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Volume 30, Number 5September/October 1979

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Kramer of Sumer

Written by Mary Lucy Wood
Photographed by Katrina Thomas
Additional photographs by Robert Arndt

At 82, Samuel Noah Kramer, a scholar who describes himself as a man who "knows mostest about the leastest," is still engaged in what he calls "the universal quest for origins." For Dr. Kramer, now Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, that quest has meant 52 years devoted to the translation of man's first written records: the clay tablets on which the people called the Sumerians inscribed the wedge-shaped writing known as cuneiform about 3,500 years ago.

According to archeology, the Sumerians, who called themselves the "blackheaded people," were among the first civilizations. Nomads, migrating from some place still unknown, they settled near and between the two great rivers of Mesopotamia - the Tigris and the Euphrates - about the 35th century B.C., and began to develop the fundamentals of civilization. They systematized agriculture, developed irrigation, constructed the first wagon wheel and the potters' wheel, a great technological breakthrough, experimented with a form of democracy, built cities and - Professor Kramer's lifelong studies show -wrote poetry and literature that in the West still echo through the pages of the Bible.

Over the millennia, however, Sumer vanished, as did its successors, Babylon and Assyria. Abandoned, and gradually covered by the earth, Sumer disappeared and was forgotten for over 2,000 years, its cities and culture buried in mounds of earth looming up from the muddy flatlands of the "land between the rivers," in what is now southeastern Iraq. But then, about 140 years ago, the first of the great Middle East archeologists began to dig into those mounds, called "tells", found artifacts and gradually - as they uncovered temples, monuments, tombs, sculpture, ornaments, tools and finely worked gold - drew a profile of a complete, hitherto unknown, civilization. More important, they also unearthed quantities of clay tablets, inscribed with the earliest known system of writing, one of the pivotal achievements of mankind.

In archeology such discoveries are the stuff of legends. But they are also just a beginning. For until they are deciphered, such finds as the tablets recently unearthed at Ebla in Syria (See Aramco World, March-April 1978) are relatively useless. The discovery of cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia, therefore, was just a first step. Still to come was the decipherment and translation of the script early workmen called "a bird's footprints" by men like George Grotefend, Henry Rawlinson and George Smith (See Aramco World, January-February 1971) and, in this century, Samuel Noah Kramer - a Sumerologist.

A Sumerologist is, obviously, a specialist. Indeed, as Dr. Kramer himself says in the introduction to his book History Begins at Sumer, he is "one of the narrowest of specialists..." Yet the work of the Sumerologists involves them in all aspects of that ancient culture - business transactions, codes of law, home remedies, hymns, battles, mythology and poetry - all impressed in wet clay by the scribes of Sumer nearly five thousand years ago.

Writing, Dr. Kramer says, was developed when "the need arose to record business transactions or at least to tally inventories and lists of gifts brought to the temples as offerings." First attempts were pictographic, simple line drawings of such objects as an ear of barley, a bird, an ass head, a star for "heaven" or a bowl of food - with action represented by, for example, a drawing of a foot for "walking" or a head and mouth for "eating."

Through the centuries, however, the Sumerians reduced the pictures to simple wedge-shaped symbols - the cuneiform signs - made by the end of a reed stylus pressed into wet clay, and by the second half of the third millennium B.C., Dr. Kramer says, "Sumerian writing technique had become sufficiently plastic and flexible to express without difficulty the most complicated historical and literary compositions, many of which had been handed down by the oral tradition."

For Dr. Kramer it was the Sumerian literary compositions that drew him deeply into Sumerology in 1930 and that still, 49 years later, absorb his attention and time. Although he has retired from teaching - to a comfortable house in Philadelphia, filled with art from around the world collected by his wife - Professor Kramer is still slim and vigorous, still writes, lectures and travels and this spring will publish still another book on Sumer: From the Poetry of Sumer. And in spite of an occasional wry comment about himself as the "pinpoint historian" or the 'Toynbee in reverse," Professor Kramer, in discussing his research into Sumerian language and literature, discloses a curiosity of enormous proportions, and a diligence not often-equaled.

