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Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History from Antiquity to the Present Day


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During the three millennia in which cuneiform script was used, scribes copied texts for educational purposes or to preserve existing knowledge. They also created new texts, even reproducing older scripts in some cases. Some of the antique fakes that were produced in the process, such as the cruciform monument to Maništušu, are well known to Assyriologists, but the authenticity of other texts is still being debated, one example being the royal letters of the kings of Ur. In legal texts and royal inscriptions, certain clauses prevented the possible appearance of a false document. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, archaeological excavations in the Near East brought hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets to light and caused people’s interest in Mesopotamian antiquities to grow. This led to the production of modern fakes, too, for obvious economic reasons, and many of these were bought by private collectors and museums around the world. This article deals with a great variety of such cases, including copies, replicas, imitations, transformations and fakes, in a bid to understand the context in which they were made, what motivated their originators and, when possible, how they were treated by scholars and collectors.
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Cécile Michel
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History from
Antiquity to the Present Day
Abstract: During the three millennia in which cuneiform script was used, scribes
copied texts for educational purposes or to preserve existing knowledge. They
also created new texts, even reproducing older scripts in some cases. Some of the
antique fakes that were produced in the process, such as the cruciform monu-
ment to Maništušu, are well known to Assyriologists, but the authenticity of other
texts is still being debated, one example being the royal letters of the kings of Ur.
In legal texts and royal inscriptions, certain clauses prevented the possible ap-
pearance of a false document. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century,
archaeological excavations in the Near East brought hundreds of thousands of
cuneiform tablets to light and caused people’s interest in Mesopotamian antiqui-
ties to grow. This led to the production of modern fakes, too, for obvious econo-
mic reasons, and many of these were bought by private collectors and museums
around the world. This article deals with a great variety of such cases, including
copies, replicas, imitations, transformations and fakes, in a bid to understand the
context in which they were made, what motivated their originators and, when
possible, how they were treated by scholars and collectors.
During the three millennia in which cuneiform script was employed (from the late
fourth millennium BCE to the first century CE), scribes produced a great variety of
texts, mainly on clay, but also on other materials such as stone, metal or wooden
board covered with wax. To date, more than a million cuneiform texts have been
discovered in a large area of the Near East ranging from Anatolia to Iran and from
northern Iraq to Egypt and Bahrain. Cuneiform script, which was created with a
stylus pressed down on fresh clay, consists of combinations of wedges forming
as many signs as necessary. The system is ingenious and very easy to reproduce,
but the scribes had to memorise a large number of different signs. Most of the
collections around the world include some fake pieces of writing,
either antique
1 The word ‘fake’ is used in a generic sense here, referring to a written artefact that appears to
be something it is not.
| Cécile Michel
or modern. While Assyriologists generally have no problem identifying modern
fakes, they have more difficulty when it comes to antique fakes.
Besides writing original texts, Mesopotamian scribes also copied literary
compositions, scientific and official texts for centuries for educational purposes
or to preserve the knowledge these contained. These copies may have been writ-
ten several centuries after the original text. The scribes also created new compo-
sitions using old scripts in some cases. Although some of these texts can be defi-
ned as apocryphal today, such as the text on the Maništušu cruciform monument
composed with the deliberate aim of deceiving the reader, rewriting the past as
the author of the composition intended, others should simply be regarded as wri-
ting exercises for which historians would not have the manual. Their authenticity
is still being debated, as for instance some of the letters of the kings of Ur. Fake
documents may also have been created and used in legal contexts. Certain clau-
ses prevented the possible appearance of a false document, and matters dealt
with in court sometimes involved fake wills. These fakes were obviously created
with economic motives in mind. Whenever such ancient documents are dis-
covered these days, it is difficult for scholars to identify them clearly as fakes, for
reasons that shall be discussed later.
By creating royal inscriptions, Mesopotamian rulers partly intended to leave
their name to posterity. Consequently, these texts often end with maledictions
directed at anyone who might want to alter or erase them. This has not discoura-
ged various victorious rulers from deleting parts of older inscriptions and adding
a few lines of their own to them, however. When they ‘signed’ inscribed items of
booty, they did not create a fake, but they did destroy the integrity of an older
text. The historian has to deal with ancient inscriptions bearing texts from diffe-
rent periods. If it does not respect the original building plans, the restoration of
ancient monuments may cause the same problems of interpretation for future ar-
chaeologists and historians.
The first archaeological excavations conducted in the Near East in the nine-
teenth and early twentieth century brought hundreds of thousands of cuneiform
tablets to light and subsequently caused scholars’ interest in Mesopotamian
antiquities to grow. The increasing popularity of cultural heritages gave birth to
the production of ‘modern fakes’, some of which were actually cast from origi-
nals. This was also the case for non-inscribed artefacts such as terracotta reliefs,
statues and seals. Several private collectors and museums around the world
bought these cuneiform tablets in the belief they were authentic objects. The pro-
duction of forgeries that were then sold on the antique market occurred for obvi-
ous economic reasons. However, the making of fakes may be due to other
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
This article is dedicated to cuneiform fakes and aims to help the reader un-
derstand the context in which they were made, the motives their originators had
and, when possible, their treatment by scholars and collectors. It deals with a
great variety of cases in which the originator’s intention is not always clear – did
the person want to make a copy, a replica, an imitation, a fake or a forgery? It
starts with some ancient examples, discussing their identification as possible
fakes and the reasons for their production. The second part deals with modern
examples, from production techniques to the methods used to detect them. Mod-
ern fakes appeared on the antique market at an early stage; we will follow the
history of their production from the nineteenth century up to today and try to
understand how museums and scholars have dealt with them. The chapter will
end with some written artefacts that may be referred to as ‘useful fakes’, namely
those made by scholars as an experiment.
Ancient fakes
Mark Jones, one of the world specialists on fakes, has pointed out that the ques-
tion ‘what is a fake?’ is not easy to answer.
How can fakes be distinguished from
copies, imitations or replicas? This is a problem of terminology and applies not
only to modern times where making fakes may be seen as a lucrative activity, but
to Antiquity as well, when copying could interfere with the creation of fakes. For
cuneiform scribes trained in the practice of copying, only one step was necessary
in order to add new elements to their copies, compose entire forged texts repro-
ducing archaic signs and thus manipulating history, or simply create legal forge-
The following examples present a variety of situations in which scribes pro-
duced fakes or altered ancient inscriptions, and they also illustrate the reasons
why the fakes were made.
. The status of copies
Copying texts was an essential task for Mesopotamian scribes and apprentices for
many different reasons. Apprentices had to copy long lists of signs and words,
metrological and numerical tables, proverbs, contractual phrases, and religious
2 Jones 1990, 29–30.
3 The word ‘forgery’ includes a legal dimension which deals with the intention to deceive peo-
| Cécile Michel
and literary texts for educational purposes as copying them was the best way to
memorise signs, practice writing and learn Sumerian and mathematics.
also reproduced important texts such as pieces of literary and mythological writ-
ing or royal inscriptions for the sake of preserving them in libraries.
Administrators produced annual accounts texts, compiling the data they
wrote down on daily and monthly accounts contained in huge tablets.
working for private people or individual writers sometimes had to prepare dupli-
cates of contracts so that each party could have its own copy, or make duplicates
of letters if the sender wanted to have a copy or the message was addressed to
several people.
Thus, copying texts was considered a normal and very ordinary activity; it
was part of scribal education, and later on, it was part of a scribe’s daily work,
too, regardless of whether he was employed by the palace or the temple or worked
as a public scribe. In addition to this, copying was the predominant way of learn-
ing and memorising information as well, partly to maintain traditional skills and
partly to perpetuate the past, showing admiration of its achievements. In some
cases, colophons usually written at the end of a text specify its status as a copy,
but many copies did not contain a colophon at all.
