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Ur III Letters


The vast majority of the letters from the Ur III period were orders from within the state-administration. They are therefore also referred to as letter-orders. These wiki-pages aim at confirming and updating the standard typology of Sumerian letters used since the publication of TCS 1, based on the explosion in the number of available primary documents (see in particular B. Lafont 1990) (click here for a complete list of Ur III letters).

Basic Typology

The Addressee of a Sumerian letter normally precedes the message. The Sender is rarely mentioned. The standard blessing known from the Old Babylonian Akkadian letters, is not found in Sumerian letters. Almost all letters preserving the name of a sender lists the sender before the addressee, but this is likely due to the higher rank of the sender in all of these examples.

We can compare the Sumerian and the Akkadian introductory formula:

Sumerian PN-ra u3-na-a-du11 corresponds to Akkadian ana PN qibî-ma

Sumerian na-ab-be2-a corresponds to Akkadian um-ma PN-ma

The formulaic sentence PN-ra u3-na-a-du11 could be norminalized and used as a word for a physical letter itself (borrowed into Akkadian as unnedukkum). The salutations frequently found in Akkadian letters are never found following the address of a Sumerian letter, rather they may be found, in rare instances, within the message or as part of the exhortation.

The Message is usually an order to transfer commodities from one person to another (using the verb sum “to give”), in fewer cases the message can refer to aspects of the bookkeeping (e.g., zi-ga “book out”), or even the legal system (e.g., …).

Many Sumerian letters end with a brief Exhortation where the sender is urging that the addressee see to the matter of the letter quickly, or to avoid dispute. Such an exhortation might take the form “it is the order of the king” (inim lugal-la-ta), invoking a high authority. Reference to the depositions of the letter may terminate the letter (e.g., dub-ba-ni šu ha-ba-ab-ti, “he shall receive his tablet”).

Only very few Sumerian letters are dated.

Letters were sealed on the envelope, however the sealing party is not necessarily identical with the sender.

In rare instances the order of the entries are inverted, and the address follows the message (see, e.g., BiOr 26, 175 HSM 1800).

Sample Text

A normal Neo-Sumerian letter consists of the name of the recipient(s) (the sender is only rarely mentioned, he was presumably normally identified by his seal on the envelope: this is mostly lost), followed by the content of the letter. Neo-Sumerian letters often end with an exhortation.

Example (TMH NF 1-2, 351):

Obv. 1. e2-a-ba-ni To Ea-bani
2. u3-na-a-du11 speak:
3. 1(diš) er3-ra-ga-ši-ir "One Erra-gašir,
4. dumu nibruki-kam citizen of Nippur,
Rev. 1. ur-sa6-ga to Ur-saga
2. ha-mu-na-sum-mu he shall give him"

The envelope to this text is sealed (see also RIM E3/

Col. 1 1. di-bi2-dsuen Ibbi-Suen,
2. dingir kalam-ma god of the land,
3. lugal kal-ga strong king,
4. lugal uri5ki-ma king of Ur,
5. lugal an ub-da limmu2-ba king of the four corners (of the universe)
Col. 2 1. da-da Dada,
2. ensi2 governor
3. nibruki of Nippur,
4. dumu ur-nabnisaba2* son of Ur-Nisaba,
5. ensi2 governor
6. nibruki-ka of Nippur,
7. ARAD2-zu (is) your slave.

Overview of corpus

"Addressee": sorted and commented list of all addressee's in Ur III letters

"Sender": sorted and commented list of all senders of Ur III letters

"Message": sorted and commented list of all messages in Ur III letters (ordered according to content, and verbal forms)

"Exhortation": sorted and commented list of all exhortations found in Ur III letters, with some comments about parallel expressions in Akkadian letters

(return to Text Typologies)
(return to Letters from Mesopotamia)

  • B. Lafont, “Nouvelles Lettres du Temps des Rois d’Ur” (RA 84, 1990) 165 – 169.
  • P. Michalowski, Letters from Early Mesopotamia (= MC 15, 1993).
  • G. Pettinato, “Aggiunte al Corpus de Lettere Administrative della Terza Dinastia di Ur (OrAnt 7, 1968) 165 – 179.
  • E. Sollberger, The Business and Administrative Correspondence Under the Kings of Ur, (= TCS 1; 1966).
ur_iii_letters.txt · Last modified: 2019/01/07 09:15 by dahl
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