Interview series about ENCI, part 1: Assyriology‘ENCI Gives Us Access to a Wealth of Source Material’
25 January 2024
With ENCI, Assyriologists gain access to numerous previously inaccessible sources. In this interview, Cécile Michel explains the purpose of the clay envelopes in which many cuneiform tablets are hidden and talks about her expectations for the first field trip with the new device to the Louvre.
Cécile Michel, why were some cuneiform tablets put into clay envelopes in ancient Mesopotamia?
Depending on the document, the envelopes fulfilled different functions: contracts, for example, were sealed with an envelope to signify their validity. If someone broke this envelope, the contract was no longer valid. Obviously, this practice also made it impossible to consult the text, which is why most of the contract was copied on the envelope. Thus, although we have never seen them, we already know quite a lot about the sealed contracts that have survived.
This is different when it comes to letters. Just like today, they were sealed in envelopes primarily to protect confidential information. Only the names of the sender and the recipient were written on the envelope itself. For us Assyriologists today, this causes a very unsatisfactory situation: although we have this wealth of source material, we cannot access it.
Why were so many letters never opened?
Mail often travelled for a very long time. If a recipient was dead on arrival, had moved, or could not be found for other reasons, the undelivered letter remained in its envelope. This happened regularly, and today several sealed letters are stored in museums and archives around the world.
Why weren’t these cuneiform tablets X-rayed earlier? The relevant X-ray technology has been available for quite some time, hasn’t it?
Yes, in the form of large stationary devices. However, the tablets are too valuable and too fragile to be exposed to the risk of transport. There is only one solution: rather than bringing the cuneiform tablets to the X-ray scanner, the X-ray scanner has to come to the cuneiform tablets. Before ENCI, such a mobile device did not exist. Now, we have the opportunity to analyse the sealed cuneiform tablets on-site for the first time.
The first field trip with ENCI goes to the most famous museum in the world: from 1 to 9 February, you will be at the Louvre in Paris. What is special about the collection there and which tablets did you select from it?
The Louvre has one of the largest and most important collections of ancient cuneiform tablets, comprising around 12,000 items. We are starting our analyses with a dozen tablets. Most of them are administrative texts from the late 3rd millennium BC from several sites in southern Iraq.
For the reasons mentioned earlier, the texts of these contracts are also written on the envelope. But even in these cases, some interesting questions remain. The outer and inner texts are never identical; for reasons of space, certain information was omitted from the outside. We will be able to check which points were transferred and which were not, and whether there are any other discrepancies, for example due to errors by the scribe, who had to write the contents of the contract on the envelope from memory.
What other insights do you hope to gain by using ENCI?
Although this is undoubtedly its most important function, the device not only makes it possible to read hidden texts but also allows us to better understand how the cuneiform tablets and clay envelopes were made. Sometimes quite coarse clay was used for the core of the tablets, which was then coated with several finer layers to create a smooth writing surface. We see this, for example, in the most important texts from the library of Ashurbanipal from the 1st millennium BC. Indeed, there was a variety of production techniques and methods of closing the envelopes. Thanks to ENCI, we will be able to determine which of these were used.
What expectations do your fellow Assyriologists have with regard to ENCI?
There is curiosity and anticipation. For some years now, many Assyriologists have been increasingly interested in the materiality of the texts they are researching. However, since the tablets could not be examined on-site until now, it has been difficult for them to gain insights in this regard. This will change with ENCI. And of course we are all very curious to see what is in the sealed letters that we will be examining, for example on our second trip with ENCI, which will take us to Ankara later this year. We will be the first to read them since they were sent on their journey 4,000 years ago.