Samuel Noah Kramer began his personal journey to Sumer when he came to the University of Pennsylvania as a graduate student in 1927 and as part of the program for a doctor's degree in Assyriology began to read cuneiform. Then, in 1930, he participated in two digs in Iraq. The first was at Tell Billah in the north, near modern Mosul. Here no tablets were found despite considerable effort, and Kramer, whose whole purpose in being there was to decipher tablet inscriptions, began to regard himself as useless. His unhappiness was compounded when he came down with an acute attack of appendicitis so severe that there was no time to move him to Baghdad. Instead he was taken to a two-room hospital nearby where the doctor in charge, working with limited equipment, saved his life. A souvenir of the event was a scar running virtually the entire length of his stomach. Apparently the operation was longer and more complicated than normal and the doctor, with justifiable pride, displayed the appendix rather like a trophy.

After a month of slow recovery, Dr. Kramer was asked to go south to a second excavation being carried out at Tell Fara, on the site of ancient Shuruppak. The careful work turned up a quantity of tablets, many in groups, probably where a school had been, or where the clay "books," no longer needed, had been used as filler in clay walls. Some of these were brought back to the museum for study. "It was at this point that I began to be curious about the literary tablets that occasionally came to light," explained Professor Kramer.

His curiosity, however, could not be satisfied right away as, shortly after his return from Iraq, he was invited to Chicago to help in the compilation of an Assyrian dictionary. "I went to work on the dictionary in 1932, at the Oriental Institute, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, where one of the editors was Arno Poebel, a leading Sumerologist of the day who taught me to read Sumerian."

Four years later, he got the chance to develop his interest in the cuneiform literary texts when he won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Istanbul to investigate some of what are called the Nippur tablets. "Considerably before my time," Professor Kramer explained, "between 1898 and 1900, the university sent expeditions to excavate the ancient city of Nippur in Iraq, then under Turkish control. There the archeologists found some 50,000 clay tablets bearing cuneiform writing. Half were sent to Istanbul to the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and half to Philadelphia, to the University of Pennsylvania Museum."

By the time the trip to Istanbul became possible, Sam Kramer had married a pretty University of Chicago graduate student, Millie Tokarsky, and had two children, Daniel and Judy. They traveled to Turkey by freighter "and half the passengers aboard were the four Kramers," Millie recalls.

"Every morning I washed the family's clothes by hand and sterilized baby bottles. We had a playpen on deck and a red coaster wagon to convey the children around towns when we could go ashore."

The crew taught Judy, age one, to walk, coaxing her back and forth on deck. "She was," says Millie Kramer, "the belle of the ship." The trip was uneventful except for a tense moment in the Strait of Gibraltar. The Spanish Civil War was raging and Franco's men searched the freighter for weapons they suspected were being smuggled to Loyalists. None were found.

In Istanbul at the Museum of the Ancient Orient, Kramer set to work piecing together approximately 200 of the cuneiform literary texts written in the Sumerian language - as distinct from, say, the Assyrian language, which was also written in cuneiform but was nevertheless a separate language.

It was not, Kramer smiled, an easy task; on the contrary, copying was painstaking, eye-straining, dusty work. With many of the baked clay tablets broken or cracked and the inscriptions half obliterated, efforts to translate them were frustrating, particularly when Dr. Kramer realized that many tablets were fragments of larger pieces which could be anywhere: in London or Berlin or Baghdad or Philadelphia, or possibly lost forever. But the efforts did lead to one fascinating discovery: a poetic essay on suffering, in Sumerian cuneiform, that bore a startling resemblance to the Bible's Book of Job.

Early in this century two fragments from tablets in the Nippur collection in Philadelphia had been published, both dealing with the theme of human suffering. Now, in Istanbul, Kramer recognized and copied two additional fragments belonging to the same essay. It was an exciting discovery but it was not the only one. Later, after he had returned to Philadelphia and joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he also identified the fifth and sixth fragments of the same essay; in fact, he and an assistant were startled to discover, the two pieces in Istanbul had been broken off the very tablets they were examining in Philadelphia.

