In the early 1900s, the colorful, cranky German-American scholar Hermann Hilprecht examined a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet that had been excavated at the site of ancient Nippur.a What he held was the first fragment of the Sumerian King List—an ancient Mesopotamian document claiming to identify every king in Sumerian history.

Since Hilprecht’s discovery, at least 18 other exemplars of the king list have been found, most of them dating from the second half of the Isin dynasty (c. 2017–1794 B.C.E.). No two of these documents, however, are identical. One of them—a so-called non-standard version—traces the origins of Sumerian kingship all the way back to the beginnings of human history and includes an account of a great flood (not unlike the biblical deluge). Other exemplars trace shorter periods of time or contain mere fragments of the king list. Still, there is enough common material in all 15 versions of the list to make it clear that that they are derived from a single, “ideal” account of Sumerian history.

The 8-inch-high Weld-Blundell prism (below)—probably discovered during the 1921 excavation of Larsa, in southern Mesopotamia—is the most complete extant copy of the list. It begins: “When kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu [the oldest of the Sumerian cities].” Then come the names and regnal years of each of the kings who ruled from that city.

Most versions of the king list follow a similar narrative pattern in recording kings of the Sumerian city-states, some of which existed simultaneously. They state the name of an important Sumerian capital, supply a list of its rulers and then describe each royal dynasty’s downfall: “[City A] was smitten with weapons; its kingship was carried to [city B].”

Unfortunately, for all their name-dropping, none of the extant lists provides completely reliable information about ancient Sumer. The reigns of many of the rulers cited are clearly fictitious. One very dedicated king, for example, is said to have ruled for over 43,000 years! In addition, only a few rulers of each dynasty are discussed in any detail, and only some of the rulers mentioned in the list can be found in other ancient sources. (One notable exception is the legendary warrior-king Gilgamesh, who appears in several versions of the list, as well as in numerous Sumerian stories.)b Nevertheless, the king list does introduce some interesting and colorful characters, such as a female barkeep who was “king” of Kish for 100 years.

Most scholars believe that the king list was really a work of political propaganda, designed to help the rulers of the Isin dynasty in their bid to take over southern Mesopotamia. By weaving all of the disparate, often competing dynasties of ancient Sumer into a single seamless narrative, the authors of the list were trying to suggest that the rulers of Isin were part of a long and illustrious royal heritage—one that could trace its lineage all the way back to the time when “kingship descended from heaven.” Not a bad qualification for leadership, by anyone’s reckoning.