To historians nowadays, copies of this kind sometimes represent the only
evidence of the existence of older texts that have long since disappeared. For
example, eighteenth-century scribes copied official inscriptions left by kings of
the twenty-fourth century
on clay tablets, the originals of which have now
been lost. These copies may cause some confusion when it comes to dating a
literary composition or a historical account of an event, however. In a few cases,
such copies may be confused with ancient historical fakes, as is the case with
some royal letters of the kings of Ur III, to which we shall now turn.
. From educational copies to new compositions: the case of
the royal letters
Akkadian scribes of the second and first millennia
both copied and composed
fictional royal letters purportedly written by ancient kings. The royal correspond-
ence of the Sumerian kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (twenty-first century
4 Veldhuis 1997, Proust 2007.
5 Clancier 2009.
6 Molina 2016.
7 Michel 2018.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
presumably includes copies of original letters and compositions created by Old
Babylonian scribes of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The corpus con-
sists of 24 letters, half of them addressed to King Šulgi, which have been recon-
structed from 115 tablets produced by Babylonian scribes as part of school
exercises. Modern scholars disagree on the status of these tablets; some of them
think that the corpus should be considered apocryphal and that it is an Old
Babylonian creation,
while Piotr Michalowski, who published the whole corpus
masterfully, proposed that authentic elements were incorporated in some of
these letters. It is very difficult to distinguish the different levels of redaction
which transformed them into school texts. Michalowski identified seven letters
that are clearly new compositions, but left the possibility open that they may have
been created as replies to real letters. Eight of the remaining letters could derive
from authentic letters.
On the basis of their contexts, these letters can be inter-
preted as school, literary or narrative texts. Those historical texts that Assyriolo-
gists might consider as ancient fakes were certainly genuine in their composers’
Fictitious royal letters that are not part of this peculiar corpus also existed,
and several of them have been attributed to important kings of the third and sec-
ond millennium
, such as Sargon of Akkad, Samsu-iluna of Babylon, and
Kurigalzu, a Kassite king of Babylon.
One of the most famous of these letters was
purportedly written by Gilgameš, a hero familiar from his epic who is supposed
to have ruled the city of Uruk during the twenty-seventh century
. Three copies
of this letter dating to the seventh century
were found in an Assyrian library
at Sultantepe,
while another copy comes from the late Babylonian temple of the
Sun god Šamaš at Sippar south of Mesopotamia. In this letter, Gilgameš makes
enormous demands of tribute to an unknown king threatening his country with
devastating military action:
As soon as you see this letter, make ready and go to the land of Eriš, take with you a caravan
of […] white horses with black stripes, 70 thousand black horses with white stripes,
100 thousand mares whose bodies have markings like wild tree roots, 40 thousand contin-
ually gambolling miniature calves, 50 thousand teams of dappled mules, 50 thousand fine
8 Michalowski 2011.
9 Huber 2001.
10 Michalowski 2011, 219–220.
11 Lowenthal 1990 for other examples.
12 Westenholz 1997, 141–142.
13 Gurney 1957.
14 George 2003, 117–119.
| Cécile Michel
calves with well-turned hooves and horns intact […] and then come yourself. I want to fas-
ten one nugget of red gold, it should weigh 30 minas, to the chest of my friend Enkidu […]
90 thousand talents (2,700 tons) of iron: pure, excellent, choice, select, scrutinized, pre-
cious, first-rate, beaten, flawless, so the smith can make stags.
In an obvious allusion to the epic, Gilgameš needs gold to make a statue of his
friend Enkidu. This fictional composition is part of the traditional scholarly liter-
ature of Babylonia, but such a Babylonian kingship model was also copied by
Assyrian scribal apprentices who included into the text Neo-Assyrian royal fea-
tures. As a result, according to Jennifer Finn, the text, written as a parody of the
Assyrian royal style, tries to undermine kingship ideology. Scholars in important
cultural centres outside the capital were actively engaged in such counter-discur-
sive dialogues about the king and kingship.
If the correspondence of the kings
of Ur is made up of narrative texts that include real historical events, then the
Gilgameš letter appears to be a fabrication by first-millennium scholars who
wanted to parody their kings; it may have been motivated by political resistance
or opposition to their power, for example. Other forms of such political parodies
are represented by the many narrations linked to Sargon, who ruled the first cen-
tralised state, Akkad, during the twenty-fourth century
The Old Assyrian
Sargon Legend, for example, presents the royal hero in various absurd situa-
. The apocryphal cruciform monument to Maništušu
Official cuneiform texts also include examples of manipulation and falsification
of history. One of the most famous inscribed artefacts is the cruciform stone mon-
ument to Maništušu made of black basalt stone and now preserved in the British
This has the shape of a plain cross, and all twelve sides of the monu-
ment are covered with an inscription, which spans a total of 346 lines engraved
in an archaic type of cuneiform writing (Fig. 1). The monument is one of the rare
antique forgeries for which the archaeological context of discovery is known: it
was found in 1881 during excavations conducted by the British Museum at the
site of the ancient city of Sippar and was in the temple of the Sun god Šamaš in a
Neo-Babylonian context (sixth century
) together with two other inscriptions
15 Finn 2017, 138–141.
16 Westenholz 1997.
17 Günbattı 1997; Foster 2005, 71–75.
18 Gelb 1949; Sollberger 1968; Powell 1991; Al-Rawi/George 1994.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History | 
by King Nabonidus.
The inscription purports to be from the time of the Akkadian
king Maništušu, however, whose reign dates to the twenty-third century BCE.
Fig. 1: Cruciform stone monument; 346 lines of archaic writing are inscribed altogether: state-
ments of grants and privileges bestowed on the Šamaš Temple by the Akkadian king
Maništušu (2269 BCE–2255 BCE). London, British Museum (acquired in 1881); ©Trustees of the
British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
19 Woods 2004, 34; Finkel/Fletcher 2016, 218.
| Cécile Michel
The text concerns the renovation of the Šamaš temple and the very substantial
increases in revenue that the temple received from the crown; it contains an in-
ventory of the grants and privileges bestowed on the Šamaš temple by the
Akkadian king. The authenticity of this monument was revoked on the basis of
several philological and historical anachronisms; the measures of capacity, the
names of some of the months, and elements of titles mentioned in the text are
only known from the end of the third millennium. Other things only appeared at
the beginning of the second millennium
, such as the ilkum corvée or the
nadītum priestess of Šamaš at Sippar. The scribe made an effort to compose an
archaic text, but made the mistake of mixing elements from various periods. The
cruciform shape of the monument is unique for ancient Mesopotamia where texts
written on stone or clay came in a great variety of shapes and sizes. We do not
know what inspired it. One suggestion is that it could have been carved in one of
the many kudurru stelae that were kept in the Šamaš temple.
The stone was first thought to be a fraus pia (‘pious fraud’) dating from the
Old Babylonian period and made in order to establish the antiquity of certain
privileges and revenues of the Šamaš temple at Sippar.
But the inscription on
the monument actually date to the Neo-Babylonian period, i.e. the sixth cen-
tury BCE. It is known from several copies found in Sippar, including one from the
library, and the colophon of this particular copy refers to originals from Babylon
and Borsippa (both northern centres).
At some point, the text was added to the
traditional corpus of compositions copied by scholars. Al-Rawi and George sug-
gested that the copy from Babylon could have been that of an authentic historical
inscription supplying the forgers with the historical background they needed and
that later on, several copies of this antique forgery were made that reflected the
organisation of the text in columns. The Maništušu monument, which was found
together with inscribed barrel-shaped cylinders of King Nabonidus, was probably
made by the priests of the Šamaš temple of Sippar for their own purposes, estab-
lishing the great antiquity of privileges and revenues of the temple and reinforc-
ing the temple’s claim to them.
