Sunday, January 22, 2017

Correction: The Oldest Depiction of an Interpreter

One of the most popular posts on this blog has been the one of 5 July 2010, because of its photo of a detail from the the magnificent Haremhab Frieze. The post has been viewed by more than 5,000 readers. The frieze, which is now in the Royal Antiquities Museum in Leiden, Holland, dates from about 1,330 BC and shows an interpreter for one of the Egyptian pharaohs in action. If you haven't seen it, you can do so now by entering frieze in the Search box on the right.

The title and text of the post proclaimed that it was the earliest known depiction of an interpreter. But now a Hungarian reader, historian Kata Aklan, has written with proof that it's not so. I thank her for the correction. She says,
"The earliest image of an interpreter is that of Shu-Ilishu, an interpreter of the Meluhhan language (generally held to be a language of the Indus civilization) from ca. 2020 BCE."
That's a significant difference that pushes the record back 700 years. Furthermore she provides a link that leads to an image from the interpreter's cylinder seal as well as a key article by an American expert on the Indus Valley civilisation, the late Gregory L Possehl (see Sources below).

Some words of explanation. Meluhhan was indeed a language of the civilisation that flourished along the valley of the Indus river in what is today Pakistan. The greatest cities of the civilisation were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. So far Meluhhan has only been partly deciphered because of a lack of bilingual texts that could serve as a 'Rosetta stone'. However, Shu-ilushu's seal is not from there but from another culture, the contemporary Late Akkadian civilisation of Mesopotamia (roughly today's Iraq). The characters on the seal are therefore not in Meluhhan but in a better-understood Akkadian language: Sumerian cuneiform. It's known that there was a Meluhhan village called Guabba in Ákkadia, which would explain the need for an interpreter. An alternative explanation might be that he was needed for mercantile exchanges, for the Harappans are known to have traded widely by sea. From thefact that he had his own seal, it would seem that he was a professional.

The story of the modern provenance of the seal, as told by Dr Possehl, is also fascinating. It turned up in a collection of antiquities called the Collection Le Clercq.
"Gathered together in the 19th century by a wealthy man, this collection is composed of objects purchased from dealers with little, if any, provenance data presented. Therefore, we do not know where Shu-ilushu's cylinder came from."
But we do know that the Le Clercq collection found it way into the Louvre in Paris. Then it happened that in the spring of 2004 some objects from the collection were sent on loan to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was there that Possehl spotted it and had a better rollout made from it than the one previously available in Paris.

Notice that on both the frieze and the seal the interpreter is a much smaller figure than the main personages, signifying a servant status. As for the Haremhab Frieze, it's still, as Kata says, the second oldest depiction. Haremhab and Shu-ilishu both illustrate the universality of translation over time.

Anna Katalin Aklan. Budapest: Central European University, Doctoral School of History, 2017. Click [here] or go to

Gregory L Possehl. Shu-ilushu's cylinder seal. Penn Museum Expedition, volume 48, issue 1, 2996. Click [here] or go to

Cylinder seal. Wikipedia, 2016.

Fanie Vermaak et al. Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia. Click [here] or go to

Heather Whipps. How ancient trade changed the world. Live Science, 17 February 2008. Click [here] ot go to

The rollout of Shu-ilishu's cylinder seal. Courtesy of the Départment des Antiquités Orientales, Musee du Louvre, Paris Source: Shu-ilushu's cylinder seal. Click [here] or go to

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