The Royal Archives of Ebla: Reference and Processing Archivists 4,000 Years Ago

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Ebla Discovered

During the summer of 1974, archaeologists at the excavation of the largest tell[1]in Syria, Tell Mardikh, in the process of removing debris from an ancient Sumerian palace, discovered forty-two clay tablets that appeared to be part of a palace archives. Subsequent work during the next three years resulted in the uncovering of some 20,000 clay tablets and their identification as the royal archives of Ebla. Scholars have learned from these tablets and other archaeological evidence that Ebla, which is 150 miles northeast of Beirut and fifty miles east of the Mediterranean, was the capital city of a Sumerian empire in north central Syria that had been founded in about 2900 b.c.e., and had flourished in the latter part of the third millennium b.c.e. [2]

Before 1964, when Ebla was first discovered, it was just a name in several Mesopotamian texts, its exact location and importance unknown. Some scholars, based on the few references to it, believed Ebla may have been a great kingdom and commercial center. Most scholars, however, doubted this, believing northern Syria in the third millennium to have been an arid semi-desert, inhabited only by wandering tribes of nomads. The discovery of Ebla and its tablets has forced scholars to begin rewriting the history of the Near East, giving Ebla its place alongside Ur, Uruk, Kish, and Lagash, as an important third millennium cultural and economic center.

Ebla was by 2500 b.c.e. a flourishing city-state, with an empire that was populated by over 250,000 people in hundreds of towns and villages. The city of Ebla, comprising 140 acres, was populated by upwards of 40,000 people, of whom 10 percent were civil servants. The business of Ebla was business, and the Eblaite empire was primarily an economic-cultural one, not a military one. It was a major export-import center, specializing in textiles and metals, with an economic zone of influence encompassing most of the Fertile Crescent. Many of the translated treaty tablets indicate that the Eblaites expended considerable energy to ensure, by peaceful means-such as dynastic marriages-the safety of their commercial routes. When peaceful means did not suffice, Ebla hired mercenary military forces to fight its battles, not having its own army. Ebla, unlike other Sumerian city-states, was essentially a secular society, and a sharp distinction was maintained between political and religious life.

The Eblaite empire was ruled by a king, who was elected for a seven-year term, and his royal family. Executive power resided in bodies of elders and ex-kings, as well as in the hands of fourteen regional governors, who oversaw the administration of affairs in the fourteen regions of the empire. Two  of these governors divided the responsibility for administering affairs in the city of Ebla itself. The top civil servant of the empire was also elected for a seven-year term, and like the king, could be re-elected. The day-to-day administrative work of the empire was accomplished by some 7,000 civil servants who worked for the regional governors. Another 4,700 civil servants worked in Ebla for the two city governors and the top civil servant. Some of these city civil servants, including scribes and archivists, carried out their responsibilities in the royal palace, a three-story structure, which contained the archival repositories.

Ebla’s Records and Archives

It was the desire to keep track of their busy economic-commercial life that led the Eblaites not only to create an extensive bureaucracy, but also to create and maintain records. It was for the same reasons that the Sumerians, around 3100 b.c.e., developed writing and began keeping records. The first such texts that can be read date from perhaps 2900 b.c.e., and are in the Sumerian language, written on clay tablets in cuneiform. The term cuneiform is derived from the Latin cuneus, meaning wedge, and is used to identify those systems of writing in which graphic signs are composed on clay tablets. Although this form of writing was generally discontinued by 500 b.c.e., examples of it exist for the next 500 years.

By the early 1980s, archaeologists had uncovered four archives in the royal palace of Ebla. About 15,000 tablets were found in the main palace archives, another 600 in one ante-chamber, 800 in another, and 1,000 in the third. Unfortunately, many of the tablets are only fragments, having been broken when the wooden shelving that held them collapsed during the fire that destroyed the city around 2220 b.c.e. [3] The Eblaite tablets, inscribed in the Sumerian and Eblaite languages, vary in dimensions and shapes. Round tablets are about fifteen centimeters per side. And the rectangular ones average about 26 x 24 centimeters, with some as large as 36 x 24 centimeters. The tablets are generally several centimeters thick and contain writing on both sides. They also frequently contain a brief identifying inscription on their edges, like the title on the spine of a book.