This reconstruction is suggested by another tablet from the Šamtemple
library at Sippar which is also a fake. It is a literary letter purporting to be from
King Samsu-iluna, who ruled Babylonia during the eighteenth century
, and
which is a copy of an exercise tablet from Ur. The letter is addressed to a royal
20 Finkel/Fletcher 2016, 242–245.
21 Sollberger 1968.
22 Breniquet 2018, 34
23 Al-Rawi/George 1994.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
prince and includes a draft of a text dealing with Babylonian cult centres, which
is intended for a monumental inscription, presumably the model used later for
the cruciform monument.
The Maništušu inscription is apocryphal; it constitutes the a posteriori side
of a story and rewrites the past according to present intentions. It represents a
tentative manipulation of history, supplying evidence of historical precedent for
propaganda and economic purposes. Such historical forgeries were created for
ideological, religious and economic reasons, but they ultimately appear as his-
torical texts themselves, historicised by archaeology and history.
. Alteration of ancient texts and monuments
The cruciform monument to Maništušu ends with common maledictions to any-
one who might have wanted to alter the inscription: ‘He who damages this text,
let Enki fill up his canals with slime. Let Ninhursaga stop childbirth in his land!
Let him plant and let Adad smite it and gather all his descendants!’ As kings
wanted to leave their name to posterity, especially when it was linked to palaces
and temples they had built, many of the royal inscriptions found in Near Eastern
sites include maledictions of this kind, following benedictions to any future king
who would restore their masterpiece. Tukultī-Ninurta I, ruler of Assyria during
the thirteenth century
, for example, celebrated his victorious military cam-
paigns and the building of his new palace in one of his stone inscriptions. The
text ends as follows:
In the future may a later prince, when that palace becomes old and dilapidated, restore it.
May he anoint with oil my monumental inscription, make sacrifices, (and) return (it) to its
place. (Then) the gods Aššur and Adad will listen to his prayers. He who erases my inscribed
name and writes his (own) name; (who) discards my monumental inscription and puts (it)
in another place where there is no visibility; who conceives of and does anything injurious;
or (who) prevents the gods who dwell in the city Aššur from entering my palace during the
festivals (and) summons (them) to another palace; (who) abandons that palace and
neglects it: May the gods Aššur and Adad, the gods of heaven (and) the underworld, extin-
guish his sovereignty; may they destroy his name (and) his seed from the land; may a king
who is his enemy take away his throne (and) under his very eyes rule his land. May the
goddess Ištar, my mistress who designated my turn for sovereignty, bring about the defeat
24 Al-Rawi/George 1994.
25 Grayson 1987; RIMA 1 A.0.78.5.
| Cécile Michel
of his land; may he not stand firm before his enemies; may she hand him over to his
By including this set of blessings for those who would respect and restore the
inscription in the future and adding curses for those who would alter it, the king
sought above all to make his name and achievements known to his distant suc-
cessors. The aim of such maledictions was also to prevent any alteration or trans-
formation of the stone inscription and consequently any alteration of the
historical facts – to prevent a further king from claiming to have achieved what
his predecessor had done, for example, and thus abuse the truth for his own ends.
Such curses did not prevent the Elamites from altering Akkadian and
Babylonian monuments, however. During the twelfth century
, the Elamite
king Šutruk-Nahhunte brought back a huge amount of loot from his victorious
campaign in Babylonia, including the Hammurabi Code. He kept all the trophies
in his capital, Susa, in present-day Iran, which was excavated by French archae-
ologists in 1900. A scribe from Sippar who copied the prologue of the Code in the
said in the colophon of his tablet that he had made his copy
directly from the stele which was still on display at Susa.
Another trophy was
the Stele of Naram-Sîn, a king of Akkad during the twenty-third century, which
tells of the king’s victory over the Lullubi people from the Central Zagros moun-
tains. The stele, which is now on display at the Louvre Museum,
shows the king
leading his army over the steep slopes of the enemy’s territory – a symbol of a
king ascending to be equal to the gods. It was carved in pink limestone. In the
primitive cuneiform inscription glorifying Naram-Sîn, the Elamite king ordered a
text to be carved dedicated to his own glory, in which it was indicated that he had
taken the stele with him after looting the city of Sippar. The Elamite king also
erased seven columns of the Hammurabi Code stele with the same intent, but did
not have anything new inscribed on it. In doing so, he did not create a fake with
the intention of deceiving people, but misappropriated a trophy and then ‘signed’
his booty, leaving his own mark on it.
In a sense, Saddam Hussein did something very similar when he had his own
name inscribed on a brick that was then inserted in the reconstructed walls of the
processional street in Babylon, reading: ‘Restoration of the palace of King
Nebuchadnezzar during the reign of the glorious Saddam Hussein’ (Fig. 2b). In
this political act, he imitated the content of the stamped bricks left by
26 Fadhil 1998.
27 <> (accessed on 10 Septem-
ber 2019).
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
Nebuchadnezzar with his name in the walls which he ordered the construction
(Fig. 2a). As the Elamite king, he was searching for personal glorification by rais-
ing himself to the level of an illustrious predecessor. The ‘restoration work’ that
Saddam Hussein ordered to be done was nothing other than a (re)construction of
the past.
Fig. 2a: Stamped mud-brick bearing the name
of Nebuchadnezzar; © Osama Shukir
Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) / CC BY-SA,
Fig. 2b: Stamped brick on a processional
street wall in Babylon bearing the name of
Saddam Hussein; © Osama Shukir
Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) / CC BY-SA,
. Neo-Babylonian kings’ interest in archaeology and history
It is no surprise that many historical fakes such as Maništušu’s cruciform monu-
ment date to the Neo-Babylonian period, a time when kings developed a special
interest in the past, even making archaeological investigations, for example, and
their scribes looked for the origin of cuneiform signs, deciphering ancient texts
and producing antique forgeries.
King Nabonidus (556–539
), for instance,
who wished to reactivate the religious tradition of the middle of the third millen-
began restoration work in the cloister of the priestesses of the Moon God
at Ur and found ancient inscriptions about Enanedu, daughter of the king of
Larsa and a priestess in the second half of the nineteenth century
his scribes to decipher these 1,500-year-old texts, the king then decided to follow
28 Glassner 1993, 31; Schnapp 1993; Michel 2011; Charpin 2018.
29 Charpin 1986, 192–206; Frayne 1990, 225–226, 257, 299–301.
| Cécile Michel
the religious acts of his distant predecessor and consecrated his own daughter as
the Moon God.
Confirming the great antiquity of some historical facts and citing
them as an example, he thus legitimised his actions.
This interest in archaeology and history came with a passion for antiquities.
Some kings set up museums containing a large number of ancient inscriptions
and their scribes copied these ancient texts to ensure their transmission from gen-
eration to generation. A Neo-Babylonian scholar thus recorded the imprint of a
lapidary inscription of Šar-kali-šarrī, king of Akkad at the end of the twenty-third
, and another copied an inscription by the same king, applying him-
self to reproducing the archaic signs from that time; he probably copied the
ancient text as it stood, just adding a colophon revealing that the original was a
stone foundation tablet.
Historical fakes such as ‘royal’ letters and inscriptions also flourished among
the copies of genuine antique texts. Another text genre that could be defined as
‘fake’ even though its content may be close to reality is what we refer to as fic-
tional autobiography or pseudo-autobiography – a biography allegedly written
by the person whose life is being recounted.
The text is composed in the first
person, but it is actually written by another individual who adds real or fictitious
anecdotes to it. The most well-known fictional autobiography is inscribed on a
stela and spans approximately 150 lines. It starts as follows: ‘I am Adad-guppi,
mother of Nabonidus’.
