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Aramaic and Figural Stamp Impressions on Bricks of the Sixth Century B.C. from Babylon

Aramaic and Figural Stamp Impressions on Bricks of the Sixth Century B.C. from Babylon

By Benjamin Sass and Joachim Marzahn (WVDOG 127). Pp. 259, figs. 1,056, tables 17. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2010. €78. ISBN 978-3-447-06184-1 (cloth).

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This is a most useful volume, a sine qua non for those interested in northwest Semitic inscriptions of the Iron Age (esp. Aramaic), those interested in the history and archaeology of Mesopotamia, Aramaic paleography and onomastics, as well as epigraphic remains on building materials and the history of writing in general. The number of photographs and line drawings is laudable, surely a model for future epigraphic publications.

Brick inscriptions have a long history in ancient Mesopotamia, with attestation beginning in the third millennium B.C.E. and continuing into the first millennium B.C.E. During the first millennium, both Akkadian and Aramaic were used in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires, and so brick inscriptions in these languages are attested. The bricks discussed in this volume were found by the German expedition to Babylon (ca. 1899–1917). Most of the bricks had not been previously accessioned by the Vorderasiatisches Museum; therefore, Marzahn and Sass focused simultaneously on inventorying the bricks and preparing the editio princeps of them.

Most of the bricks discussed in this volume are now in Berlin, but this is not the case for all. In fact, the current location of some of the bricks is simply not known. Thus, some are known at this time just through photographs, drawings, and squeezes made at the time of initial discovery by the expedition. Note that the brick inscriptions in this volume were all “impressed,” that is, made using a stamp seal that was pressed into the soft clay of the brick. In terms of size, the bricks are normally about 33 x 33 x 8 cm. The total number of impressed bricks in Berlin is 226, and the total number of impressed bricks for the entire corpus is estimated to be “somewhere between 326 and 386,” when one includes the bricks not in Berlin (188). The reason for the numeric range (i.e., “somewhere between 326 and 386”) is simply because one cannot always be certain whether one is looking at a squeeze, drawing, or photograph of a brick that has, or has not, already been counted (not all the bricks can currently be located). Within this volume, some Mesopotamian cuneiform brick inscriptions in Akkadian (ca. 102) are discussed, but the predominant focus is on the corpus of Aramaic inscriptions and those labeled “figural” impressions (i.e., iconic). Along those lines, note that some bricks have both a cuneiform inscription and an Aramaic inscription, while some simply have an icon (often a lion), and some have an icon and an Aramaic inscription. However, the authors note that “the lion impressions, with or without Aramaic legend, never accompany a royal cuneiform impression, but rather take its place” (40). On page 187 is a precise breakdown of the impressions with either Aramaic text, an icon, or both: 64 have an Aramaic legend; 23 have an Aramaic legend and a lion; 26 have a lion, but no Aramaic legend; and 18 have a nonleonid icon.

Furthermore, the authors state that the Babylon brickstamps (used to impress the clay) were arguably “made of terracotta, or perhaps plaster, and were themselves impressed, made from a master mold, or even from an existing older brick, rather than individually carved” (40). Of course, “stamp seals” were often used to impress many objects, not just bricks. The authors have estimated that the total number of “thoroughly different stamps represented is 64” (187). That is, many of the bricks were impressed with the same “seal,” hence the total number of impressed bricks is considerably higher than the total number of stamp seals.

The dating of these inscriptions is based on the three Babylonian kings mentioned in the cuneiform impressions: Nebuchadnezzar, Neriglissar, and Nabonidus. It is argued that the Aramaic impressions and the iconic impressions date to the same basic time frame (i.e., the reigns of these three kings). Along these lines, there is a fairly long paleographic discussion of the Aramaic impressions (151–62), and it is contended that the Aramaic script of these impressions can be dated to this time frame as well. Significantly, however, the graphemes bet, dalet, and resh consistently have closed heads (even though the open-headed forms of these letters are attested in the cursive Aramaic script already in the eighth century B.C.E. and become regnant in the seventh and sixth centuries). However, within this volume, it is argued that the Aramaic script of these stamp seals should be understood as the “Monumental Aramaic Script” (151), not the cursive script (and thus accounting for, among other things, the closed heads of bet, dalet, and resh). The archaeological context of these bricks is, of course, known, and there is a brief chapter (ch. 10) that focuses on it, replete with a line drawing of (some of) the architecture. However, it should be emphasized that the original excavators often simply noted the 20 x 20 m square that is mentioned as the findspot, rather than its precise location vis-à-vis a wall, room, or courtyard (189).

The Aramaic impressions are brief and consist of a personal name or abbreviation. Marzahn and Sass estimate that there are about 42 different personal names attested in this corpus and seven presumed acronyms (163). It is striking that some of the names are written right to left and some left to right (an issue that has to do with the means of the manufacture of the stamp seal). Of course, some of the names are Akkadian and some are West Semitic (174). Significantly, within this volume, not all the names have been fully deciphered or understood. Finally, it should be noted in this connection that there is a brief but useful discussion of both phonology and orthography for the Aramaic inscriptions (173). The volume concludes with several indices (e.g., of names and name elements).

Christopher Rollston
Department of Semitic Studies
Emmanuel School of Religion
One Walker Drive
Johnson City, Tennessee 37601

Book Review of Aramaic and Figural Stamp Impressions on Bricks of the Sixth Century B.C. from Babylon, by Benjamin Sass and Joachim Marzahn

Reviewed by Christopher Rollston

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Rollston

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