Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Cuneiform tablet case impressed with cylinder seal, for cuneiform tablets 1983.135.4a, b: private letter

Middle Bronze Age–Old Assyrian Trading Colony
ca. 20th–19th century B.C.
Anatolia, probably from Kültepe (Karum Kanesh)
Old Assyrian Trading Colony
4.9 x 4.9 x 2.1 cm (1 7/8 x 1 7/8 x 7/8 in.)
Clay-Tablets-Inscribed-Seal Impressions
Credit Line:
Bequest of Edith Aggiman, 1982
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 402
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 clay envelope or case was used to hold two small tablets (MMA 1983.135.4a, b) that comprise a letter from a merchant to his family. A cylinder seal was rolled twice across the reverse of the case. The seal impressions shows a scene in which a worshipper approaches the sun god. Behind this figure, a suppliant goddess and the warrior goddess Ishtar appear. These figures, along with the nude youth with a forelock who stands on a platform and carries a bucket, evoke Mesopotamian motifs, and show how merchants living abroad may have retained their sense of identity through personal possessions. Cuneiform writing on the obverse of the case indicates the recipients of the letter, and identifies the seal impression as that of Ashur-muttabbil, who wrote the missive.
Formerly collection of Edith Aggiman, New York and Paris (until d.1982); acquired by the Museum in 1982, bequest of Edith Aggiman.
Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 113 (Jul. 1,1982 - Jun. 30, 1983), p. 19.

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. 78c, pp. 108-110, pl. 78; seal impression: no. 28, p. 177, pls. 77, 129, 146.
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