Revering his mother and presumably fascinated by her long life, Nabonidus,
in a very personal process, ordered this pseudo-autobiography of Adad-guppi’s
life (c. 648–544) to be written. The text is completed by an account of her death
at the venerable age of 104 and a description of the burial ceremony, written in
the third person. It ends with exhortations to worship the gods.
. Producing forgeries for economic reasons
As for Maništušu’s cruciform monument, the production of forgeries may have
been motivated by the wish to change the truth: it resulted in the concretisation
of a lie with the aim of deceiving the reader. The deliberate construction of a for-
gery of this kind was often driven by economic factors. In the case of Maništušu’s
30 Beaulieu 1989, 127–131.
31 Frayne 1993, 191–194; Beaulieu 2013.
32 Longman III 1991.
33 Longman III 1991, 97–102.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History | 
monument, the Babylonian priests of the Šamaš temple at Sippar wanted to
secure important economic privileges. There are many attestations of suspected
forgeries in the cuneiform sources, which means that these are likely to have
existed, as shown by the following examples dating to the first centuries of the
second millennium BCE.
During the nineteenth century BCE, Assyrian merchants established long-dis-
tance exchanges with Central Anatolia and settled there. The archives found at
Kültepe – the ancient city of Kaneš – include many legal texts with judicial rec-
ords and testimonies by witnesses, suggesting that it was extremely important to
establish facts and provide proof of them because of the complexity of trade
between Aššur and Anatolia.
Written documents were important to prevent
false testimonies. They were only useful if they could be proven to be genuine.
Legal texts were written down to establish a person’s right to something or their
legal situation. Various types of contracts were kept by these Assyrian merchants,
such as loan and purchase agreements, but there were also witnessed deposi-
tions with sworn testimonies, records of private arbitrations, verdicts and such-
like. These documents were entrusted to the person who could be prejudiced (the
creditor, buyer, etc.) in order to protect them. In case of dispute, such legal texts
were used as proof of the truth of a claim.
To prevent forgery, the legal clay tablet was enclosed in a clay envelope
called a harāmum. This itself was a legal act. The contract was actually written
again or summarised on the envelope before this was done, and parties and wit-
nesses had to roll their personal cylinder seal on each side of the envelope, thus
giving its legal value to the document.
Once the envelope was broken, the docu-
ment was no longer valid. A loan contract, for example, was sealed by the debtor
and kept by the creditor. When the debt was paid, the creditor gave the document
back to the debtor. The latter could cancel it by breaking the envelope containing
the imprints of the seals and could then keep it in his archives as a personal rec-
ord. If the loan contract could not be returned to the debtor upon payment of the
debt, the creditor would then seal a receipt and give it to the debtor instead. A
receipt of this kind could include the following clause: ‘any tablet with the
seal/concerning PN’s debt that may turn up is false (sar)’, as in the following
34 Hertel 2013, 138–143.
35 Michel 2020.
36 Michel 1995, 24–25, text TC 3, 264a: 2–10, 12–18, cited from n. 43.
| Cécile Michel
Aššur-nīšu (declared) the following to Šu-Bēlum: ‘With regard to your money, with regard
to the money I owe you, you have now been satisfied. Give me my loan tablets so I can
destroy them!’ Šu-Bēlum replied as follows: ‘Your tablet has already been destroyed! [...]
any tablet that would turn up in my house about Aššur-nīšu’s debt as to how interest would
accrue to him is false.’
Such declarations naturally suggest that fakes were regularly used by merchants
to make more money. With a similar logic, purchased contracts were normally
given to the buyer so that he could prove his acquisition and its payment; a docu-
ment of this type was regarded as proof of ownership, in other words. In a number
of houses excavated in South Mesopotamia and Iran, Old Babylonian archives
(from the first centuries of the second millennium
) were found that contained
several purchase contracts relating to the respective buildings: all the tablets
from the previous successive transactions had been passed on to the last owner
of the house. An Old Babylonian judicial text from Susa concerns a dispute about
the status of one such purchase contract: a house was sold by a man, but his son
and grandchildren took legal action against the son of the buyer, claiming that
the house was not sold and that the document he had presented was fake. The
son of the buyer had to swear before the goddess Ištar to confirm the validity of
his deed.
The production of forgeries could also concern family law. This is suggested
by a trial linked to an inheritance which took place in the late nineteenth or early
eighteenth century
in the city of Sippar: a priestess received all the property
that had belonged to the deceased priestess who had adopted her. Two men, pre-
sumably members of her family, accused her of having written a fake will, claim-
ing the following: ‘Amat-Šamaš absolutely did not give you a house and she did
not write a tablet for you. When she died, you wrote the tablet (yourself)’. They
thus suggested that she was able to write a legal document and had made a fake
will in order to inherit her adoptive mother’s property. However, witnesses con-
firmed that Amat-Šamaš had, indeed, given the house to the priestess while she
was still alive and that she had written the will herself as well; she was a literate
All these suspicions about the existence of fake tablets most likely reflect
reality and suggest that the practice of making forgeries for economic gain was
common practice. The protection of a legal document by a clay envelope bearing
the imprint of the seals of the parties and witnesses ensured that the document
was authentic.
37 Scheil 1933, no. 393.
38 Pinches 1896, pl. 47; Lion 2018.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
Modern fakes
The production of antique fakes stopped very naturally with the disappearance
of cuneiform at the beginning of our era. Fake objects and fake translations reap-
peared with the rediscovery of the ancient script, even before its decipherment.
Once the first official excavations began in Iraq in the mid-nineteenth century
and the cuneiform writing that was found was deciphered, collectors started to
take an increasing interest in Mesopotamian antiquities, resulting in a large num-
ber of fakes in order to meet the demand for such items. The techniques employed
in order to produce fakes improved, and more and more fakes began to be bought
– by private collectors and public museums alike.
As in Antiquity, there are other motives for making fakes than the purely eco-
nomic ones that drove antique sellers: they may be intended for scientific exper-
iments, for didactic purposes, to honour a colleague, to promote a discipline or
even to express a political opinion, for instance. These various reasons for mak-
ing fakes will now be examined more closely, starting with the most obvious one:
the economic aspect.
. Before the decipherment of cuneiform: the first
‘imaginative translations’ and fakes
The last cuneiform clay tablets to be discovered are written in Akkadian and
cuneiform script and date to the first century
. Cuneiform disappeared after this
date and the history of Mesopotamia slowly sank into oblivion. It took more than
a millennium to rediscover its history.
The first expedition to visit Mesopotamia
and Iran was Danish and dates back to the early 1760s. The members of the expe-
dition included Carsten Niebuhr, a mathematician and biologist who copied
some of the cuneiform inscriptions engraved on monuments at Persepolis in
In 1786, the Michaux Stone (or stele) was one of the very first inscribed monu-
ments brought back to Europe. It is now kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de
France in Paris (Fig. 3).
39 Faivre 2009.
40 Larsen 1996: 7.
41 Lion/Michel 2016: 17.
| Cécile Michel
Fig. 3: The Michaux Stone (kudurru), a genuine object which inspired imaginative translations;
© Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Médailles / Public domain,
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
The inscription on it interested and intrigued scholars who tried to decipher it.
Anton August Heinrich Lichtenstein deserves a medal for the most eccentric
translation: wishing to be recognised as the decipherer of cuneiform scripts, his
translation is an obvious act of mystification. His arguments and translation are
detailed and commented on by S. de Sacy in a letter published in 1802.
