Ancient justice preserved in clay  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

I am doing research about ancient Mesopotamia, trying to understand something of the history, culture, and religion of Assyria and Babylonia. It has been interesting reading about Hammurabi and the famous law code he developed “to make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak.” Reigning in Babylon around 1795-1750 B.C., he predated Moses by several centuries.


Though the laws of Hammurabi were inscribed on a stone monument (discovered in 1901), most legal documents of the period were made of clay. It seems, in this digital age, a primitive method of record keeping, but that simply made these ancient people all the more ingenious. Here is a record of a case that dates to the reign of Samsuiluna, who succeeded Hammurabi as king.


A man Ibbi-Shamash fell out with a priestess Naram-tani over the ownership of a plot of land. Naram-tani had inherited the plot from an aunt Nishi-inishu, also a priestess, who, Naram-tani had always understood, had bought it from the father of Ibbi-Shamash fifty-two years before. lbbi-Shamash now claimed, however, that the plot his father had actually sold to Nishi-inishu had been a smaller one, and that Nishi-inishu had wrongfully taken possession of the larger plot in question. Ibbi-Shamash and Naram-tani were unable to agree upon the matter and so they took the case to the Registrar and judges of their city, Sippar. The officials duly heard the claims of both parties and would certainly have heard the testimony of the original witnesses to the sale had they been available, but there is no mention of such witnesses, not surprisingly in view of the half century which had elapsed. The judges therefore simply settled the matter by examining the original tablet of sale drawn up over fifty years before. This might at first telling appear to give ample scope for forgery by 'the family which had had the keeping of the original tablet, but the ingenious procedure with contract tablets at this period prevented this. The procedure was to write out a clay tablet with the terms of contract, the contracting parties and witnesses then rolling their seals over the blank portions of the tablet. The scribe drawing up the document would then take another piece of clay, flatten it out, and fold it over the original tablet to make a sealed envelope of the same shape as the original tablet. On this envelope would then be written the terms of the original contract, cylinder seals being rolled over the document as before. The text on the envelope would of course be subject to deliberate falsification or obliteration by wear, but the original inner tablet could not be touched without breaking the envelope. What the judges did in the case in question was to break the envelope and read the intact tablet within. They found that the plot of land bought by Nishi-inishu fifty-two years before was clearly stated to be the size of the plot currently claimed by her niece Naram-tani, who therefore won the case. A document was drawn up giving details of the case and the decision and concluding with a clause forbidding Ibbi-Shamash to reopen the case against Naram-tani. It is from the actual document drawn up at the end of the case that we are acquainted with all the foregoing details.


Source: Everyday Life in Babylonia & Assyria by H. W. F. Saggs (New York, NY: Dorset Press, 1965) pp. 137, 152-154.


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