The Nail of Babylon

The tale an unassuming artifact tells about the city-state of Lagash

In the basement of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor (LoH), in an unassuming glass case mounted on the wall between the Gift Shop and an elevator alcove, across from the entrance to the Café, an odd object, frequently passed and seldom examined, sits on display. It is small—only around six inches long and one-and-a-half inches across, a conical piece of terracotta resembling a large, stubby nail, as its broader end features a raised lip like a nail’s head. Its ageworn surface is inscribed with cuneiform. Close beside it is a small tablet I also find fascinating; it is an ancient receipt for the delivery of sheep—perhaps a tale for another day.

Even though I have visited the museum many times, I’ll still often stop and peer at the conical object, one reason being it is one of the oldest items in the museum, dating from roughly 2250 BC. The small plaque beside it gives the date, as well as its place of origin—“Babylon”—together with the following information:

Foundation Nail from the Temple of Nin-Girsu Built by Ur-Baba, Governor of Lagash

Now this is a beef I have with a lot of museums. This information is both partial and misleading. I can imagine a layperson wondering how a nail made of terracotta could be used to construct a temple’s (or any building’s) foundation, and if it was some bizarre custom of the ancient Babylonians to inscribe all their fasteners, and what those inscriptions were about—“Hecho en México”? And of course one can’t expect the museum to provide several paragraphs of information for every item in their collection; it would be burdensome to produce as well as to read.

At these moments I am thankful that I already know what this object is, and I can explain it to anyone who has accompanied me and would like to hear more. I’m not sure why they even came to the museum with me if they didn’t want me to explain things.

This is actually a relatively common object from Mesopotamia mainly from the 3rd millennium BC used to dedicate buildings—typically temples—to a particular god. Called by various names, including clay nails, dedication pegs, foundation pegs, foundation cones, foundation nails, and foundation deposits, they were baked and stuck into the still-wet mud walls of these buildings during their construction.

Uninscribed multicolored cones were sometimes used in this way to create mosaic patterns, and as they were baked, they actually made the surfaces so decorated much more durable as well—a sort of proto-hex-tile.

The particular “foundation nail” at the LoH relates that the ensi (a ruler of a city-state) of Lagash named Ur-Baba has dedicated a temple to the god Nin’ngirsu.

Although I was not able to find the specific inscription on LoH’s example online, I was able to find a different one from the same temple, and these inscriptions tended to be formulaic rather than unique, so it’s a good bet they are identical; even though the LoH image is not great, I can see some glyphs that clearly match. This one is in the collection of the Museums of the Far East (Musea van het Verre Oosten) in Laken, Belgium, and according to the Museum’s bulletin reads:

[Column 1]
[Column 2]
nig.du.e pa mu./na.e

[Column 1]
(For) Ningirsu,
the mighty warrior
of Enlil,
the ruler
of Lagaš,
the son born
of Ninagala
[Column 2]
he made appear the everlasting (thing):
his Eninnu temple with the White Anzû-bird(s),
he built for him
and restored for him.

I should note that I’ve simplified the rendering of this inscription: there are a great many super- and subscripted and other special characters that are not supported by this site and which are also not of any importance to non-Sumerian scholars. Another quick note on the characters ĝ and š: their phonetic values are ŋ and ʃ, which would typically be rendered as “ng” and “sh” in English, as I will do.

For a rather short inscription, a lot of information is encoded, which I’ll attempt to unpack here.

Let’s start with the dedicator of this temple:

the ruler
of Lagaš,
the son born
of Ninagala

Ur-Bau is given as the name of this ruler, but I’d actually differ with the translation on this point, and agree with LoH’s. The inscription’s ba-u is more properly rendered as Baba (𒀭𒁀𒌑 better known as Nintinugga), meaning “beautiful woman” and refers to a protective goddess who is also the consort of Nin’ngirsu, the god to whom this temple is dedicated, and so Ur-Baba, meaning “servant of Baba” makes sense as the name of a ruler given this religious context.

And Ur-Baba does indeed appear historically as a ruler of the Second Dynasty of Lagash (Lagash II, c. 2260–2110 BC). Ensi, whose etymology is apparently from “lord of the plowland”, given in the translation simply as “ruler”, and which the LoH plaque glosses as “governor”, is a more specific title, indicating the ruler of a city-state, as opposed to lugal, generally translated as “king”, but indicating the of ruler of several city-states and even all of Sumer, and to which an ensi is therefore subordinate. Incidentlly, the gal in lugal means “great” and is cognate with Semitic galit (Hebrew גָּלְיָת), which we know better spelled Goliath.

Lagash was an important city of Sumer, located near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the coast of the Persian Gulf, near the modern city of Ash Shatrah, Iraq. It came to prominence in the late 3rd millennium BC, when it was ruled by independent kings, but was conquered by the Akkadians under Sargon (c. 2340–2284 BC) becoming a vassal state. Nonetheless, Lagash continued its prominence, particularly as an artistic center of the region. When Sargon’s state collapsed, Lagash became independent again with trade stretching across a vast area creating an influx of wealth under its new rulers.

As for Ninagala, this appears to be the name of a goddess that is not well attested. Given Ur-Baba’s association with Nintinugga, I’d expect this to be an alternate name of the same deity. Such polyonymy is quite common in Sumerian religion, as indeed it is in many others in the ancient world. Ninagala is described in another of Ur-Baba’s inscriptions as “his goddess”, where it also reports that he built a temple to her. His claim here of being “the son born of” her is important to understand as being used to legitimize a claim to the ensi title that is not inherited though kinship, but granted by divine providence.

Taken together, I think Ur-Baba, Ensi Lagash, Dumu-tuda Ninagala-kake can be thought of as a tripartite name, similar to those used broadly across the ancient world. The general formula is idionym + cognomen + patronym, but here patronym is overridden by the divine association with Ninagala.