Lichtenstein imagined that the cuneiform characters were an early variant of
Kufic, an old calligraphic form of Arabic script, and that it was written in
Chaldean or Aramaic. He supposed that there was an old Kufic letter hidden in
each combination of wedges, and thus he had to take away several useless
wedges to find the letter he was looking for; the other wedges were added arbi-
trarily without following any rule. As a result, his translation is a matter of pure
fantasy. He thought that the inscription described a rite during which mourning
women were going to the temple to be comforted by priests. Here is an extract of
what Lichtenstein translated after specifying his approach: ‘I will give a faithful,
albeit rather free, translation of this monument, which I have deciphered in its
The priest of the temple of the god of death addresses women dressed in mourning clothes,
and gathering on the day of the commemoration of all the weapons, near the tombs of their
deceased relatives, to engage in the manifestation of their pain […] ‘You must not forget that
weakness is the lot of women. Too often, you are blind to your own faults. We solemnly
recommend you morals taught by our belief, so that our orders are obeyed. Your happiness
is guaranteed, we are your guarantors, provided that you bring the fruit of your hope to
maturity when we impose the serious obligation on you.’
The reality was much more prosaic: the text concerns a dowry consisting of land
offered by a father to his daughter, and it dates to the eleventh century
. Inter-
estingly, Lichtenstein anticipated the disbelief of his contemporaries regarding
his discovery:
I expect that more than one Orientalist scholar will revoke my discovery, or perhaps seek to
demonstrate its falsity, precisely because it would seem to reproach them a little harshly for
not having noticed this striking resemblance, and which is obvious between the main fea-
tures that form the letters of the wedge-shaped writing and the elements of the Kufic or
Estrangelo [Syriac] alphabet, and for having ignored this similarity because of their preju-
dices (my translation).
42 de Sacy 1802.
43 Lichtenstein 1802 and 1803, 111–116 (Latin); French translation by De Sacy 1802.
44 Lichtenstein 1803, 111–134 (Latin), reported by De Sacy 1802.
| Cécile Michel
De Sacy could easily demonstrate the flaws in the reasoning of this false decoder.
While regretting that Lichtenstein only provided a translation of the text and no
transliteration, he noted the following weaknesses in his argumentation:
Lichtenstein read the cuneiform text from right to left. However, it must be
read from left to right.
He deleted parts of the wedges forming each sign, doing so arbitrarily and
without any explanation.
He started the decipherment with the more complex cuneiform version of tri-
lingual inscriptions, even though Carsten Niebuhr had already suggested
that only the simplest one might be an alphabet.
The translation he provided is quite far from the Oriental genre. Moreover, he
did not discuss the mythological symbols and iconography of the stele.
The following part of de Sacy’s letter concerns the work presented by Georg
Friedrich Grotefend, a young German Latinist who claimed to understand fifteen
of the forty cuneiform signs of the Old Persian cuneiform inscription. Although
he had some reservations about details in his demonstration, de Sacy was gener-
ally convinced by it; indeed, Grotefend actually laid the foundation for decipher-
ing the Old Persian alphabetic cuneiform script.
It may not be pure coincidence that the very first modern cuneiform fakes
that are attested date more or less to the same period, illustrating the growing
interest in this mysterious writing among scholars. The fakes belonged to
Claudius James Rich (1786–1821), a pioneer archaeologist and collector of
Mesopotamian antiquities, and British Consul in Baghdad between 1808 and
He built up his collection before anyone was able to read cuneiform. It
included cuneiform tablets and a moulded cylinder belonging to
Nebuchadnezzar II, presumably made in Iraq with local clay. Perhaps he already
realised that some of his written artefacts were forgeries because when his secre-
tary, Carl Bellino, prepared some beautiful drawings of the items in the collec-
tion, the fakes were not included in the publication.
Some of the cuneiform
tablets were simply the result of real tablets being pressed onto fresh clay, which
explains why the signs do not appear in a negative form as one would expect, but
as a positive imprint (Fig. 4). The collection was acquired by the British Museum
and is still on display there today. The creation of cuneiform fakes is probably
45 De Sacy 1802.
46 Joannès/Tolini 2009.
47 Jones 1990, 165, no. 169; Larsen 1996, 19–22.
48 Barnett 1974; Walker 1987: 59–60; Finkel 1996: 196, n. 13.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History | 
linked to scholars’ growing interest in this mysterious writing in the general con-
text of a new fascination about antiquities serving as witnesses of the past.
Fig. 4: A fake tablet in a positive imprint, part of the collection of Claudius Rich, British
Museum. Jones 1990, no. 169b.
. After the decipherment of cuneiform: new techniques to
produce fakes in large quantities
During the nineteenth century, the production of fakes exploded as collecting
relics of the past became a general interest.
This collecting mania encouraged
the forgers to meet the demand for cuneiform artefacts by producing even more
49 Jones 1990, 161–162.
| Cécile Michel
forgeries. Large quantities of cuneiform tablets were shipped to Europe and North
America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, genuine and forged
ones being mixed together.
This increasing interest in antiquities was concomitant to the decipherment
of cuneiform. Indeed, Akkadian cuneiform was declared deciphered on 27 May
1857. The Royal Asiatic Society arranged a test involving four scholars who
claimed they understood the script and language. One of these was Jules Oppert,
a Jewish scholar born in Hamburg who left Germany for France in order to get an
academic position there.
In his correspondence, which is now preserved in the
library of the French Academy, there is an answer he sent to his colleague at the
Academy, George Maspero, a well-known Egyptologist, including his report re-
garding a cuneiform text found in Egypt. In his letter to Maspero dated 8 January
1888, Oppert wrote the following:
My suspicions had arisen above all because of the resemblance of the tablet you sent with
the famous so-called Cappadocian tablets, all of which come from Caesarea and which I
believe are all forgeries; at least [I have] up to now. There are fake antiques workshops all
over the Orient, which have to be paid a higher price because they are charging the labour
force for it. The characters are a mixture of Assyrian and Babylonian styles [...]. I am inclined
to think they are authentic (for now).
The ‘Cappadocian tablets’ mentioned by Oppert come from Kaneš, the ancient
site at Kültepe; they belonged to merchants and date to the beginning of the sec-
ond millennium
(see section 1.6). These tablets are written in the Old Assyrian
dialect, but they originated from Central Anatolia. This discovery far from the city
of Aššur led Oppert to be sceptical about their authenticity, just like the tablets
found in Egypt. The tablet sent by Maspero came from El-Amarna (ancient
Akethaton) in Egypt and was also confirmed as being genuine. It dates to the
middle of the second millennium
as the pharaoh had to use cuneiform and
50 Walker 1987.
51 Lion/Michel 2009.
52 Letter no. 164: ‘Mes soupçons s’étaient surtout éveillés par la ressemblance de la tablette
envoyée par vous avec les fameuses tablettes dites cappadociennes qui proviennent toutes de
Césarée et que je crois toutes fabriquées ; du moins jusqu’à présent. Il existe dans tout l’Orient
des ateliers de fausses antiquités qu’il faut payer plus cher, parce qu’ils en font payer la
main‑d’œuvre. Les caractères sont un mélange de styles assyrien et babylonien […] J’incline (à
présent) vers l’authenticité’. I wish to thank Mireille Pastoureau, the former director of the
library, who allowed me to work on Jules Oppert’s correspondence together with my colleague
Brigitte Lion. This letter has already been cited before in Kulakoğlu/Michel 2015.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
Akkadian in order to correspond with all the kings of the Near East since they
were the diplomatic language and script of the time.
Fig. 5a: A fake handwritten tablet with
diagonal lines; the Monserrat Museum
(Márquez Rowe 2006, no. 2); © Photo CDLI,
P432801, <
Fig. 5b: A fake Old Assyrian moulded tablet
with erased edges; the Vorderasiatische
Museum Berlin, VAT 13460 (Michel 2003, 32);
© Photo CDLI, P358324, <https://cdli.ucla.
The letter written by Jules Oppert confirms the active manufacture of forged
cuneiform tablets in the late nineteenth century
. In fact, this massive produc-
tion of cuneiform fakes went on for several decades, at least up to the 1930s.
