No Man’s Land.

James Pickford reports for the Financial Times on a fascinating discovery:

A 4,500-year-old marble pillar that has lain in the basement of the British Museum for 150 years has been revealed as the first recorded account of a conflict over a disputed border — and the earliest known instance of word play. […] Deciphered only this year by Irving Finkel, a curator in the Middle East department of the British Museum, it describes a long-running and bloody dispute over a lush tract of land claimed by the rival city states of Lagash and Umma, the first prolonged border conflict in recorded history.

Created by the rulers of Lagash as a boundary marker, it is also a political weapon invoking historical precedent and the will of their god Ningirsu to lay claim to the land. The scribe who chiselled it took this a stage further by doctoring the stone to make it look older and employing inventive word play that cast the city state’s nighbours in a bad light. Where the god’s name is normally expressed with the signs “Nin”, “Gir” and “Su”, the scribe replaced some of the conventional symbols with the word for god — ramming home the divinity of Ningirsu through repetition. When it comes to the rival god of the enemy Umma people, however, the signs that spell the god’s name are messy, sprawling and virtually illegible. […]

The ancient scribe had employed an early version of fake news, to bolster Lagash’s historical claim to the border. Mr Finkel discovered that the surface of the marble had been treated so it appeared eroded by the passage of time. The scribe had also used a style of writing that was redolent of a much earlier era, when the written Sumerian language was shifting from pictograms to cuneiform. “The scribe who produced this text was at the same time giving the impression that the underlying text was older than the contemporary time,” said Mr Finkel. “It’s a multi-faceted thing.”

Alongside other artefacts from Mesopotamia, as well as contemporary works, it will go on show on Thursday in a display called “No Man’s Land” (another expression that appears for the first time on the Lagash pillar).

Unrelated, The 50 Best Slaughterhouse-Five Covers from Around the World by Emily Temple at LitHub. It’s fun to see if you can identify the languages from the covers!


  1. I love these stories from the far reaches of antiquity that prompt the reaction, Jesus, we haven’t changed one bit. The Complaint of Nanni has been my favorite.

  2. Yeah, that’s a great one. Really, it boggles my mind how people can rant about “kids these days” or how the world has degenerated from the high standards of [whenever]; the world has been exactly as screwed up as it is now from the beginning of humankind.

  3. Not surprisingly, a few of those Slaughterhouse Five covers from the 1970s use images of the film. My favorite, perhaps, is the Japanese cover that actually had a cartoon drawing of Michael Sacks as he appeared as Billy Pilgrim in the movie.

  4. I wonder what hid ‘bridge’ is doing in vágóhíd (Hungarian).
    -ykla is a giveaway for Lithuanian: mokykla ‘school’, gamykla ‘factory’, valgykla ‘cafeteria’, …

  5. I wonder what hid ‘bridge’ is doing in vágóhíd (Hungarian).

    Good question. Wiktionary just says “vágó +‎ híd,” as if that explained everything. Maybe híd once had a broader sense?

  6. SFReader says

    Eredet [vágóhíd < vágó + híd]
    Megjegyzés: Az elnevezés arra utal, hogy a régi vágóhidak általában patak fölé épültek a könnyebb tisztíthatóság érdekében.

    Origin [slaughterhouse <cutter + bridge]
    Note: The name implies that old slaughterhouses were usually built over a stream for easy cleaning.

  7. Thanks, that makes sense.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The Complaint of Nanni is indeed a precious link to the past …

    I like to imagine it being endlessly recopied in the scribal schools of Nineveh and Babylon as a model Customer Service Complaint.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Swedish cover gets my vote. There is something ineffably Strindberg about it.

  10. the world has been exactly as screwed up as it is now from the beginning of humankind.

