French Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Discovery of the code of laws attributed to the Babylonian king Hammurabi provided evidence that the origins of Judeo-Christian concepts of justice were much older than had previously been thought.

Summary of Event

In January, 1902, French archaeologists, working under the supervision of Jacques de Morgan in the ruins of the ancient Elamite capital of Susa, unearthed several detached pieces of a black diorite block of stone. This block, which was covered on several sides by carved inscriptions, reached a height of nearly four meters (about thirteen feet) when reassembled. One side bore a representation of King Hammurabi of Babylon, who reigned over the lands stretching from the Mesopotamian Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the coast of the Mediterranean between approximately 1792 b.c.e. and 1750 b.c.e. King Hammurabi was depicted receiving a corpus of laws from the seated Babylonian sun god Shamash. The other sides of the massive stone bore the inscriptions, in cuneiform script typical of the literate cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, of the law code that would become known as Hammurabi’s Code. Hammurabi’s Code[Hammurabis Code] Archaeology;Hammurabi’s Code[Hammurabis Code] [kw]French Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code (Jan., 1902) [kw]Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code, French (Jan., 1902) [kw]Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code, French Expedition at (Jan., 1902) [kw]Hammurabi’s Code, French Expedition at Susa Discovers (Jan., 1902)[Hammurabis Code, French Expedition at Susa Discovers (Jan., 1902)] Hammurabi’s Code[Hammurabis Code] Archaeology;Hammurabi’s Code[Hammurabis Code] [g]Iran;Jan., 1902: French Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code[00380] [c]Archaeology;Jan., 1902: French Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code[00380] [c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Jan., 1902: French Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code[00380] [c]Monuments;Jan., 1902: French Expedition at Susa Discovers Hammurabi’s Code[00380] Morgan, Jacques de Scheil, Vincent Grotefend, Georg Friedrich Smith, George





The fact that the stone block was found in the ruins of Susa, and not in Babylon or a dependent city of the great Babylonian kings, seemed to have a logical explanation. Babylon and Susa were the seats of rival dynasties that were frequently at war with each other, both before and after Hammurabi’s reign. It was assumed that, as a result of one or another of the military campaigns pitting Elamites against Babylonians sometime after the middle of the eighteenth century b.c.e., the former carried the possessions of the latter, including the enormous stone monument, to their home capital of Susa.

Up until 1902, archaeologists had uncovered very little direct historical information concerning King Hammurabi’s reign. There were a few surviving written records, particularly from the archives at Mari, or Tell Hariri, in Mesopotamia, which was the political seat of Zimri-lim, a contemporary and rival of King Hammurabi. Before Hammurabi conquered Mari in the thirty-third year of his reign and destroyed its main palace (probably along with additional archival materials), Mari’s scribes had described certain aspects of the Babylonian king’s reign. This source provided incidental evidence of political and commercial relations and some information on Babylonian laws. With the de Morgan expedition’s discovery, the importance of Babylonian laws, and particularly Hammurabi’s Code, captured the attention of archaeologists.

On the obverse sides of Hammurabi’s monument, opposite the side bearing the inscription of the king and Babylon’s sun god, was a series of ordered columns of writing, apparently representing a list, or code, of laws. One side contained sixteen columns of writing with a total of 1,114 lines. Five columns had been obliterated from this face of the stone monument, presumably by the Elamite “victors” over Babylon, who likely intended to inscribe (but never did) a dedication to their own glory. An additional 2,500 lines in twenty-eight columns were carved into the remaining sections of the surviving monument.

Even before the work of concise transliteration and translation could be undertaken, it was apparent that an important section of the text (containing about seven hundred lines) was devoted to a description of Hammurabi himself, his titles, his qualities as a ruler, his dedication to the gods of Babylon, and, most important for archaeologists’ records, enumeration of the cities and districts under his rule. The text of Hammurabi’s Code was most important, not only in terms of numbers of columns and lines of writing but also for its impact on archaeologists’ knowledge of the main lines of Babylonian civilization.

A translation of Hammurabi’s Code by Father Vincent Scheil of the École des Hautes Études was published in Paris in October, 1902, only ten months after the expedition to Susa discovered the monument. The content of the code was diverse, but its main concerns included contracts of sale or business (deposits, liabilities, and the like), farming and animal husbandry practices, and dowry and marriage contracts.


The discovery of Hammurabi’s Code did not necessarily revolutionize archaeologists’ knowledge of ancient Babylonian or later Mesopotamian societies; it did, however, help that knowledge take on a much more comprehensive form in a short time. Evidence relating to Babylon’s place in the history of ancient Mesopotamian civilization had been accumulating steadily for more than a century before the French archaeologists discovered Hammurabi’s monument. This evidence should have advanced seriously beyond the realm of massive architectural ruins and pictorial monuments alone when specialists first unlocked the secret of ancient cuneiform writing.