Oppert’s answer to Maspero also shows the difficulty that specialists face when
they have to produce an expert report on an artefact. The collections of Old
Assyrian tablets in museums and private hands in Europe and North America
| Cécile Michel
were built up during this period before the official excavations of the site at
Kültepe were begun in 1948. Eighty per cent of the Old Assyrians tablets now in
the Louvre were acquired and published at this time.
A set of ten tablets that the Louvre Museum bought off a private collector in
1968 contains a letter with a text found in fifteen other tablets around the world.
Even though merchants often made copies of some of their texts, such a high
number of duplicates is unusual and intriguing. A closer look at their layout con-
vinced me that there were only two copies that were genuine and all the other
tablets were forged. The line breaks are the same as well as the layout of the text
on both sides of the tablets.
The forged copies were clearly produced using a
mould created from an original. It is quite easy to make a mould for each side of
a tablet (i.e. the obverse and reverse) and then glue the two halves together while
the clay is still fresh. This technique has an advantage over the hand-made pro-
duction of tablets today in that the object produced has all the characteristics of
a real tablet, exactly reproducing the text as it is written on each side of an
antique cuneiform tablet (compare Fig. 5a and b). However, the forger usually
had some trouble with the edges at the join between the two half-moulds, which
were inscribed most of the time in original tablets. Either he left them blank or he
wrote wedges on them, albeit randomly and sometimes even upside down (an
example can be seen in Fig. 5b). The Old Assyrian tablets that have been un-
earthed so far are plentiful – there are about 23,000 of them in all – and many
more are yet to be found. It must have been easy for forgers in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century
to sell such well-made fakes together with genuine
The suggested technique used to produce these fakes was confirmed in May
2014 with the discovery of a lead object during a survey of a field near the village
of Büyükhırka on the road from Çorum to Yozgat in Turkey (in the region of
Bayındır) (see Fig. 6).
53 Michel 2003, 13–19. The Louvre Museum has 720 Old Assyrian tablets and envelopes. A group
of ten tablets was bought in 1968 and a group of 137 tablets was given to the museum in 1982 by
the Assyriologist Marguerite Rutten.
54 Michel 1987, 9–13.
55 Such fake Old Assyrian tablets are now preserved in a dozen collections around the world,
but there is a concentration in the collection preserved in Adana Museum where they amount to
roughly a quarter of the twenty-five tablets. Knowing more about the history of the collection
could possibly help researchers find out who the forgers were. There is also a group of several
Old Assyrian fakes (and other fakes as well) in the Böhl Collection in Leiden; these were acquired
from the estate of Felix Ernst Peiser in 1899 (Böhl 1932).
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
Fig. 6: A lead mould from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century
(on the right) and its
imprint (on the left). Photo courtesy of Ilknur Taş.
The heavy object was a broken lead mould which was clearly used to make one
side of an Old Assyrian clay tablet;
this half-mould is now kept at Çorum
Museum. Physical analyses were made to determine the age of the object. The
ensuing report defined it as ‘ancient’, but did not say exactly how ancient it was.
The most likely hypothesis is that the artefact actually dates to the end of the
Ottoman Empire, presumably the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The
text on this half-mould does not match the one on the tablet which has so many
fake duplicates, so several other moulds of original tablets must have been pre-
pared. It is quite unique to have found the tool which was used to produce such
fakes more than a century ago.
. Fakes in museums and private collections
The Old Assyrian period was not the only one affected by the widespread produc-
tion of fakes. Presumably around the same time, tablets from the Neo-Babylonian
56 Taş/İpek 2015.
| Cécile Michel
period (the second half of the first millennium
) were produced in large quan-
tities by the same technique, moulding.
In 1970, Erle Leichty from Philadelphia noticed that groups of tablets pre-
served in the University Museum of Pennsylvania, the Chicago Oriental Institute,
the Yale Babylonian Collection and the Metropolitan Museum in New York were
actually modern fakes. These tablets, often in fragmentary pieces, had been
bought at the shop of a Baghdad dealer called Joseph Shemtob between 1888 and
1910. They were duplicates and were also duplicates of originals preserved at the
British Museum.
On taking a close look at these fakes, Leichty discovered that
the obverse and reverse of some of them were duplicates of two different texts,
which were eventually dated to the eras of two different kings: the forger had
glued two halves together both corresponding to the reverse faces of tablets, both
of which included a date.
Moreover, many of the fragments turned from obverse
to reverse around a vertical axis, like a modern book, rather than around a hori-
zontal axis, as cuneiform tablets usually do. Just like the Old Assyrian samples,
these fakes had been cast in two halves and joined together later, the joint being
visible on the edges. The forger(s) made moulds of different tablets that were gen-
uine, casting the obverse and the reverse separately, then pressed them together
while the clay was still soft. In some cases, they did not make much of an effort
to match the obverse and reverse properly. Fakes of this kind look authentic at
first glance precisely because they are casts of originals. It is likely that Joseph
Shemtob bought them from the faker(s) sometime before the middle of the 1880s.
He also sold hundreds of authentic antiquities to North American collectors and
museums. According to Christopher Walker, a former curator at the British
Museum in London, many of Shemtob’s fakes may have been made by the Ready
brothers, who were employed by the British Museum to prepare official copies
and thus had access to originals.
Since these fakes were produced from very
common administrative tablets dating to the Neo-Babylonian period, it was easy
to sell them. It is clear that the seller made a good profit by selling them as there
was a market for such forged artefacts.
The same production technique was also used for Ur III tablets dating to the
twenty-first century
, a period represented by hundreds of thousands of
administrative texts. Presumably, no less than fifty-seven forged Ur III tablets
purportedly from the city of Girsu south of Mesopotamia were produced by a
57 Leichty 1970.
58 See also Spar/von Dassow 2000, comments on text no. 129.
59 Walker 1987, 59–60.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
single forger; these are now preserved in the British Museum and the University
Museum of Pennsylvania.
It is not surprising that the Ur III, Old Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods
inspired counterfeiters the most. Given the abundance of texts from these three
eras, it was easy for forgers to find samples to reproduce and then to include
groups of fakes in the many lots of tablets from these periods on sale during the
late nineteenth and early twentieth century
. According to Jones, the nine-
teenth century was a golden age for forgers and dishonest dealers.
The production of fakes of Mesopotamian antiquities was so widespread that
it inspired the nineteenth-century Assyriologist Joachim Menant to write a book
about the subject.
However, all the examples that he mentions were made of
stone, a type of production that required completely different techniques to be
used. It seems that fake cuneiform artefacts carved in stone were also produced
in great quantities by counterfeiters who were very imaginative, and highly
skilled as well in some instances, even creating new types of inscribed monu-
Cylinder seals carved in semi-precious stones with miniature scenes and
sometimes a short cuneiform inscription were also produced in large quantities,
presumably because they were highly valued on the antique market (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: A fake inscribed cylinder seal made of stone; the Walter Art Museum, Baltimore;
© Photo CDLI P272884, <>.
60 Pomponio 2012; Firth 2015.
61 Jones 1990, 161.
62 Menant 1888.
63 Márquez Rowe 2006, no. 15.
| Cécile Michel
Although bigger in size, statues copying the work of artists from the second half
of the third millennium
were also produced by counterfeiters – several
statues of Gudea and members of his family were made, for example. Some of
these statues were obviously the work of a skilled artist and were carved in a very
fine and pretty stone such as translucent green diorite, which was used to
produce the Gudea M statue supposedly found at Tello, the ancient Sumerian city
of Girsu excavated by a French team from 1877 onwards. It was bought on the
market in 1926 and is now kept at the Detroit Museum. This artefact, which has
an inscription on its back and on a shoulder, has been the subject of much debate
among art historians and philologists. In a recent study, Eva Braun-Holzinger
showed that the statue itself may be a fake even if the text is genuine as
philologists claim.