Next, let’s look at the temple itself:

he made appear the everlasting (thing):
his Eninnu temple with the White Anzû-bird(s),
he built for him
and restored for him.

This is fairly straightforward language attributing the temple to Ur-Baba, with “everlasting” being clear boast (or at least wish) regarding the quality of the construction. Both “built” and “restored” are used because there was an older temple at this site that this one replaced. The translation I’m quoting is a bit redundant with “Eninnu temple” as E-Ninnu is literally “house of 50” and means “temple”. E (“house”) alone is often used to mean “temple”, particularly in formations like E-[deity name]. And more specifically, E-Ninnu is the name of this very temple.

Indeed, the subsequent phrase, “with the White Anzû-bird[s]” is likely the extended name of the temple, in similar fashion to Ur-Baba’s name, above. Thus, E-Ninnu Imdugud Babbar-rani: “House of 50 with the White Imdugud[s]”. I’ll get to Anzû-bird/ Imdugud shortly.

Then we come to the deity to whom the temple is being dedicated:

the mighty warrior
of Enlil,

Nin’ngirsu is one of the names by which Ninurta is known. The first element, [d]nin is a common one among Sumerian gods as it means “lord” or “lady”. The first name then means “the lord of Ngirsu”, which is somewhat circular as Ngirsu was the religious center of Lagash—it’s a way of referring to Ninurta as the patron deity of the city-state. The more common name of the deity means “the lord of barley”, reflecting his role as a god of farming, though he was also god of law, scribes, and hunting, as well as the consort of Baba. In his aspect as hunter, this god is related both mythically and etymologically to נִמְרוֹדֿ (nimrud), better known spelled Nimrod, famous for building (or attempting to build) a certain tower in the region.

“Of Enlil”, simply refers to Ninurta’s parentage: His father is Enlil, the chief deity of the Sumerians and god of wind, earth, and storms. Ninurta’s mother is Ninlil, also a wind goddess. Taken together with the sobriquet, “The mighty warrior”, this section is likely a tria nomina pattern similar to that of Ur-Baba, (Nin’ngirsu, Ursang Kalga, Enlil-lara). This is also done to deliberately echo the form of the god’s name with the form of the ruler’s, again reinforcing the earthly ensi’s divine right to his throne.

“The mighty warrior”, epithet seems to also fit into the extended name of Ninurta, having been earned through his deeds relating to the recovery of the Tablet of Destinies (dub namtarak). This tablet is a pretty important legal document, as it establishes Enlil’s dominion over the universe, so when it was stolen, Ninurta stepped up. Along the way to its retrieval, he slew seven fantastic monsters (sometimes also called heroes), draping his chariot with their corpses and despoiling them of their treasures.

None of the remaining corpus describes them in any detail (with one exception), which is a shame because their names are quite intriguing:

  • Ushum: simply meaning “snake” but typically called Dragon Warrior
  • Lugal Ngishimmar: King Date-Palm
  • En Samanana: which means “lord high-vessel”, but is generally rendered as Lord Samanana
  • Gudalim: “bison-bull” who appears to have had a human head, arms, and torso, and bovine hindquarters, walking upright—a kind of reverse minotaur—best known as Bison-Beast
  • Kulianna: “fish-woman”, generally glossed as The Mermaid
  • Mush’sangimin: Seven-Headed Serpent
  • Shegsangash: Six-Headed Wild Ram

The second line of column two also relates to this theme when it describes the temple as having:

White Anzû-bird(s)

The inscription reads im-dugud[mušen], which is typically normalized as Imdugud and for whom the Akkadian equivalent is indeed Anzû. And Imdugud is the thief of the Tablet of Destinies, seemingly appearing on Ninurta’s temple as a reminder of the god’s deed of besting the beast. It seems perverse to me for the translation to have used the Akkadian name for this being when there is a perfectly good Sumerian one.

And unlike the seven henchmen, we do know a fair amount about Imdugud, who is also known as Anzud, Pazuzu, and Zû. The last two names are Akkadian, and as Pazuzu, this being appeared in The Exorcist and thereby a host of other demonic-possession-related modern productions. The Ziz (זיז) that makes up a trio of giant monsters in Jewish mythology along with Leviathan (לִוְיָתָן) and Behemoth (בהמות)—ruling over air, sea, and land respectively—is also thought to originate from Imdugud. The Sumerian being is the god of wind who brings disease to man, king of the demons of the wind, with the body of a man, the head of a lion or dog, eagle-like taloned feet, two pairs of wings, and a scorpion’s tail.

Just to put it all back together, here’s my amended translation of the text:

Column 1
[For] Nin’ngirsu,
mighty warrior,
Enlil’s [son];
of Lagash,
son born
of Ninagala

Column 2
he made appear the everlasting [thing]:
his House of 50 with the White Imdugud[s],
he built for him
and restored for him.

The restoration of the E-Ninnu in Ngirsu was a grand gesture by Ur-Baba, symbolic of his city-state of Lagash’s reacquired independence after the subjugation of the Akkadians. He likely overthrew Akkad’s puppet ensi (his predecessor, named as one Kaku) in order to settle himself upon the throne, and established, at least for a while, his own familial lineage within the dynasty of Lagash II: his daughter, Ninalla was married to Gudea, to whom rule passed, and who in turn passed it to his own son, Ur-Nin’ngirsu, who also passed the throne to his son. Kaku’s grandson, however, reclaimed the throne and Ur-Namma of Ur had to intervene and defeat him, also putting an end to Lagash II.

My hope is that this article serves to whet your curiosity. Small and mundane-seeming items displayed without prominence can be gateways to our understanding of times long gone with a bit of digging.

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