Next to the main palace archives was a writing room, where jars of clay and writing instruments were found. It was in this room that Ebla’s tablets were created and inscribed. The tablets were made malleable enough to receive their cuneiform impressions by the use of water. Once inscribed with a bone or reed stylus, they were sun-dried. The clay tablets of the next millennium, such as those found at Ugarit, were generally over-baked, which made them practically indestructible as stone. Fortunately for us, Ebla’s tablets were eventually baked during fires which destroyed the storage facilities.

Once sun-dried, Ebla’s tablets were transported to their storage locations by means of wooden planks capable of holding several tables. The tablets were then shelved vertically, resting against each other like in a library, on wooden shelves or on brick benches. The main archives tablets were shelved two and three high on wooden shelves. Clay tablet custodians, realizing the necessity of preserving their tablets against deterioration in the hot Mesopotamian climate, attempted to provide proper storage facilities for their tablets. This was generally accomplished by several means, including storing them in underground rooms; having thick walls for their above-ground rooms; and by utilizing different water systems to ensure proper humidity. As an extra measure of preservation some tablets were stored in clay containers and wooden chests. Most of these preservation measures were developed in the second millennium, and thus were not found at Ebla. It appears the only special preservation action that was taken at Ebla was storing the tablets in special rooms, most of which were well within the palace.

To this point, we have been addressing the clay tablets archives as if they constituted an archives in the current sense. But were they? When dealing with the clay tablets of the ancient Near East, some 250,000 have been uncovered, one is immediately confronted with the problem of categorizing them and their custodians. Were the tablets records, library material, or archives? If records, current or non-current? Were their repositories archives, libraries, records holding areas, records center, or even something else. Were their creators and custodians the same individuals? Was there a difference between a scribe and an archivist? The answers to some of these questions can be derived from the physical evidence of Ebla and other ancient clay tablet collections. For others, the answers do not come so easily. And to some degree, the distinctions that we may want to apply to the clay tablets, their creators, and their custodians, really are not applicable.

By today’s definitions we can more properly describe Ebla’s clay tablets as being records, archives, library material, and non-record material. So it is probably inappropriate to describe Ebla’s clay tablets as archives and their custodians as archivists. Nevertheless, their creators and custodians must have considered their tablets as archives, worthy of indefinite retention, primarily because of the administrative, legal, and fiscal information contained in the texts as well as for other reasons. Ernst Posner in his Archives of the Ancient World, observed there was generally no distinction made between archives and literary pieces, between archives and libraries. Clay tablet collections, he wrote, usually began as archives and then took in literary pieces. This was probably the case with Ebla. Libraries did not exist as distinct entities in the ancient Near East, but thus far, none have been found at Ebla.

Unfortunately we do not know, and probably never will, what disposition practices took place at Ebla, what records were destroyed. It appears that if a tablet was worth creating it was worth keeping. The Ebla tablets cover about 150 years, estimated at 2500 to 2360 b.c.e. by one archaeologist, and 2400 to 2250 b.c.e., by another. We know that Ebla was first destroyed around 2200 b.c.e., so it seems the latter dating of Ebla’s tablets is probably correct. We know also that it was rebuilt and destroyed again around 1600 b.c.e..  So where are the tablets for the period between 2200 and 1600 b.c.e.? One would surmise they must have been created. They might have been carried off and deposited in a yet unexcavated tell. They might have been destroyed in the process of being used as building materials. 

Regarding the information contained in Ebla’s tablets, archaeologists and others have provided us with valuable insights. The tablets consist of legal, executive, administrative, military, economic, lexical, and literary texts, as well as academic exercises. The legal texts include judicial decisions and contracts. The military texts include correspondence concerning military actions, the use of mercenaries, and the status of prisoners of war. The executive texts include royal ordinances and edits, letters of state and of officials, lists of cities subject to Ebla, and treaties. The administrative texts include payroll listings; tribute payment listings; lists of rations for the royal family, functionaries, and messengers traveling to other city-states, personnel assignments; and lists of offerings for the temples and divinities. The lexical texts include syllabaries, splitting words into syllables; encyclopedias, which were lists arranged by subject, such as professions, stones, metals, woods, animals, fishes, birds and geographical names; and monolingual and bilingual dictionaries and vocabularies. One bilingual text contains approximately 1,000 words of Eblaite listed in columns and in parallel columns, the meanings of the word being given in Sumerian. The literary texts include myths, epic narratives, hymns to gods, incantations, rituals, and collections of proverbs. Among the literary texts are a Creation story and account of the Flood. The largest collections of texts are economic-commercial related, which is not surprising, since about 90 percent of all the clay tables that have been uncovered in the Near East are economic-commercial related. Many of these Ebla texts are nothing more than ledgers and inventories.