Altogether, the six fragments yielded a poetic essay of some 139 lines, the first ever found on suffering and submission, very like the Book of Job, but written more than 2,000 years before the compilation of the Old Testament. As described by Professor Kramer in History Begins at Sumer, the Sumerian version of the Job story does seem to parallel the Biblical version.

In the essay, the sufferer is a man who had been wealthy and good, blessed with family and friends, until one day sickness and adversity overwhelm him. He refuses to accuse his god or condemn him for allowing such evil; instead, he humbles himself and with tears offers prayer and supplication. As a reward for such devotion, the god heeds the prayer, delivers the man from suffering, and restores his well-being.

The Job contribution, furthermore, was not Professor Kramer's only addition to Sumerology. In 1952, again working in Istanbul's Museum of the Ancient Orient, he also - on a tip from another cuneiform scholar - translated a tablet that turned out to be part of the Ur-Nammu code of law - which antedates the famous Code of Hammurabi by about 300 years.

Earlier, in 1947, one of Kramer's assistants had discovered a tablet in the Nippur Collection of the University Museum inscribed with a law code promulgated by the king Lipit-Ishtar which antedated Hammurabi's code by 150 years. In 1948, Taha Baqir, a former student of Professor Kramer's and then curator of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, announced the excavation of two tablets inscribed with a still earlier code, but written about a century later than the Ur-Nammu Code discovered in Istanbul.

In this important discovery, as Professor Kramer points out, luck played a significant role. "In all probability I would have missed the Ur-Nammu tablet altogether had it not been for an opportune letter from F. R. Kraus, professor of cuneiform studies at the University of Leiden in Holland. He mentioned 'tablet number 3191' in Istanbul which he had noticed when serving as curator there. I sent for the tablet, and after days of hard work, I realized that what I held in my hand was a copy of the oldest law code as yet known to man."

His translation, Professor Kramer explained, included five of 25 known laws dating to the third dynasty of Ur - one of Sumer's ancient city states - which ruled about 2050 B.C., some 300 years before King Hammurabi ruled Babylon. They cover divorce, perjury and adultery, and in some ways penalties were lighter than the "eye for an eye" retribution mentioned in the Old Testament; fines, for example, were specified for some offenses instead of corporal punishment.

In 1965, two new fragments of the Ur-Nammu law code were recognized among the tablets excavated by Leonard Woolley at Ur. These added 39 new laws, many of which are unfortunately fragmentary.

The constant comparisons of Sumerian literature with the Bible, Professor Kramer says, are by no means accidental. Sumerologists are fascinated by the apparent links between Sumerian literature and Old Testament stories. The story of Dilmun, for example, is seen by Sumerology as paralleling the story of Adam and Eve.

According to the Sumerologists, Dilmun was a "pure," "clean" and "bright" place, in which neither sickness nor death contaminated the fruit-filled garden where the great earth-mother Ninhursag had caused eight divine plants to grow. But then, the story goes on, Enki - usually a wise god - comes along and innocently eats them all, and Ninhursag abandons him until, through intervention of a council of gods, she relents.

As with the story of Job, the parallels with Adam and Eve seem clear: a garden, a forbidden plant and punishment for eating it.

Another Biblical story with possible antecedents in Sumerian literature is the story of the Flood as translated from one of the Nippur tablets by Arno Poebel in 1914. Although many lines were missing, those that were legible gave strong evidence of being the earliest story of the Deluge yet found.

This account tells of Ziusudra, a pious, god-fearing king, who is instructed by the gods to build a giant boat to save himself, and presumably others, because "a flood will sweep over the cult centers; to destroy the seed of mankind... is the decision... of the gods." A long break in the text prevents our knowing precisely what action followed, until these lines become legible:

All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one,

At the same time, the flood sweeps over the cult centers.

