Art/ Collection/ Collection/ Art Object

Cuneiform tablet: private letter

Period:
Middle Bronze Age–Old Assyrian Trading Colony
Date:
ca. 20th–19th century B.C.
Geography:
Anatolia, probably from Kültepe (Karum Kanesh)
Culture:
Old Assyrian Trading Colony
Medium:
Clay
Dimensions:
5.3 x 5 x 2 cm (2 1/8 x 2 x 3/4 in.)
Classification:
Clay-Tablets-Inscribed
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Klejman, 1966
Accession Number:
66.245.8
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 406
Kültepe, the ancient city of Kanesh, was part of the network of trading settlements established in central Anatolia by merchants from Ashur (in Assyria in northern Mesopotamia) in the early second millennium B.C. Travelling long distances, and often living separately from their families, these merchants traded vast quantities of goods, primarily tin and textiles, for Anatolian copper and other materials. Although the merchants adopted many aspects of local Anatolian life, they brought with them Mesopotamian tools used to record transactions: cuneiform writing, clay tablets and envelopes, and cylinder seals. Using a simplified version of the elaborate cuneiform writing system, merchants tracked loans as well as business deals and disputes, and sent letters to families and business partners back in Ashur. At Kültepe, thousands of these texts stored in household archives were preserved when fire destroyed the city in ca. 1836 B.C. Because the tablets document the activities of Assyrian merchants, they provide a glimpse into the complex and sophisticated commercial interactions that took place in the Near East during the beginning of the second millennium B.C.

This tablet is one of the many letters that come from Kültepe and attest to the communication of merchants across long distances. In the cuneiform text, which reads left to right, Ilabrat-bani writes to Amur-ili, a transporter from a well-known merchant family, to update him concerning textiles delivered to another trading settlement, to request garments for himself, and to offer advice for travel. Writing covers the entire surface of the tablet, including the sides. Small tablets with crammed writing are common at this time, probably because these messages – along with items for trade – had to be carried across long distances.
Acquired by the Museum in 1966, gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Klejman, New York.
Spar, Ira. 1988. Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume I: Tablets, Cones, and Bricks of the Third and Second Millennia B.C. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 79, pp. 108-110, pl. 78.
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