Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Odette Boivin, The First Dynasty of the Sealand in Mesopotamia. Studies in ancient Near Eastern records, 20. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. xii, 292. ISBN 9781501507823. €86,95.

Reviewed by Marc Van De Mieroop, Columbia University (mv1@columbia.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Anyone even slightly familiar with the ancient history of Mesopotamia knows the name of Hammurabi whose "empire" (a misnomer) bringing together the city-states of Babylonia was one of the first territorial states in world history. His famous code is often portrayed as the earliest example of a legal system created for the benefit of the population of a large and diverse region. Less discussed is what happened afterwards to his kingdom, and probably few outside the group of ancient Near East historians are aware that this is one of the great mysteries in the discipline. By 1712, thirty years after Hammurabi's death, northern and southern Babylonia were discrete countries with very different histories. Whereas Hammurabi's dynasty continued to govern the north, which seems to have flourished economically and culturally until around 1600, the south, now independent, suffered massive decline. Its age-old cities were abandoned with its educated elites fleeing north, and because the remaining people more or less stopped writing, the region's history cannot be reconstructed. Dominique Charpin's thorough and authoritative overview of Babylonia's political history from 2002 to 1595, published in 2004, essentially no longer mentions the south after 1712.1 My own chapter on southern Mesopotamia in the Old Babylonian period, submitted to De Gruyter's Handbook of Ancient Mesopotamia as requested in early 2012 but still not published, likewise states that the south became de-urbanized and that its religious and cultural elites emigrated. Both surveys do mention an enigmatic "Sealand Dynasty," which until recently was essentially only known from later chronographic sources, some references in Babylonian year names of military actions against it, and a handful of other documents. The brief article J. A. Brinkman published in the Reallexikon der Assyriologie in the early 1990s2 provides all the relevant information.

This situation changed dramatically in the last decade. The looting of archaeological sites in Iraq triggered by the first and second Gulf Wars and their catastrophic aftermaths supplied various private collections with batches of tablets that were written under the Sealand Dynasty, as the date formulae or other internal evidence revealed. These include about 500 administrative tablets, mostly published in 2009, and a couple dozen literary and scholarly tablets published more haphazardly starting around the same time. Importantly, after 2013 it became possible to put these in context because of excavations at a site in southern Iraq near Ur, Tell Khaiber, which revealed an administrative center connected to the dynasty and containing more than 150 tablets and fragments.3 What previously had been a phantom dynasty suddenly became more real with details of its geographic whereabouts and its economic and cultural activities. While its history still cannot be written in detail, there is now a lot of information about it that has to be synthesized. That is what Odette Boivin attempts to do.

The book is a revision of a 2016 doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Toronto and still displays the characteristics of that genre of writing in that it seeks to be comprehensive on selected topics and studies all evidence in detail while sometimes ignoring broader questions. After an overview of previous scholarship, it addresses five topics, each one methodically explored. Chapter 2 discusses the first-millennium Mesopotamian historiographic traditions about the Sealand, mostly based on information that has been long known but analyzed anew in light of the new source material. It shows that later Mesopotamians acknowledged the existence of a Sealand dynasty on par with others in the region (the first dynasty of Babylon, the Kassites, and so on).4 There is no need to assume that a Sealand king ever sat on the throne of Babylon — the dynasty ruled southern Babylonia at the same time that others ruled the north. Chapter 3 investigates the thorny issue of where the Sealand of this dynasty was. Because some tablets with Sealand year names had been excavated at Nippur, a central Babylonian presence was presumed, even if possibly only ephemeral. The marshy regions in the south of Iraq were considered the unlikely setting for a Sealand capital, while archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) showed the abandonment of earlier cities in that region, such as Ur, Uruk, and Nippur. The excavations at Tell Khaiber and other unpublished archaeological work in the southernmost part of Iraq now show that the Sealand dynasty was well established there, albeit outside the old urban centers. Tell Khaiber was settled after Ur was abandoned, and displays military features; it was a fortress in the marshes. Now that we know from the tablets from Dur-Abiešuḫ (also looted and therefore of uncertain provenance) that the successors of Hammurabi of Babylon had control over the central Babylonian Nippur region and maintained a string of forts along the Euphrates down to Uruk (less than 50 km north of Tell Khaiber),5 it seems that the Sealand dynasty's core domain was farther south in the marshes — and still-unpublished material shows it was acknowledged on the island of Bahrain as well. The geography of this area does not seem conducive to centralization, but it is possible that a political structure resembling a dynasty claimed power over the marsh populations and resided in settlements like Tell Khaiber. Tell Khaiber was not necessarily the dynastic capital, but its central building does look like a palace.