After, for seven days and seven nights,

The flood had swept over the land,

And the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters,

Utu (sun-god) came forth, who sheds light on heaven and earth,

Ziusudra opened a window on the huge boat,

The hero Utu brought his rays into the giant boat.

Ziusudra, the king,

Prostrated himself before Utu,

The king kills an ox, slaughters a sheep.

As that translation suggests, Sumerian mythology contained tantalizing bits of information that have been repeated in the Bible, and, in some instances, verified by science. But from the same translation it is clear that Sumerian mythology was also literature - at least as translated by Professor Kramer.

In the story of Job, for example, the Kramer translation was rich and rhythmic:

The righteous words...his god accepted.

The words which the man prayerfully confessed pleased the...god.

And his god withdrew his hand from the evil word...which oppresses the heart...

The encompassing sickness-demon, which had spread wide its wings, he swept away.

The evil fate which had been decreed for him in accordance with his sentence,

He turned aside

He turned the man's suffering into joy

Set by him the kindly genii as watch and guardian

Gave him...angels with gracious mien.

And that is but one example. Dr. Kramer's numerous and varied writings on the Sumerians are filled with lyrical and significant stories, essays and proverbs - many as appropriate today as they were 5,000 years ago:

A restless woman in the house

Adds ache to pain.

Who possesses much silver may be happy,

Who possesses much barley may be happy,

But who has nothing at all can sleep.

Friendship lasts a day,

Kinship endures forever.

There are also in Dr. Kramer's translations vignettes of everyday life that suggest how the average Sumerian thought or reasoned, how he worked his way through the big questions asked by human beings of all times, or faced a typical day's dilemmas. One schoolboy solution to an age-old problem sounds rather modern:

I recited my tablet, ate my lunch, prepared my (new) tablet, wrote it, finished it.

 But the teacher says: "Your hand (copy) is not satisfactory" and canes him. That night the boy suggests at home that his parents invite the teacher to dine. They do, and present him gifts as well. Mollified by such generosity, the teacher says:

Young man, because you did not neglect my word, did not forsake it, may you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art, may you achieve it completely... You have carried out well the school's activities, you have become a man of learning.

This vignette, it seems, was a popular story; 21 copies in various states of preservation had been found in various collections when Dr. Kramer found missing pieces of the first fragmented translation and completed it. Another translation that will strike a chord in an America rebelling against high taxes and costly government was made of a tablet from Lagash, a city of 4,500 years ago. It listed the abuses of the corrupt administration:

...the inspector of the boatmen seized theboats. The cattle inspector seized the largecattle, seized the small cattle. The fisheriesinspector seized the fisheries.

The writer, in Kramer's translation, then goes on to say that when a sheep was brought to the palace for shearing the owner had to pay five shekels if the wool was white. When a man divorced his wife, the ishakku, or local governor, received five shekels and his vizier took another. Furthermore, "the oxen of the gods plowed the ishakku's onion patches," meaning that the temple equipment was used for the governor's own benefit, and the ishakku had planted his personal onion and cucumber patch "in the god's best fields."

And then "there were the tax collectors," as the historian observed. Even after death, officials could claim quantities of a man's barley, bread, beer, even furnishings. Matters were at low ebb in Lagash until, at last, a good man - Urukagina by name - came to power, an honest, god-fearing ruler who threw out the corrupt administrators, righted wrongs, ended unjust treatment of the poor, and rid the city of thieves, usurers and murderers.

Even these lively accounts barely scratch the surface; only a relatively small number of the Sumerian tablets have been studied in detail. But much of what has been learned about Sumeria is the work of Samuel Kramer. As put by two professors at the University Museum in Philadelphia, who are compiling a dictionary of the Sumerian language, "He reconstructed the whole of Sumerian literature. We build on him."

Mary Lucy Wood was educated in Florida, did graduate work at Columbia University and spent a year doing historical research in Uruguay and Argentina where her interest in archeology was sparked by the discovery of Inca bones in Peru.

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the September/October 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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