Ebla’s Scribes

Ebla’s clay tablets, like those of the other-city states, were created by professional scribes. These scribes, if they were like those of other city-states of the Near East, were esteemed and respected, not only for their unique skills and knowledge, but also for the contributions they made to their society’s culture and the administration of its government. They were probably from the upper strata of society, their fathers most likely having important civil service status, and conceivably were themselves scribes or archivists. In Ebla, it was possible that women trained to be scribes, as it appears they were trained for other professions.

Ebla’s scribes, like those of the other city-states, learned their craft in a scribal school. Ebla’s school was headed by one or more individuals with the title of um-mi-a, or “the expert.” These individuals were also Ebla’s chief scribes and most likely the chief archivists. The school’s faculty contained one or more individuals with the title of dub-zu-zu, or “one who knows the tablets.” These individuals were probably Ebla’s senior scribes and archivists. We do not know how many students were enrolled in the scribal school at any given time, but the number must have been small, probably never more than ten.

Mastering the art of cuneiform writing was not an easy task for the scribal trainee. We know the earliest Sumerian script consisted of some 2,000 symbols, and although the number was gradually reduced and the writing of the Sumerian language simplified, writing was so complicated that few could master it. Apparently in the ancient Near East only professional scribes learned to write. Also complicating the learning of written communication was the necessity of being bilingual. In Ebla the scribe not only had to learn Eblaite but also Sumerian. Some of the scholastic exercises consist of very small tables with just one word written on them, in both languages. From these tablets, as well as others, it appears the trainees struggled to learn the intricacies of the cuneiform script. Some of the academic exercises show erasures, indicating students gave up part way through an exercise, and have markings indicating that the instructors desired the exercise to be redone. It is possible that some of the tablets showing learning mistakes were used as teaching tools.

After completing their scribal training, some new scribes, who may or may not have been Eblaites, left Ebla, to find employment in other city-states. Those that remained in Ebla were given the title dubsar. or “the scribe,” and assigned their duties. Based on the number of tablets, their 150-year span, and the amount of workspace available to scribes in the palace, it seems there were probably less than twenty scribes on the palace payroll at any given time. It is possible that some of the scribes may have been doing their duties outside the palace, either in other locations in Ebla or elsewhere in the Eblaite empire. It is possible that some scribes accompanied military expeditions against, or diplomatic missions to, other city-states.

Although many tablets contain the signature of the scribe who inscribed them, we do not know conclusively whether or not scribes specialized in preparing certain types of text. It seems probable, however, that some scribes specialized in preparing certain types of text, such as those involving affairs of state, which required more skill to produce than just listing figures in the economic and administrative texts.

Undoubtedly some, if not all, the scribes had archival duties and responsibilities. As archivists we would like to think those that held the title dub-zu-zu, “one who knows the tablets,” were archivists. But whether they functioned as archivists, as well as scribes and scribal instructors, is not yet known. In any case, the practice of archives administration existed in Ebla. It could be that just as scribes probably specialized in the preparation of certain types of texts, these scribes had archival responsibility for the tablets they created, and for similar texts created by their predecessors.

To some degree the explanation for an archival administration existing in Ebla is the simple fact that the Sumerian people were endowed with a remarkable talent for organization and a sense of orderliness. Ebla’s clay tablets were stored in special archives in the main palace. They were arranged by subject and thereunder chronologically.

Archaeologists have attempted to keep track of the exact location where every tablet was found, so their relation to each other can be derived, once they are fully translated and published. We do know that in the main palace archives, where 75 percent of the tablets were found, economic texts were shelved against one wall and lexical texts against another. Thus far no finding aids have been identified, so we must assume that memory and the arrangement scheme facilitated reference to the tablets and the information contained in them. As the three smaller palace archives each contained less than 1,000 tablets, their custodians probably had a good knowledge of their contents and were able to locate a specific text with relative ease, even when the time span of the tablets was 150 years.

The scribes of Ebla played a relatively important role in the bureaucratic administration, as they not only created and controlled its records, but also read all incoming correspondence and drafted replies. Their role, to some degree, can be compared to that of the clergy in medieval Europe. We do not yet know their compensation, but because of their importance, they were probably well-compensated, especially the senior scribes. We know that in the Ur empire, ca. 2253-2245 b.c.e., the director of its archives received the same annual compensation as the inspector of canals, the administrator of laborers, and twice as much as that of the inspector of gardens and the inspector of police.

