Ancient political spin

This clay prism is one of the most important records from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Each of the four sides is inscribed with two columns of cuneiform (wedge-like) script recording the Sumerian language. The document lists a succession of cities in Sumer and its neighbouring regions, their rulers and the length of their reigns. Several versions of the Sumerian King List have survived, but this one represents the most extensive as well as the most complete.

The list is not history as we would understand it, but a combination of myth, legend and historical information. It starts with the mythological origins of kingship, when individuals have fantastically long reigns. This is followed by the famous lines: ‘The Flood swept over. After the Flood had swept over and kingship had descended from heaven’. The flood is the subject of other major works in Mesopotamian literature and the story was adapted in the Old Testament to form the basis of the account of Noah.

As the list reaches historical rulers the length of each reign becomes more realistic. It ends with King Sin-magir of the so-called Isin dynasty (around 1827–1817 BC). The Sumerian King List seems to have been composed to imply that the dominion of Mesopotamia, determined by the gods, could only be exercised by one city at a given time and for a limited period. In this way the rulers of the city of Isin legitimised themselves as the rightful successors of powerful kingdoms of the past.

Probably Larsa, Iraq
c. 1800 BC 
20 x 9 cm 
Presented by Herbert Weld-Blundell, 1923