The ancient Assyrians and their Sumerian and Babylonian forerunners placed inscriptions on all sorts of objects—palace walls, stelae, statues, throne bases and the sides of mountains. However, the most popular material for writing was clay, which was inexpensive and easy to impress when wet. Clay documents produced in ancient Mesopotamia include not only flat tablets (which could be square or oblong, the size of a postage stamp or over 3 feet high), but also documents in unusual shapes: hollow cylinders, cones and multi-sided prisms. Why did the Assyrians create these three-dimensional inscribed objects? Were the shapes chosen arbitrarily, or did each have a special significance?

Some of the variations in shape can be attributed to practicality. Neo-Assyrian grain loan contracts (tenth-seventh centuries B.C.E.), for example, were often inscribed on triangular tablets; when stored in archives, their shape would have helped differentiate them from other types of contracts, like loans of silver, that were written on rectangular tablets. Although prisms, cones and cylinders were practical in some respects (they had more surface area to be inscribed than tablets and were less likely to break), the main rationale for creating them seems to have been commemorative and/or religious. Many of these objects were deposited in the foundations of palaces, temples or gateways, where they were hidden from the gaze of all except posterity and the gods.

K. Lawson Younger, author of the accompanying article, compares the objects to time capsules. It was anticipated that future generations would find an inscribed cylinder or prism when making structural repairs, and would read its message from the past (perhaps a summary of an earlier king’s great deeds). Because of their shape, inscribed cones were used as metaphorical “nails,” placed inside openings in temple walls. The writing on the cone was for the eyes of the resident god or goddess only. The pair of cones shown above describes the religious and social reforms instituted by the Babylonian ruler Uruinimgina (c. 2352–2342 B.C.E.) at the behest of the chief god Ningirsu.

Like cylinders, prisms served as long-term historical records of royal achievements. Sennacherib’s prism, also known as the “Jerusalem Prism” (691 B.C.E.), gives an account of that king’s third campaign to reassert Assyrian control over the Levant. Although prisms certainly advertised royal power, they did not have the same overtly propagandistic function as stelae, which were set up in foreign capital cities and at imperial boundaries to emphasize the king’s accomplishments and might—and to deter anyone who wished to challenge him.

Whatever their original purposes, clay prisms and cylinders were hardly ever written “from scratch.” They were usually composite documents, drawn from earlier drafts. Almost all of the writing on these objects would have been copied from other texts, many in wax-tablet form. The wax tablet, made of a small wooden (or, in rare cases, ivory) board covered by a layer of wax, was commonly used for writing drafts of documents. When scribes accompanied the army on a campaign, for instance, they noted down important events on wax tablets. On the basis of these notes, they later composed more permanent annals on clay tablets, which in turn served as sources for cylinder and prism inscriptions.

Further Reading: Karen Radner, “Format and Content in Neo-Assyrian Texts,” in Raija Mattila (ed.) Nineveh, 612 BC: The Glory and Fall of the Assyrian Empire: Catalogue of the 10th Anniversary Exhibition of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (Helsinki: Helsinki Univ. Press, 1995). See also John Malcolm Russell, The Writing on the Wall: Studies in the Architectural Context of Late Assyrian Palace Inscriptions (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999).