Because of the administrative knowledge and skills the scribes gained in their profession they often assumed positions in the senior civil service of their respective city-states. In Ebla, one scribe named Azi, who we know was a dub-zu-zu, “one who knows the tablets,” rose to a very important position in Ebla’s bureaucracy. Similarly, an individual named Iaaim-Sumu, who was Mari’s chief archivist-scribe, ca. 1800 b.c.e., eventually became senior administrator in the city-state’s civil service.

Around 2200 b.c.e. much of Mesopotamia fell into anarchy as Sumerian rule collapsed when Semitic tribes wreaked havoc on the various city-states, including Ebla. It was at this time that Ebla’s palace, which contained the archives, was destroyed and buried in ruins. Subsequently new buildings were built over it, only to be destroyed again around 1600 b.c.e. After that point Ebla was abandoned, to lay buried under a tell until it was discovered in 1964.

The Lessons of Ebla

In many respects archival practices have not changed much in over 4,000 years. The media might have changed from clay tablets to paper to electronic records, but the archives of then and now are basically the same, especially with respect to preservation and arrangement. Preservation concerns, particularly humidity control, were just as important to the Eblaites as they are to today’s archivists. Similarly, archival arrangement does not appear, for most archives, to have changed much in over 4,000 years. Archives are still basically arranged and shelved in the same way. We might have better finding aids today, but how many archival collections are referenced today without finding aids? The answer is many. Human memory is just as important today as it was in Ebla, especially in those instances where finding aids have not been prepared. Although we appear to have better disposition practices than those, if any, in Ebla, they had one advantage on us-they had a role in the creation of their archives. They had no “adequacy of documentation” problem, having complete control of the life cycle of records.

Although archival practices, in many respects, have not changed much in over 4,000 years, the archival profession has. In the third millennium city-states, including Ebla, the scribe-archivists were considered as special civil servants, esteemed for their knowledge, respected for the contributions they made both to government and society, and adequately compensated. Compared to most archivists, as well as librarians, records officers, and information specialists of today, those in Ebla had things better. They, if they were like most of today’s archivists, enjoyed their work, especially their intimate relationship with the rulers of Ebla who had them create records.

A major reason why the scribe-archivists of Ebla, as well as those of the other Sumerian city-states, attained a relatively prominent place in government and society was their indispensable contributions to both. Being among the few literate individuals in their society, the scribe-archivists of Ebla were in a unique position to influence both government and culture, and they did.

Today’s archivists, librarians, and records and information specialists, although making significant contributions to both government and society, are not always afforded the esteem, respect, and compensation they merit, in part, this is explained by their frequent lack of ability to sell the importance of their programs and activities. This was something Ebla’s scribe-archivists did not have to worry about. It was an accepted fact.

There is much more for us to learn about Ebla, its clay tablets, and their custodians, but what we have learned thus far should give archivists, librarians, and records and information specialists a greater understanding and appreciation of their professions. Those professions, both at Ebla (as far as scribe-archivists are concerned) as well as today, provide a useful and necessary role for both government and society.


Among the sources used in writing this blog are Chaim Bermant and Michael Weitzman, Ebla: A Revelation in Archaeology (New York: Times Books, 1979); Giovanni Petttinato, The Archives of Ebla: An Empire Inscribed in Clay (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981), Ernst Posner, Archives in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972); Peter C. Cragie, Ugarit and the Old Testament (grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdman’s Publishing Company, 1983); Magnus Magnusson, “Archaeology and the Bible,” in Joseph J. Thorndike, ed., Discovery of Lost Worlds (New York: American Heritage Co., Inc., 1979); Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984); Kathleen M. Kanyon, The Bible and Recent Archaeology (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1975); and, Ebla to Damascus: Art and Archaeology of Ancient Syria (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Traveling exhibition Service, 1985).

[1] A tell, in Arabic, is simply a man-made hill consisting of the ruins of ancient settlements, each built upon the debris of a previous one.

[2] The city of Ebla itself appears to have been first settled about 3500 b.c.e..

[3] About 2270 b.c.e., a Semitic dynasty, the Akkadians, emerged in control of south Mesopotamia and soon they embarked on a series of long-range military expeditions into Syria. Sometime between 2350 and 2220 b.c.e., Ebla was destroyed by fire, presumably in an Akkadian attack.  The palace and temples of Mari, Ebla’s chief rival, were destroyed at about the same time, most likely at the hands of the Akkadians.