The Sumerian King List – Weld-Blundell Prism

From time immemorial since the Land was founded until the people multiplied, who has ever seen a reign of kingship that would take precedence for ever? Lament of Sumer and Ur (Oxford etcsl 1998 368-70).

The Weld-Blundell Prism

Kingslist_000The term ‘Sumerian King List’ refers to the listings of Sumerian and neighbouring ruling dynasties derived from a number of sources mainly discovered early in the last century. The principal, most comprehensive, of these is the ‘Weld-Blundell Prism’. There are some twenty copies of the list or parts of it, some of which had been discovered before the Prism (Bienkowski & Millard 2000 169); (Wikipedia). Later king lists preserved and utilised this format at least up to the ‘Babylonica’, the History of Babylon, written by Berossus during the Hellenistic period in about 280 BC. (Burstein 1989 1)

The precise provenance of the Prism is unclear: it is now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. Their website says that it was “probably discovered at Larsa in about 1923”. The Expedition that year was one of a number funded by a wealthy aristocratic benefactor, Herbert Weld-Blundell, who had travelled extensively in Africa and the Near East. Larsa was a key city-state in the early second millennium in southern Mesopotamia; and it has been excavated a number of times. (Bienkowski & Millard 2000 173). There is however little detailed information available about the 1923 expedition. Weld-Blundell was a sponsor of excavations rather than an archaeologist and so it seems likely he acquired it from a dealer. The translation of the Prism was published that year by Stephen Langdon (1876-1937) who was Professor of Assyriology at Oxford University. It may not be unconnected that the subsequent Weld- Blundell Expedition and excavations at Kish from 1923 to 1933 which S. Langdon led have been strongly criticised for their lack of archaeological rigour. (Moorey 1978 13/14).

As its name suggests, the Prism (figures 1 & 2) is an inscribed four sided artefact some 20cm high with a vertical hole through its central axis, presumably for a stand, and perhaps for it to be turned to be read. On each face, the text is in two columns. In this format it is more portable than, say, four separate tablets. It could be carried as a single object and positioned on a surface for display (as it is now in the museum) in some significant place, such as a temple for example.

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Figure 1: The Weld-Blundell Prism


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Figure 2: The Weld-Blundell Prism

Figures 1 & 2: The Weld-Blundell Prism (seen 1 edge-on; and 2 each face) Ashmolean Museum website.

The Sumerian Kings

The King list purports to list all the rulers of Sumer from the beginning of time “when the kingship descended from heaven” to the latter part of the dynasty of Lish (very approximately 1800 BC) (Roaf 1990 82). It plots how the kingship moved from city to city, giving the length of time the sequence of rulers for each city was supposedly king. Each city’s tenure of the ‘kingship’ generally ended in ‘defeat’, but in spite of this, the tone is of an orderly and legitimate transmission of the kingship around the Sumerian cities which always comprise a single kingdom. The list gives very little additional biographical information about the kings, save for some occasional occupational epithet e.g. ‘Bazi, the leatherworker’, and ‘Zizi, the fuller’, and even, ‘Kug-Bau, the woman tavern keeper’. Sometimes family relations are indicated: the kings are frequently ‘the son of’ some predecessor. The first set of kings, referred to as the ‘antediluvian rulers’ were followed by disaster when: “the flood swept over”, and kingship had to be later re-established. (Oxford etcsl 1999 1ff). This reference to a catastrophic flood caused some excitement at the time of the discovery and publication, because of its obvious possible overlap with the flood story in the Old Testament of the Bible. Additional interest arose because among the kings is Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, positioning him as a real historical figure rather than the presumed mythological figure of the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’. ‘For the first time’ is found here a ‘catalogue’ of ‘the principal’ Sumerian cities (figure 3) ..’and others of which less is known.’ (Seton Lloyd 1978 90).

Scholars had, however, begun to ‘smell a rat’ with the absurdly lengthy nature of some of the reigns running to hundreds of years especially in the early part of the list. The Antediluvian kings were stated to have ruled for tens of thousands of years each. What could it all mean? And so was any of the information trustworthy?

