A 4000 Years Old Sumerian Tablet – Oldest Proof of Literary Catalog

Oldest Catalog
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By 2000 B.C in Mesopotamia, there was such a trend for writing that they produced so many documents that were difficult to handle.

They were writing poems, biographies and administrative stuff (like Oldest customer complaint and Oldest written evidence for the visa process ) as well on the tablets.

Searching a unique tablet from the pile of other tablets was extremely difficult. During that time, scholars of Mesopotamia decided to create a catalog for at least a Literary section so that documents could be easily searched.

What is Sumerian Literary Work?

Sumerian tablet of Oldest customer complaint
Sumerian tablet of Oldest customer complaint

Sumerian literature consists of epics and myths, hymns and lamentations, proverbs and wisdom compositions.

The existing epic tales of Sumer deal largely with the feats and achievements of the heroes Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh, and with those of the god Ninurta and of the goddess Inanna.

Of the existing Sumerian myths, several deals with the organization of the universe and the establishment of civilization, and involve the creation of numerous cultural deities as well as the creation of man is included.

Need for Catalog

For the fact, we can assume that by approximately 2000 B.C., a large number of Sumerian literary compositions of all types were available in the temple schools of Sumer.

These were inscribed on tablets of different sizes and shapes which had to be handled, stored, and cared for. Therefore it seemed reasonable to create some kind of catalog tablet that can conveniently note and list the titles of this or that group of literary compositions for purposes of reference and filing.

Details of Catalog Tablet

Oldest Catalog Tablet Details

This plate illustrates a literary catalog compiled in approximately 2000 B. C. The upper part represents the tablet itself; the lower part, the author’s hand copy of the tablet.

This catalog tablet is in almost perfect condition. It is quite small, only 24 inches in length and 14 inches in width. Small as it is, the scribe, by dividing each side into two columns and by using a minute script, succeeded in cataloging the titles of 62 literary compositions.

The first 40 titles he divided into groups of 10 by ruling a dividing line between Nos. 10 and 11, 20 and 21, 30 and 31, 40 and 41. The remaining 22 titles he divided into two groups, the first consisting of 9 and the second of 13 titles.


And what is most interesting, at least 21 of the titles which this ancient scribe of approximately 2000 B.C. listed in his catalog are of compositions whose texts we now actually have in large part.

There is no way of knowing the titles of numerous compositions whose texts we have in large part but whose first lines are broken away.

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Currently, this clay tablet is present in the Nippur collection of the University Museum

Translation of Catalog Tablet

Following is the above said 21 titles whose compositions are currently available.

Oldest Catalog Tablet 63 Lines
Oldest Catalog Tablet 63 Lines

Hymn of King Shulgi (approx. 2100 B.C.)

The entire first line reads: lugal-me en sd-ta ur-sag-me-en, “King am I; from the womb, a hero am I.”. The composition is a self-laudatory Sulgi hymn consisting of 102 lines.

Hymn of King Lipit-Ishtar (approx. 1950 B.C.)

The entire first line reads lugal-mi-dugoga šà-ta numun-zi-me-en, “A venerated king, from the womb an enduring seed am I.” The composition is a self-laudatory Libit-Ištar hymn consisting of 106 lines. Read Law Codes of Lipit Ishtar

Myth, “The Creation of the Pickax”

This poem consisting of 108 lines is practically complete, although not a few of the passages still remain obscure and unintelligible. It is the prime significance of the Sumerian conception of the creation and organization of the universe.

An epic tale, “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World”

One of the more remarkable contributions to art made by Mesopotamia is the cylinder seal. Invented primarily for the purpose of identifying and safeguarding ownership of goods shipped or stored, it came to be used in time as a kind of signature for legal documents.

The upper design clearly attempts to portray a more or less complicated mythological story. Three of the deities can be identified with reasonable certainty. Second from the right is the water-god Enki, with the flowing streams of water and the swimming fishes

Myth, “Cattle and Grain”

The myth involving the cattle-god, and his sister Ashnan, the grain-goddess, represents another variation of the Cain-Abel motif in Near East mythology. Labar and Ashnan, according to our myth, were created in the creation chamber of the gods in order that the Anunnaki, the children, and followers of the heaven-god An, might have food to eat and clothes to wear.


  1. Hymn to Inanna, queen of heaven.
  2. Hymn to Enlil, the air-god.
  3. Hymn to the temple of the mother-goddess Ninhursag in the city of Kesh.
  4. An epic tale, “Inanna and Ebih”
  5. An epic tale, “Gilgamesh and Huwawa.”
  6. An epic tale, “Gilgamesh and Agga.”
  7. Lamentation over the fall of Agade in the time of Naram-Sin (approximately 2400 B. C.).
  8. Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur. This composition, consisting of 436 lines, has been almost completely reconstructed and published by the author as the Assyriological Study of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
  9. Lamentation over the destruction of Nippur.
  10. Lamentation over the destruction of Sumer.
  11. An epic tale, “Lugalbanda and Enmerkar.”
  12. Myth, “Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World”
  13. Perhaps a hymn to Inanna.
  14. Collection of short hymns to all the important temples of Sumer.
  15. Wisdom compositions describing the activities of a boy training to be a scribe.
  16. Wisdom composition, “Instructions of a Peasant to His Son.”


Whether the generation is old or not, innovations are made according to the need. The human mind always wants to solve the difficulties and we can see a good example from this invention of Mesopotamia.

However, it is difficult to find out, how much ease this catalog provided to the people of Mesopotamia but certainly, it was a seed that was planted at that time and which is encouraging the modern human for more innovations.



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