A 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian pillar contains the first deciphered inscription about border disputes


A marble pillar or stele that has been preserved in the British Museum for 150 years bears a cuneiform inscription, deciphered in late 2018, and which has turned out to be the first known record of a border dispute. It also mentions, for the first time, the term no-man’s-land.

Umma and Lagash around 2350 BC / photo Wikimedia Commons

The pillar is Mesopotamian and about 4,500 years old. Despite being in the museum for so long, it was the curator of the Middle East department, Irving Finkel, who deciphered the inscription, made to delimit the borders between the warring city-states of Lagash and Umma, in present-day southern Iraq.

Lagash, whose capital was Girsu, was one of the oldest city-states in Sumeria, located in what is now Tell al-Hiba, northwest of the confluence of Euphrates and Tigris. It had 17 major cities, eight district capitals and at least 40 villages. Umma, located northwest of Lagash (in present-day Tell Yoja), also controlled the cities of Ur and Uruk.

Archaeologist Sebastien Rey with the pillar / photo J.Fernandes-British Museum

The two fought over a fertile area called Gu’edena (the edge of the plain), so Entemena, king of Lagash, had the pillar erected with the inscription around 2400 BC to claim possession of the territory. It tells the full story of the dispute between the cities over the area, and the names of the main gods of Lagash and Umma, the first one Ningirsu and the second one practically unreadable. The latter is intentional, as a means of making Ningirsu’s power prevail over that of his rival god, something that experts say is unique and exceptional among the known cuneiform inscriptions.

But there’s more, because Finkel believes that the pillar and inscription were deliberately and artificially aged in order to make them look like a historical document and underpin Lagash’s claim to Gu’edena. The scribe also used an archaic type of writing for the same purpose, all of which made deciphering and interpretation difficult until now. It would therefore also be one of the first known attempts at documentary falsification.

Another view of the pillar / photo J.Fernandes-British Museum

The war between Lagash and Umma for this reason also led to the creation of one of the first peace treaties in history, embodied in one of the oldest legal documents known, the Treaty of Mesilim, signed around 2550 BC. This treaty established the border between the two, demarcated by a stele placed over the irrigation channel whose use was disputed. King Mesilim of Kish acted as mediator, who inscribed his final decision on the pillar.

But peace would not last, as Umma attacked Lagash two centuries later, completely destroying its capital Girsu. Its rule would not last long either, for a few years later Sargon of Akkad would conquer all the cities of Sumeria, ignoring steles and treaties.

Source: British Museum.