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The Cuneiform Tablets of the Catholic Institute of Paris

The collection of cuneiform tablets, housed at the Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP), is mainly composed of a group of 472 tablets that belonged to the abbots Léon Legrain and Charles-François Jean, and was probably acquired in 1957 at the same time that the personal library of Ch.-F. Jean came to the ICP. This collection is known in the ICP as the “Legrain-Jean Collection.”

It was recently (Autumn 2001) augmented by some 250 other cuneiform tablets that had also originally belonged to Ch.-F. Jean and which were deposited at the ICP by the Lazarists (Congrégation de la Mission, rue de Sèvres), the order to which Jean belonged. No catalogue or inventory has yet been made of this supplementary lot which seems in particular to correspond to some of the tablets edited by their owner in two publications in 1922-1923 [1].

Charles-François Jean (1874-1955), student of Father Vincent Scheil (École des Hautes Études), was professor of Hebrew, then of Semitic epigraphy at the École du Louvre. He was the author of many works of Assyriology and studies of the Biblical world, West-Semitic, and Mesopotamia[2].

Information about the conditions under which the initial 472 documents entered the ICP is not available (for the moment, reference here is made only to these tablets). But it appears, in examining the texts and consulting over a century of Assyriological literature[3], that they had formerly belonged to or had been kept in several private collections: that of abbot Léon Legrain (for the tablets numbered ICP nos. 1 to 409), that of Dr. George Contenau (for the tablets henceforth numbered ICP nos. 410 to 447, and 457 to 464), that of Colonel François-Maurice Allotte de la Fuÿe (for the tablets now numbered ICP nos. 448 and 449), that of Father Vincent Scheil (for the tablet now numbered ICP no. 456), and that of abbot Charles-François Jean himself (for the tablets henceforth numbered ICP nos. 450 to 455, and 465 to 472). The Legrain-Jean collection thus combined what was originally several distinct lots.

1.     The “Legrain” part of the Legrain-Jean collection

The most significant of these lots, containing 409 cuneiform tablets (ICP nos. 1 to 409), was purchased in Egypt by Léon Legrain in 1911[4].

A French Assyriologist born in 1878, L. Legrain obtained his diploma from the École des Hautes Études by preparing, under the direction of Father V. Scheil, the edition of the tablets that he had acquired. In 1912, he published the results of his work in 2 volumes in the form of a catalogue, commentary, and autographs, published under the title: Le Temps des Rois d’Ur. Recherches sur la société antique d’après des textes nouveaux (Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, fasc. 199, Paris: H. Champion, vol. 2, 8). Teaching Assyro-Babylonian at the Catholic Institute of Paris until the end of the First World War, L. Legrain left in 1921 for the United States to serve as curator of the Babylonian Section of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the city in which he remained until his death in 1963[5].

We do not know the exact circumstances under which these tablets ended up combined with those of the Jean collection before it was acquired by the Catholic Institute.

The tablets of the Legrain collection are dated to the 21st century B.C., from the time of kings of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (Ur III). Nearly all come from the clandestine excavations carried out at the site of Drehem, ancient Puzrish-Dagan, in southern Iraq. Their contents are primarily of an administrative and economic nature. Written in the Sumerian language, they record, for the most part, the receipt or disbursement of livestock on behalf of the royal authorities in accounts kept by the scribes of the administration stationed in Drehem.

2.     The “Jean” part of the Legrain-Jean collection

The remainder of the Legrain-Jean collection consists of 63 cuneiform tablets (inv. ICP nos. 410 to 472). No precise information was found relating to the recent history of the documents of this lot, which had never been made the object of any particular inventory. It was only on the occasion of this work, completed in June 2002 as part of the CDLI project and in agreement with and supervised by Mr. Martin Morard, conservator of the ancient collections of the library of the ICP (library de Fels), that a classification was carried out and ICP inventory numbers were given to each one of these documents, following the numbers assigned to the “Legrain” tablets. Our examination of these 63 tablets and a bibliographical search have nevertheless made it evident that this part of the collection, previously amassed by Ch.-F. Jean, is actually made up of a disparate set of tablets that had originally belonged or been entrusted at a given moment

     to Dr. George Contenau, who was, between the two world wars, conservator in the Department of Eastern Antiquities of the Louvre Museum:

        → 38 of these tablets (ICP nos. 410 to 447) were in fact published by G. Contenau in his work, Umma sous la Dynastie d’Ur (Paris 1916: Geuthner). This author claimed that the documents belonged to his private collection. These tablets, bought on the antiquities market, date to the time of 3rd Dynasty of Ur and come from the site of Umma;

        → eight Ur III tablets of the same origin (ICP nos. 457 to 464) published by the same author in two articles in Revue d’Assyriologie in 1915[6];

     to colonel François-Maurice Allote de la Fuÿe, Assyriologist at the beginning of the 20th century (inv. ICP nos. 448 and 449). These two documents are distinguished by the fact that they still carry a very characteristic handwritten reference with "AF." This well-known ancient collection of Allotte de la Fuÿe was for the most part dispersed at the end of the 1950’s and at the beginning of the 1960’s, a good part having been acquired in 1964 by the Department of Assyriology of the Collège de France[7]. As yet unedited, these two Ur III texts will soon be the subject of a publication.