The counterfeiter mixed up characteristics of statues of
Gudea and his son Ur-Ningirsu, then carved an original text copied from another
ancient artefact on its back.
. Modern replicas and modern originals
Most of these modern fakes were made with an economic motive: the temptation
to earn money. The production of modern replicas and modern originals may be
for other purposes, however. Since the decipherment of cuneiform, a few
Assyriologists have created replicas of ancient written artefacts or produced new
items of their own in ancient script (and some of them still do so; see Fig. 8); their
motives were (and are) scientific, sharing knowledge of an ancient culture and
enhancing their academic discipline.
From a scientific perspective, the aim of reproducing the scribes’ strokes and
making wedges in fresh clay is to understand what techniques are linked with
producing cuneiform script and to discover differences in texts produced by dif-
ferent scribes in order to identify scribes’ hands. This academic research also in-
cludes the shaping of clay tablets, the making of envelopes (Fig. 8), the printing
of seals and other such related activities.
64 Braun-Holzinger 2018.
65 Fo r an example, see the research carried out in Hamburg in the cluster of excellence enti-
tled ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ (project RFA09): <https://www.written-artefacts.uni-> (accessed on 10 October 2019).
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
Four modern replicas. A clay envelope and its tablet enclosed inside (upper left corner),
and tablets produced by the author in experiments; © Cécile Michel.
Secondly, organising scribal schools that are open to a wide range of people helps
scholars share their knowledge of cultural history and in some cases prevent
ignorance from leading to the destruction of the cultural heritage of humanity.
Educational activities may also be channelled at the elite and rulers by creating
honorary gifts for them containing original or specially written texts. In doing
this, Assyriologists also show how much they value their own discipline, which
66 <>
(accessed 5 June 2018).
 | Cécile Michel
is only represented by a small number of specialists worldwide, and how they are
able to gain the attention of rulers and managers alike.
Modern artefacts of this kind may be referred to as ‘modern replicas’ and
‘modern originals’, and they are not produced with the intention of deceiving
. Publication of a ‘modern original’ to honour a scholar
Some scholars used to prepare tablets that were modern originals for friends and
colleagues, celebrating a special event such as a marriage, birthday, the birth of
a child, a scientific event or an anniversary, for example.
Some of the clay tab-
lets made by modern Assyriologists may be very accurate, regardless of whether
an existing text has been created or a brand new one, but once again, tablets like
these are not produced in order to deceive anyone on purpose, even though this
might well happen to non-specialists unfamiliar with the field.
The clay cuneiform tablets made by Assyriologists, whatever their motives,
usually end in personalities’ or colleagues’ homes or are used as experimental or
educational tools. Once they are recognised as modern artefacts, they usually
have no scientific value to posterity, unlike genuine tablets, which are studied,
published and commented on by scholars. However, at least one such modern
tablet ended up in a book containing the publication of Neo-Babylonian tablets
preserved in the Yale Babylonian Collection at New Haven. In volume XXI of the
Yale Oriental Series (YOS), published in 2011, the authors discretely inserted a
tablet in the category of ‘letters’ – no. 43, which they described in their catalogue
as ‘greetings in extremely late Babylonian’.
A copy of the text was included
among the other copies.
As for the other tablets, the dimensions are provided as well as the names of
the sender and addressee, which are also listed in the index of proper names
together with another name mentioned in the text. These names sound extremely
modern compared to those found in the other tablets. The sender is ‘Alberti’, a
67 Several state presidents, queens, European officials, local governors, mayors and university
presidents have received a cuneiform clay tablet bearing their name, title, the date or a short
original text in Akkadian. Ideally, when I do so, I try to enclose a euro cent in the clay so that
future archaeologists will be able to date the tablet, a ‘modern original’.
68 The organisers of the Third Kültepe International Meeting which took place at Kültepe at the
beginning of August 2019 received very well-made tablets with an original Old Assyrian text from
a friend and colleague, formerly the curator of a large museum cuneiform collection.
69 Frahm/Jursa 2011, 37.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History | 
descendant of ‘Kalaya’, with a note in brackets saying that it corresponds to
Albert Clay. The tablet is, indeed, referred to as the ‘Clay tablet’, which could also
be understood as a pun on the medium of the manuscript.
Albert T. Clay (1866–1925) was one of the most famous American
Assyriologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He studied in
Philadelphia with H. Hilprecht and received his PhD in Assyriology in 1894 on
business texts from Nippur from the Achaemenid period.
He was a lecturer in
Hebrew and assistant curator of Babylonian and Semitic antiquities before
becoming professor of Semitic philology and archaeology in 1909. In 1910 he was
offered a professorship in Assyriology at Yale, which was specially created for
him, and the following year he became the curator of the new Yale Babylonian
Collection. In the years that followed, he bought large groups of tablets, setting
up the biggest collection of cuneiform texts in America, and published thirteen
volumes with copies of cuneiform, many of these on Babylonian tablets from the
first millennium BCE. His excellent knowledge of cuneiform written artefacts and
his renowned competence regarding cuneiform copies explain the excellent for-
mal quality of his ‘forged’ letter, which he gave to a couple of good friends.
The addressees are Harles, a descendant of Turria, and Miryam, a descendant
of Rihardis, and thus a couple. In the index, footnotes referring to each other pro-
vide the identity of these persons: Charles Cutler Torrey (1863–1956), a biblical
scholar and Semitist, chairman of the Yale Department of Semitic and Biblical
Languages, Literature and History in the graduate school and curator of the uni-
versity coin collection, and Marian Edwards Richards, whom he married in 1911.
This cuneiform letter was presumably made and given to them on the occasion of
their marriage.
By including this modern original tablet in their publication of Neo-
Babylonian tablets preserved in the Yale Babylonian Collection, the authors of
the volume paid tribute to a great Assyriologist from the early years of the disci-
. Fakes and politics: the scientific expression of a political
Humour and parody were not the prerogative of Mesopotamian scribes alone, and
some mischievous Assyriologists in the US have recently reacted to the election
70 Foster 1999, 17–18.
71 Foster 1999, 756–757.
| Cécile Michel
and political speeches of their president by writing parodies of scientific articles
including the publication of imaginary tablets, fruits of their creativity.
articles have supposedly been published
in a surrealist series called ‘Occasional
Publications of the Museum of the Sealand’. By using the artifice of parody, their
authors express their fears about future political decisions concerning their coun-
try. Both articles are preceded or followed by the very end or the first few para-
graphs of other contributions which are also full of humoristic and absurd
mentions and references.
The author of one of these articles has included the edition of two invented
prophecies which are purportedly written on an undated and unprovenanced
tablet from a private collection, and included its cuneiform copy. In this example,
the tablet has not even taken shape; it is suggested by the pseudo-scientific study
that is being done. By doing this, the author mystified at least one colleague since
his article is cited in a recent book devoted to the prophecies of Antiquity. The
author of this book compares these prophecies to existing ‘apocalyptic litera-
Cuneiform fakes have a very long history spanning from at least the late third or
early second millennium
to the present day, albeit with a long interruption
from the beginning of our era to the eighteenth century
, corresponding to the
time during which cuneiform script and the history of Mesopotamia had fallen
into oblivion. Under the generic word ‘fake’, this chapter presents a variety of
cases that show the difficulty of applying modern terminology to each of them.
The current practice of copying texts as part of scribal education complicates
the work that Assyriologists have determining the date of production of literary
works. According to Jones, ‘copying comes closest to faking (… because of) the
skills used in their manufacture’.
It then becomes difficult to distinguish
between originals, copies, replicas and fakes. The correspondence of the kings of
Ur is a mixture of copies of original letters from the late twenty-first century
72 Garfinkle et al. 2016; Richardson 2017.
73 They are also available online at Academia. (This highlights the problem of the scientific
status of ‘publications’ that are deposited on such a private shared website.)