    Cuneiform tablet from a Sumerian concentration camp for women prisoners of war based in the town of Umma, Mesopotamia, during second month of 2062 BC:

    (1) Result: [22] died
    (2) Barley 7 gur 10 sila
    (3) Overseer Urnintu
    (4) Shamzi died
    (5) Aa died
    (6) Unaccal died
    (7) Biriu died
    (8) Eshmedar died
    (9) Shiguatag died
    (10) Ukuku died
    (11) Shakinzu died
    (12) … died
    (13) Sugi died
    (14) adult slaves
    (15) Atue died
    (16) Guuu died
    (17) Belumishtar died
    (18) Buduzmalum died
    (19) Nilaz died
    (20) Shibanamzi died
    (21) Elada died
    (22) Ammani died
    (23) Ummaki died
    (24) Muda died
    (25) Lanisha died
    (26) Mudaku died
    (27) Teenagers each 20 sila
    (28) In total [22] died

    Don’t know exactly what they did to these poor women, most likely overseer Urnintu simply starved them to death by stealing their food as was common during III dynasty of Ur.

    I hope he enjoyed his stay in hell for the last four thousand years.

  11. John Cowan says

    the world has been exactly as screwed up as it is now from the beginning of humankind

    I agree that the past was no Golden Age and nor is the present, but at exactly I demur. Here’s Hobbes (the man, not the tiger) on the bad old days:

    In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

  12. Yes, a famous quote, but Hobbes was no paleontologist and knew nothing about the bad old days he described so vividly. There is a school of thought that says people were better off (nutrition, longevity, happiness) before the invention of agriculture chained them to hard labor in the fields, rents, taxes, and military service, but that’s probably wishful thinking. In any case, I was not saying every condition has always been exactly as it is now, which would be self-evidently absurd. I was talking about the general screwed-upedness of the world, the fact that people have never been good and kind and thoughtful (en masse), they’ve always done the dirty to each other with abandon. There was no Golden Age and no Fall; as we are, so we have ever been.

  13. We discussed the issue recently in this thread; I stand by my comment there:

    Isn’t there a long-term secular trend toward greater tolerance, if not wisdom?
    I don’t know what you mean by “secular trend,” but in terms of the long arc of history, no, I don’t think there is. I think there are localized outbreaks of tolerance that eventually slide back into the swamp of violence and intolerance that makes up the greater part of human history. I think tolerance is a lot easier in circumstances of general economic security and confidence in the future, but such circumstances tend not to last very long, and as soon as people start worrying about their jobs and their kids’ well-being, they start listening to people who want to blame the troubles on [local minority] or [traditional national enemy]. From Yugoslavia to Ceylon/Sri Lanka to Rwanda, the world is full of places with a history of tolerance, intermarriage, people going to each other’s religious festivals, and the like that have descended into hells of mutual slaughter. And frankly I’m not too sanguine about the United States in the coming century. I have a faint hope that over the very long term, if humanity survives, it may evolve away from the need for violent competition, but it’s pretty faint and has no relevance to the foreseeable future.

  14. By pleasing coincidence, I’m reading Colson Whitehead’s story “The Match” in last week’s New Yorker and damn if he didn’t sum it up in one sentence: “You could change the law but you couldn’t change people and how they treated each other.”

  15. Whitehead is so good: “After that he’d bent a knee to our Savior and never again raised a hand in anger, except at his wife.” He could almost be a Russian.

  16. As a matter of fact, having finished the story, it reminds me of Shalamov. I’m very impressed.

  17. John Cowan says

    There is a school of thought that says people were better off (nutrition, longevity, happiness)

    Traded off, of course, against higher homicide-by-stealth and infant-mortality rates.

    secular change

    A secular change is one that is both aperiodic and unidirectional.

    There was no Golden Age and no Fall

    Agreed. But looking about me, I see (unlike Martin Padway) some symptoms of a rise, perhaps temporary, but quite real. However, I don’t wish to re-argue that thread either.

  18. Read The Match. It is good. Almost makes you a Marxist. They abuse the boys the year round and then let their anger released in boxing. Opium for the masses. And the evil in this story is not human nature, it’s clearly institutional. LH, thanks for the pointer.

  19. My pleasure!

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