If we see the Sealand as another entity in the patchwork of the kingdoms of greater Babylonia in the first half of the second millennium, we can attempt to write its political history like those of Babylon, Eshnunna, Mari and so on. That is the aim of Chapter 4, which presents a survey from the rise of the dynasty at the time when Samsuiluna ruled Babylon (1749–1712) to its demise at the hands of the Kassite Babylonians early in their history (ca. 1475). Absolute dates are hard to establish and depend on synchronisms with the history of Babylon, which itself is hard to date because of the uncertainties about the length of the so-called Dark Age of the mid-second millennium. Boivin hardly mentions absolute dates BC, which makes the discussion difficult to follow for those not that familiar with the sequence of Hammurabi's successors and early Kassite rulers. If we hold on to the so-called Middle Chronology (that dates Hammurabi's reign from 1792–1750 BC) the Sealand dynasty lasted for some 300 years from the late 18th to the early 15th centuries. The mostly hostile relations with Babylon are best known and define its history. An interesting addition to the evidence is an epic in honor of the Sealand ruler Gulkišar, which shows him preparing to do battle against Hammurabi's last successor Samsuditana (r. 1625–1595). Boivin cannot quote passages from the text as it remains to be published,6 but its mere existence certainly makes the narrative more exciting. With the recent renewed interest in the Kassites and their emergence on the scene at the time the Sealand dynasty existed,7 Babylonian history of the 17th to 15th centuries is becoming clearer.

The some-500 looted administrative tablets derive from a palace archive, and in chapter 5 Boivin analyzes very carefully what economic activities they record. They mostly administer products both from animal husbandry and farming and how these were turned into consumable items. Beer is prominent as is the case in many other Mesopotamian archives. The review is systematic and includes references to the Tell Khaiber tablets (preliminary editions of which used to be accessible online but now no longer seem to be). It is interesting that both groups of records were produced by palace administrators who directly managed agricultural goods. While a few palace archives have survived from the earlier Old Babylonian period, the involvement of private entrepreneurs in these activities was the norm then. Since the evidentiary base on the Sealand dynasty is still so limited it is dangerous to draw conclusions, but there may have been a shift in practices with the central political institution assuming direct control. Likewise, scribal education may have moved from private instructors to the palace, as at Tell Khaiber, where fragments of elementary exercise tablets were excavated in the official building.8 Schooling was perhaps no longer done in private houses. These observations may elucidate why urban life flourished in Babylonia in earlier times. It was not the presence of a palace that was important but the fact that private entrepreneurs had great opportunities to do business.

Chapter 6 seeks to reconstruct religious life and cult practices primarily by identifying the deities who appear in the administrative texts. Boivin hopes to find out the main inspiration for the composition of the pantheon by comparison with earlier urban systems, especially those from Larsa and Nippur, and concludes it was an amalgamation. She makes brief references to the sundry literary tablets connected to the Sealand dynasty, which include hymns and prayers. These may or may not have been looted from the same site as the administrative documents. In the former case the southern marshes would have been home to literati who preserved and modified the materials created earlier on in cities such as Nippur. These tablets are important for the history of Sumerian literature after its heyday (if we take number of manuscripts as a standard) in the 19th and 18th centuries. We may have to revive the idea of earlier scholars, based on flimsy evidence at best, that the Sealand was the haven for Sumerian literary scribes after the abandonment of Nippur and other central and southern Babylonian cities.9 These writers were also important for the development of Akkadian literature: they seem to have produced a unique version of a passage from the Gilgamesh Epic in which the gods Sin and Ea stand in for the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and the city Ur for Uruk.10

The Dark Age in the mid-second millennium BC is still very dark but some aspects of it have become clearer in the last decade. This book provides an excellent collection and analysis of the newly-published Sealand materials, which now ongoing archaeological research in southern Iraq will hopefully further contextualize. The author of any new history of Hammurabi's dynasty will have to take it into account and will be grateful to Boivin for her careful and systematic work.


1.   "Histoire politique du Proche-Orient Amorrite (2002-1595)." In D. Charpin, D. O. Edzard, and M. Stol, Mesopotamien. Die altbabylonische Zeit, 23–480. OBO 160/4, Fribourg: Academic Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
2.   J. A. Brinkman, "Meerland." Reallexikon der Assyriologie 8 (1993-97): 6–10. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.
3.   See Stuart Campbell, et al. "Tell Khaiber: An administrative centre of the Sealand Period." Iraq 79 (2017): 21–46.
4.   For a representation of successive Babylonian dynasties from 1814 to 331 BC through the perspective of the first-millennium King Lists see the fascinating figure in W. W. Hallo and W. K. Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History 2nd edition, Fort Worth, 1998: 102.
5.   Kathleen Abraham and Karel Van Lerberghe, A Late Old Babylonian temple archive from Dūr-Abiešuh: the sequel, Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2017: 1–8.
6.   We get a taste of it from the Dutch article by its editor, Elyze Zomer, "Game of Thrones: Koningen in strijd in de Laat Oud-Babylonische periode." Phoenix 62.2 (2016): 52–63.
7.   As shown by the two volume Karduniaš. Babylonia under the Kassites: the proceedings of the symposium held in Munich, 30 June to 2 July 2011 = Tagungsbericht des Münchener Symposiums, 30. Juni bis 2. Juli 2011, edited by Alexa Bartelmus and Katja Sternitzke, Boston and Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017 (reviewed by G. Beckman BMCR 2018.02.05), especially the article by F. van Koppen.
8.   Stuart Campbell, et al. "Tell Khaiber: An administrative centre of the Sealand Period." Iraq 79 (2017): 30.
9.   Benno Landsberger, "Assyrische Königsliste und 'Dunkles Zeitalter' (Continued)." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 8 (1954): 70, note 181; William W. Hallo, "Royal Hymns and Mesopotamian Unity." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 17 (1963): 116–17.
10.   A. R. George, "The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu: an unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgameš epic." Revue d'assyriologie 101 (2007): 59–80. Also looted, the tablet is of unknown provenance.

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