74 The tablet published in Richardson 2017 is mentioned in Nissinen 2018, 112–113, n. 276–277,
and in the bibliography on p. 408.
75 Jones 1990, 29–30.
Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History |
and compositions written by scribes in the first few centuries of the second mil-
, these creations sometimes including elements of genuine letters.
Mesopotamian scholars have shown deep interest in the past, even copying
ancient texts. Kings from the first millennium
dug into the foundations of
buildings, asked their scribes to decipher the unearthed ancient inscriptions, and
Nabonidus even decided to revive ancient religious traditions. This antiquarian-
ism was reflected in the scholars’ study of ancient texts and their mastery of
archaic signs; it led them to the creation of forgeries, such as the cruciform monu-
ment to Maništušu.
The production of fakes in the ancient Near East was often motivated by eco-
nomic factors, but could also have a religious or political background as well,
such as the creation of texts caricaturing kingship ideology. The main motive is
also an economic one today. Hundreds of fake tablets were produced between the
end of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth century
. The
production of such fakes decreased perceptibly during the 1930s as new expert
techniques were developed and legal sanctions were taken against fakers. The
phenomenon still exists today, however, alongside the making of legitimate mod-
ern replicas or ‘modern originals’ by Assyriologists, but fake items have to
‘compete’ with thousands of genuine artefacts put on the market by looters taking
advantage of the wars that have plagued this area of the world the last forty years.
This organised looting of antiquities and their appearance on the market causes
some significant problems for Assyriologists, who are thus deprived of part of the
scientific information relating to their contexts of discovery. In addition, they face
a difficult dilemma: on the one hand, they feel obliged to prevent the information
contained in these written artefacts from being lost forever by disappearing into
private collections, and on the other, they do not want to promote the market of
antiquities by giving added value to an object once it has been certified as genu-
ine and published.
The identification of fakes is not always obvious, even to specialists. Accord-
ing to Christopher Walker, it is difficult to distinguish between a well-made fake
cylinder seal and a third-class antique one, for example.
There are still debates
about some items which became famous as a result and were thus historicised.
When a fake is identified as such, its fate varies according to the size of the col-
lection in which it is preserved. Large museums that have a department dedicated
to ancient Near Eastern antiquities usually keep the
fake cuneiform tablets they
76 Beaulieu 2013.
77 Michel 2019.
78 Walker 1987, 59–60.
 | Cécile Michel
have acquired in their storerooms, while other museums that only possess a small
collection of written artefacts present their fakes in showcases for educational
purposes. If the fakes are real pieces of art, such as inscribed statues, they may
also be displayed in museum exhibitions. Some fakes have been the subject of a
specific exhibition insofar as these forgeries have become objects that have their
share of history.
A few Assyriologists study them as historiographical testimo-
and the main database of cuneiform texts – the Cuneiform Digital Library
– has decided to include them.
The fakes created during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tell
us another story, one of the rediscovery of the ancient Near East within the
Orientalism movement. This fascination about the Orient and the past led certain
individuals to create some fantastic stories and theories, such as those published
by the writer Zecharia Stichin (1920–2010) who took the mythological battles of
gods related in the authentic Babylonian Epic of Creation to be real astronomic
Such publications possibly inspired the Iraqi Minister of Transport,
Kazem Finjan, in 2016 when he declared that the very first airport was built in
Iraq around 5,000 BCE by the Sumerians, who explored space and discovered the
planet Pluto.
I wish to warmly thank my colleagues Philippe Abrahami, Catherine Breniquet,
Nicole Brisch, Brigitte Lion, and Piotr Michalowski, with whom I discussed some
of the cases covered in this article or who provided me with additional biblio-
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Full-text available
This article continues the publication of tablets from the library of the temple of Šamaš at Sippar begun in volume 52 of this journal. Presented here are the library's copies of two texts which have in common the fact that they are not what they purport to be: Maništūšu's cruciform monument, and a literary letter of Samsu-iluna. Both texts are clearly fictitious compositions which postdate their supposed royal authors by a long time. Their purpose was apparently to supply evidence of historical precedent. The invented evidence which these documents present as fact would be intended to substantiate or advance the claims of those who wrote them. While both tablets are duplicates of known texts, each adds to a greater or lesser degree to our knowledge of these texts, not least by filling lacunae and by confirming or rebutting the restorations of previous editors. The identification of a tablet from niche 8 B as a duplicate of the last column of a large Neo-Babylonian exercise tablet from Ur allows this text to be properly identified for the first time. It is one of several royal letters in Akkadian, some apparently genuine, others certainly bogus, which entered the scribal tradition and survive in late copies. This example purports to be from Samsu-iluna, the son and successor of Hammurapi of Babylon, to Enlil-nādin-šumi, a man whose several titles identify him as a very senior figure, and apparently a royal prince. As is the case with the Cruciform Inscription of Maništūšu, anachronisms in the text mark the composition out as later than it purports to be. Following the formulae which name the letter's addressee and sender the text itself opens with the phrase umma ana narê , an expression that also appears in a probably genuine letter of Nebuchadnezzar I.
Assyriology covers disciplines that concern the study of the ancient Near East, and more specifically the period and the geographic area defined by the use of cuneiform writing. Archaeologists, historians and art historians who conduct research in this field work in countries at war or in countries that do not respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are confronted with situations that affect their daily work. To better understand these situations, it is essential to understand the recent history of these countries, the role played by Western researchers in the rediscovery of antiquity, and the relationship of local politicians and populations to their past. In 2003, Assyriologists created the International Association for Assyriology to better address the situation in the Near East, and since 2014, they have reacted through official statements, before reflecting on the ethical behaviour of researchers. This concerns respect for the laws of the countries under study, cooperation with local scientists, the training of future generations and the well-being of the workforce employed on archaeological excavation sites. It concerns the means to be implemented for the safeguarding and restoration of cultural heritage, without cooperating with dictatorial regimes. Finally, the ethical behaviour of the researcher depends on the transmission of knowledge to the public, and in particular information to potential buyers about the danger of contributing to the trafficking of antiquities.
In the years around the turn of the present century, relying on the contacts and expertise of Theophilus Goldridge Pinches, Lord William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney (1835–1909), put together what came to be one of the most wide-ranging and important collections of cuneiform tablets to have been assembled in private hands in this country. Since the publication of Volume 1 of The Amherst Tablets in 1908 by Pinches, followed much later by E. Sollberger's The Pinches Manuscript , the Amherst Collection has been familiar enough among Assyriologists, but perhaps less has been known of the collector, and of his other collections. The Museum at the family estate of Didlington Hall, Northwold, Norfolk, contained in its heyday a much broader range of material than cuneiform inscriptions. From the Near Eastern world there were very extensive collections of Egyptian papyri and antiquities, but the Hall also housed remarkable accumulations of incunabula and printed books, porcelain, tapestries, sculpture and other works of art. It is evident that the specific pursuit of cuneiform sources was inspired by a profound interest in the origin and development of writing and printing. The survival of a group of private letters covering the years 1896–1910, from Lord Amherst to Pinches, with some draft reply letters from Pinches and other relevant documents, has entailed the preservation of unusual information about the process of acquisition and the sources of the tablets themselves. The present paper offers a summary of this information, in the hope of conveying something of the circumstances and motives at play at such a period.
The stimulus for this article has been the reworking of displays within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Wing at the British Museum. The need for a cohesive narrative led us to look hard at objects that have reposed in the museum's collections since the 19th century and, in particular, to “reopen” the case of the Sun-God Tablet and the Cruciform Monument. It turned out that most of the long-cherished assumptions about these objects failed to withstand modern scrutiny. With the benefit of Hormuzd Rassam's original papers, we have now been able to reconsider the finds as a whole, with surprising consequences.