Highlights: selected letters in the British Museum

This section illustrates a small selection of the clay tablets used by the Assyrian king and his officials to communicate with each other. The photographs are composites that show the front, back, top, bottom and sides in a single image. Use the links here or in the menu to the left to select a tablet inscribed in the Assyrian or Babylonian language.

This letter was found with its envelope intact, which was opened only in the British Museum. The letter was sent to the deputy governor of an unknown province by a man who had lost his post; according to the letter itself, it was but the fourth of a whole series of missives with which the author was bombarding the superior official, without ever receiving a reply to his pleas: "Why is my lord silent (while) I wag my tail and run about like a dog? I have sent three letters to my lord. Why does my lord not consent to send an answer to (my) letter? Let my lord return me to my office. As much as I served your father, so let me now serve you!" (British Museum, 81-7-27,199 and 199A = SAA 15 288 & SAA 15 289; photo by Greta Van Buylaere). Reproduced with permission of the British Museum. View large image.

The typical format of an official letter is that of a clay tablet of the shape and size of a mobile phone. The writing is parallel to the short side of the clay tablet and usually covers the obverse and reverse, with the upper and lower edges of the tablet inscribed if the space is needed; additional text can be inscribed on the left hand edge of the tablet but never the right hand edge, which is reserved to accommodate the final signs of the lines written on the tablet's obverse and reverse side, as needed.

The preserved letters from the royal correspondence are inner tablets which were originally enclosed in a clay envelope. This envelope bore the names of the author of the letter and its recipient, as well as a seal which identified the sender but, even more importantly, protected the content of the envelope. In order to read the letter, the recipient had to break open the envelope, thereby destroying it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, very few letters have been found with their envelope intact. Two examples are known from the Sargon correspondence: SAA 5 213 & SAA 5 214 and SAA 15 288 & SAA 15 289. These letters were not addressed to the king but were sent from one official to another. It is clear that they never reached their intended recipient but, instead, ended up in the mail of the king, presumably by mistake. The king, however, respected the letters' confidentiality and accordingly left them unopened.

Content last modified: 20 Jul 2021.

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© Mechanisms of communication in the Assyrian empire. History Department, University College London, 2009