     to Father Vincent Scheil: it is a matter of one tablet of the Neo-Babylonian period, dated year 4 of the reign of Nabuchadnezzar (sixth century B.C.; ICP no. 456) and published by him in Revue d’Assyriologie 14 (1917) 154-156 ("Note XXXIII"). Let us recall that Father Scheil, Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études, had at the same time been the professor and mentor of Legrain, Contenau and Jean.

     to Father Charles-François Jean himself (inv. nos. ICP 450 to 455 and 465 to 472). One distinguishes in this lot the following documents:

        → four Ur III tablets (ICP nos. 450 to 453) which were published by their owner in his book Sumer et Akkad, Contribution à l’histoire de la civilisation dans la Basse-Mésopotamie (Paris 1923: Geuthner);

        → two tablets of the Old Babylonian period (18th century B.C.; ICP nos. 454 and 455),  from Larsa and published by Jean in the same book Sumer et Akkad;

        → seven Ur III tablets (ICP nos. 465 to 471) which will soon be the subject of a publication;

        → one modern forgery (ICP no. 472).

Regarding the 63 cuneiform tablets of this part of the collection, one may note that they date for the most part (with three exceptions) to the Ur III period, like those of the former Legrain collection. Their contents are essentially of an administrative and economic nature, but they almost all come from the site of Djokha, ancient Sumerian Umma.

Subsequent to an agreement signed between the Catholic Institute of Paris and the CDLI Project on May 22, 2002, all of these 472 tablets were, as part of the CDLI project, digitally imaged in June 2002 (by J. Dahl and B. Lafont).


Table of concordance

1)    L. Legrain, Le Temps des Rois d’Ur (409 tablets)

The numbers of the Legrain publication correspond to the numbers of the ICP inventory (Legrain TRU 1 = ICP 1, etc.). For these tablets see also B. Lafont ASJ 7 (1985) 165-188.

2)    G. Contenau, Umma sous la Dynastie d’Ur (38 tablets)

GC Umma 1 = ICP 410

GC Umma 30 = ICP 423

GC Umma 67 = ICP 436

GC Umma 2 = ICP 411

GC Umma 33 = ICP 424

GC Umma 72 = ICP 437

GC Umma 3 = ICP 412

GC Umma 34 = ICP 425

GC Umma 73 = ICP 438

GC Umma 7 = ICP 413

GC Umma 40 = ICP 426

GC Umma 76 = ICP 439

GC Umma 9 = ICP 414

GC Umma 42 = ICP 427

GC Umma 80 = ICP 440

GC Umma 10 = ICP 415

GC Umma 44 = ICP 428

GC Umma 85 = ICP 441

GC Umma 13 = ICP 416

GC Umma 51 = ICP 429

GC Umma 92 = ICP 442

GC Umma 14 = ICP 417

GC Umma 52 = ICP 430

GC Umma 96 = ICP 443

GC Umma 19 = ICP 418

GC Umma 54 = ICP 431

GC Umma 99 = ICP 444

GC Umma 20 = ICP 419

GC Umma 57 = ICP 432

GC Umma 105 = ICP 445

GC Umma 21 = ICP 420

GC Umma 61 = ICP 433

GC Umma 107 = ICP 446

GC Umma 27 = ICP 421

GC Umma 63 = ICP 434

GC Umma 110 = ICP 447

GC Umma 28 = ICP 412

GC Umma 65 = ICP 435

3)    Ch. F. Jean, Sumer et Akkad (7 tablets)

Jean SA 78 = ICP 450

Jean SA 117a = ICP 452

Jean SA 175 = ICP 454

Jean SA 91 = ICP 451

Jean SA 145 = ICP 453

Jean SA 181 = ICP 455

4)    G. Contenau, Revue d’Assyriologie 12 (1915) (8 tablets)

RA 12, 20, 7 = ICP 457

RA 12, 153, 4 = ICP 460

RA 12, 155, 11 = ICP 463

RA 12, 20, 10 = ICP 458

RA 12, 154, 5 = ICP 461

RA 12, 155, 12 = ICP 464

RA 12, 21, 14 = ICP 459

RA 12, 154, 6 = ICP 462

5)    V. Scheil, Revue d’Assyriologie 14 (1917) (1 tablet)

RA 14, 154-156, XXXIII = ICP 456

Bertrand Lafont
July 2002


[1] Ch.-F. Jean, "L’Elam sous la dynastie d’Ur," Revue d’Assyriologie 19 (1922) 1-44; and Sumer et Akkad. Contribution à l’histoire de la civilisation dans la Basse-Mésopotamie (Paris, 1923).

[2] Cf. Obituary in the Revue d’Assyriologie 50 (1956) 34-35, and in Syria 32 (1955) 395-397.

[3] The majority of these tablets has already been published, most often in the form of autographs. The literature relative to each of them is given in the catalogue-inventory created in the course of the present work and registered at the ICP.

[4] For the circumstances of the acquisition of these documents, see L. Legrain, Le Temps des Rois d’Ur (Paris, 1912) 1-3.

[5] See Reallexikon der Assyriologie 6 (Berlin, 1980-1983) 543.

[6] G. Contenau, "Tablettes de comptabilité relatives à l’industrie du cuivre à Umma au XXIIIe siècle," Revue d’Assyriologie 12 (1915) 15-27; and "Tablettes de comptabilité relatives à l’industrie du vêtement à Umma au XXIIIe siècle," Revue d’Assyriologie 12 (1915) 147-157.

[7] J.-P. Grégoire, Archives Administratives Sumériennes (Paris, 1970) IX n. ii.