Jacobsen’s tour de force

The definitive work on the Sumerian King List was published by Thorkild Jacobsen in 1939. He tells how with the arrival of the Prism to add to the fragments which had already been translated, many scholars hoped that a full list of rulers and dynasties for this period could be settled. On closer examination however this proved not to be the case; there had been finds about this time of dynasties not mentioned in the list. Consequently this hope gave way to scepticism about its value, and by the time of Jacobsen’s work in the 1930’s: ‘its evidence…[is] hardly ever used for the purposes of chronology’. Jacobsen’s aim was to sort out ‘what is unreliable and what is not’. In his study of the text he aimed to clarify: a) its development as a text over time, b) when it was written, c) what sources the author/s used and d) how they treated them (Jacobsen 1939 4.) Reviewing some dozen versions of the list which he had, he was able to show through similarity between them that all versions derived from a single common source, the Weld-Blundell prism being one, and the rest from a variant which had been introduced at some point. Most did not include the Antediluvian kings who were often referred to in similar language in other ‘beginnings of creation’ texts. He was able to conclude that this was therefore “a later addition” to the king list, which served the purpose of tying in the later dynasties to the beginning of time (Jacobsen 1939 64.)

The Weld Blundell King list is dated to the latter part of the dynasty of Isin where it ends. By examining the language used, he dated the original common source (to which later dynasties had been added) to the time of Utu-hegal of Uruk (c. 2100 BC). This coincides with a time when the Gutian peoples from the mountains to the east had been defeated in battles and the kingship restored to Sumer: so the original king list, he suggested, was in part a celebration of this victory. (Jacobsen 1939 140).

More importantly, he demonstrated that the author had assembled lists of rulers from various cities each with their own sequences and lengths of rule; but then he had drafted a single king list for Sumer, based on the idea that these kings ruled a single kingdom, in sequence, to give the impression of a unified kingship. This had the effect of creating an excessively long time frame for the total period covered. The difficulty then was that this was contradicted by other evidence. For example, Mes-Anne-pada of Ur, and Ur-Nanshek of Lagash are known to have been contemporaries. Although the dynasties of Lagash are not in the king list, they are known and dated from other sources. Jacobsen showed that the respective numbers of kings in the Sumerian list and Lagash dynasties in the timescale down to Sargon of Akkad were wildly different; they could not both be correct. The explanation he suggested which is now widely accepted is that the kings in the Sumerian King lists in fact were often ruling contemporaneously in their various cities rather than consecutively in a single ‘kingship’. (Jacobsen 1939 161).

Having established these points, Jacobsen ‘deconstructed’ the King List in order to extract its ‘historical value’. He discounted the Antediluvian list as being mythical. He clarified the dynasties of individual cities which had been used by the original author to assemble the King List by using, where possible, chronological and epigraphic material from other sources, substituting average reigns for excessive lengths. He also removed inconsistencies he felt had arisen from needing to make the reigns consecutive. He was relaxed about the absence of the Lagash dynasties suggesting that the author simply did not have the information from this and some other cities. Some rulers designated themselves ‘King of Kish’ in inscriptions, but are not in the King List for Kish. He explained this on the basis that this title was historically prestigious because of the position of Kish as an ancient religious centre and so its title took precedence for rulers from other cities and was preferred by them. (Jacobsen 1939 165ff).

Finally, Jacobsen concluded this ‘tour de force’ with an attempt to fix these known dynasties in different Sumerian cities, firmly in a chronological time scale for the period by drawing on agreed events whose dates are known. (Jacobsen 1939 191ff.) He had thus established the beginnings of a chronology of the city states of this period.

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Figure 3: Cities in the Sumerian King List (Roaf 1990 83).

Historicity and chronology

Jacobsen’s work re-established the king list as a vital document to be considered in describing the history of this period. Not many kings or local rulers of this period are known but where they do they appear in the list and at an appropriate time. Later finds have also borne out the validity of the kings named. One such example is the later discovery of a stone bowl from Khafajah inscribed ‘En-mebaragesi, king of Kish’ who had not previously been known. This has broadly supported the likely validity of the other kings named in the list (Postgate 1977 72).

The lengths of the regnal time spans are more problematic and not altogether resolved. It has been pointed out that many of the large numbers used are key to Mesopotamian mathematics which used a numbering system to base 60 instead of base 10; e.g. numbers such as 1,200, 900, 660 etc. are all multiples variously of 60, 30 and 20. They are found in other texts which set out methods of solving quadratic equations and finding percentages. In fact, the regnal spans for Kish for example are all percentages of the first number, 1,200. The rationale offered for this is that ‘the usual distinction between the realms of the mathematician and the historiographer does not always apply…. A writer working with…lists deficient in numerical data might incorporate numbers learned from basic mathematical problems’. (Young 1991 23). Presumably the same methodology could be applied to the antediluvian regnal spans: much larger numbers being larger multiples or squares etc. of sexagesimal numbers.

