amorite tribes took control of the region.


Connections through Time and Space

During excavations of Ebla from the 1960s to 2011, archaeologists uncovered one of the oldest archives and libraries ever found, estimated to be 4,500 years old. It contained over 20,000 cuneiform tablets, originally stored on shelves according to subject. Most were literary or lexicographic texts, and showed evidence of early transcription into foreign languages. Though our tablets are not from this library, we are thrilled to be connected to such interesting characters and places in world history. It just goes to show…you never know what you’ll find in a museum!

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Royal Palace G at Ebla in 1993. Image courtesy Marina Milella / DecArch (Creative Commons).

Postscript: The Effects of War

Unfortunately, in 2011, excavations of Ebla stopped due to the Syrian Civil War. Large-scale looting occurred when the site became controlled by an opposition group, leaving many new tunnels and sacking a crypt full of human remains. In 2017-18, aerial bombardment by Russian and SARG forces contributed to the destruction. What was lost to time include the ruins of the Resheph Temple and Early Bronze Age Royal Palace, as well as countless artifacts and human remains. According to ASOR, an international collaboration of scholars and institutions that protect cultural heritage, daily aerial bombardment and looting continue.

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