The cultural and historical context

There are wider issues beyond the existence or otherwise of particular ‘kings’ and their reign lengths in the various dynasties of the city states. An artefact like the Weld-Blundell Prism prompts a number of questions about its context. Who ‘commissioned’ the Prism, and for what purpose? In a largely preliterate society, who would have had access to its text, when, and how?

In other contexts, it has been pointed out that the interpretation of ancient texts is highly problematic. There is the considerable problem of the actual translation of the text and the meaning of words, ensi, en, and lugal being classic examples (Seton Lloyd 1978 88). Less tangible but possibly more important is our ignorance of the society which produced it. In order to understand a given text it has been suggested that it needs to be approached as a ‘cultural artefact’ to tease out not only its timing, transmission (i.e. audience), social context, role in the culture, and the ‘rules’ of its genre (by comparison with similar contemporary texts). (Parkinson 2002 60) (Loprieno 1996 120). More recent studies along these lines are beginning to unravel the King List.

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Figure 4: The Royal Standard of Ur, ‘war’ side. (British Museum website).


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Figure 5: The Royal Standard of Ur, inset showing royal/priest figure carrying object in procession. (British Museum website).

The kings who ruled the various Sumerian city-states had Amorite origins i.e. they were Amurru peoples who had migrated from the west. The legitimate right to rule, it is argued, had to involve descent from the Amorite peoples. The difficulty of the Isin dynasty kings was that they had no such descent, and needed an alternative justification. They achieved this through the King List which originated the kingship ‘from heaven’ and showed it passing in a divinely ordered progression to themselves, albeit through periodic conflict, but then who has ever seen a reign of kingship which is everlasting? Thus it is argued that this repetitive list “served as a historical charter for the dynasty of Isin”; ” ..its meaning is not revealed by narrative episodes, but through the cumulative effect of the structure of its composition” (Michalowski 1983 243). While the list comprises for the most part real ‘kings’ in an approximate sequence, the detail as such is not the crucial point; and the audience will probably have understood this (or not been in a position to challenge it); the ‘mathematical’ numbers being understood as substitution where precision was not available.

Placed in its context, the meaning of the King List begins to emerge. It probably functioned as a powerful symbol of the dynasty’s legitimacy. On the ‘Standard of Ur’ excavated from the Royal Cemetery, a ‘priestly’ figure in the procession carries an object which he is holding up so it can be seen. (Figures 4 & 5). Could the Weld-Blundell Prism have once been carried in this way by the Isin priesthood as a visual symbol of the legitimacy of the ruler following behind?

As such, the historical value of the King List takes us much further in understanding the culture which produced it: it is much more revealing than a ‘simple’ list of kings.

Chris Allen February 2013.

References and Bibliography

Ashmolean Museum website for images of the Prism and descriptive material http://www.ashmolean.org; http://cdli.ucla.edu/collections Moorey, R., introduction to database of cuneiform texts.
Bienkowski P & Millard A Dictionary of the Ancient Near East British Museum Press 2000.
Burstein, S Berossus 1989 http:// http://www.iranicaonline.org
Jacobsen, T. The Sumerian King List University of Chicago Press 1939 (Facsimile text available at oi.chicago.edu website.)
Loprieno A. Ed Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms E.J Brill Leiden 1996.
Michalowski, P History as Charter: Some Observations on the Sumerian King List Journal of American Oriental Society V103 No.1 Jan-Mar 1983 pp. 237-248.
Moorey, P.R.S Kish Excavations 1923-1933. Clarendon Press Oxford 1978.
Oxford University Oriental Institute electronic text corpus of Sumerian literature 1999 http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac for translation of Sumerian King List; and The Lament for Sumer and Urim.
Parkinson, R Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A dark side to perfection Continuum 2002.
Postgate, N. The First Empires Phaidon 1977.
Roaf, M Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Equinox 1990.
Seton Lloyd The Archaeology of Mesopotamia Thames & Hudson 1978.
Wikipedia Sumerian King List http://en.wikipedia.org.
Young, D.W. The Incredible Regnal Spans of Kish I in the Sumerian King List Journal of Near Eastern Studies V.50 No.1 (Jan 1991) pp. 23-35.

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