Although the first legible transcribed copies of fragments of cuneiform inscriptions had been brought back from the Near East as early as the late seventeenth century, by Cornelius de Bruin, it was not until 1802— exactly one hundred years before de Morgan’s find at Susa—that the cuneiform writing system was “decodified.” Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a modest schoolteacher from Göttingen, Germany, had accomplished this task, working from one of de Bruin’s transcriptions of ancient texts from Persepolis in Persia. Grotefend did not have any of the advantages of word-for-word comparative language texts that Jean François Champollion had when he deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Rosetta stone in the same generation. Grotefend’s findings were announced formally before the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen late in 1802 and published as an appendix to a book on the ancient world authored by a recognized German scholar. The results of Grotefend’s work, employed to expand archaeological knowledge of neighboring and older Babylonian and Elamite civilizations, were not noted for nearly a generation.

When attention turned eventually to the study of Babylon, serious advances were made because of English exploration missions interested in major architectural monuments rather than because of the work of philologically oriented scholars. Before his death in 1821, the amateur archaeologist Claudius James Rich Rich, Claudius James had carried out the first serious excavations that attempted to reconstruct the history of the site of the Mesopotamian capital of Babylon. The nature of archaeological finds during Rich’s lifetime and for some years following shows the beginning of a significant, albeit gradual and uneven, trend that culminated only when the French expedition to Susa uncovered the legal texts inscribed in the name of King Hammurabi. Rich left behind in the collection of the British Museum a series of cuneiform tablets gathered in the ruins of Babylon, plus some drawings that would be used to estimate the topographical layout of the ancient city and to reconstruct the presumed appearance of the fabled capital of King Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 b.c.e.), Hammurabi’s distant successor. Meanwhile, the magnificence of pictorial stone reliefs on the sides of public buildings and tombs attracted the attention of archaeologists. The meaning of the cuneiform inscriptions that often accompanied such reliefs seemed to be less immediately pressing as items of scholarly interest to report to European archaeological enthusiasts.

Despite general concentration on nontextual vestiges and later Assyrian, not Babylonian, ruins, a significant debate over philological, or historical linguistic, approaches to the ancient past arose by the late 1850’s that would pave the way for recognition of the importance of the discovery of Hammurabi’s Code. A turning point came in 1857, when conflicting scholarly interpretations of an extensive cuneiform inscription attributed to Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria (r. 745-727 b.c.e.), were debated in the Royal Asiatic Society in London. This rather rarefied event generated so much interest in the importance of understanding the textual details that portions of a newly discovered treasure of several thousand clay tablets representing the content of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s (r. 669-627 b.c.e.) royal library at Nineveh were reexamined carefully.

When George Smith, an assistant in the Egyptian-Assyrian section of the British Museum, studied the tablets, he discovered the so-called Gilgamesh epic, a mixture of Babylonian religious mythology and history that altered the world’s view of a number of key ancient historical reference points. Primary among these was the epic’s reference, inscribed long before comparable citations in the Old Testament, to the Great Deluge and the role of Ut-napishtim, whom Smith identified as the Babylonian equivalent of the biblical Noah. After Smith undertook a successful search for missing sections of the Gilgamesh tablets amid the rubble at Nineveh, his thesis stood solid throughout the rest of the nineteenth century: Elements of the Bible had not been “tailored” without precedent to fit the original needs of Old Testament founders of the Jewish religion; some could be shown clearly to have been fashioned from preexisting Semitic traditions.

Here, then, albeit in literary and religious, not yet legal, terms, lay one of the most important preparatory contributions that would increase the impact of the French 1902 expedition’s discovery of Hammurabi’s Code. It was shown, through translations, retranslations, comments, and recommendations, that the Mosaic code, as well as a number of other elements of legal practice associated with the Old Testament, probably had very distant precedents in ancient Mesopotamian history that had been reexamined and then reproduced in later stages in the history of the same region or other regions. Therefore, the sources for twentieth century scholars’ study of the origins of Judeo-Christian legal principles and practices were, after the discovery of Hammurabi’s Code, necessarily placed farther back chronologically and farther east, both geographically and culturally.

It remains somewhat ironic that, despite a near-continuous eighteen-year on-site excavation project carried out in the ruins of locations associated with Hammurabi and other later monarchs of Babylon (between 1899 and 1917) by the German architect Robert Koldewey, no landmark textual discovery (as distinct from the uncovering of buildings and monuments) comparable in importance to that of Hammurabi’s Code was made in Babylon in the first part of the twentieth century. Hammurabi’s Code[Hammurabis Code] Archaeology;Hammurabi’s Code[Hammurabis Code]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godbey, A. H. “Chirography of Hammurabi’s Code.” American Journal of Semitic Languages 20 (January, 1904): 137-148. Like other editorially authored scholarly announcements concerning the written accuracy of the inscriptions found on Hammurabi’s legal monument (see, for example, “Scribal Errors in Hammurabi’s Code,” in the same volume of American Journal of Semitic Languages, pp. 116-136), this study examines the peculiarities of writing techniques in Mesopotamia during the second millennium b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammurabi. The Babylonian Laws. Translated and annotated by G. R. Driver and John C. Miles. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. This annotated translation of Hammurabi’s Code is considerably more extensive than the original English translation listed below. The wealth of detailed information comes not only in attention to the text itself but also in an extensive section offering philological commentary on the words and phrases it contains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Oldest Code of Laws in the World: The Code of Laws Promulgated by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, B.C. 2285-2242. Translated by C. H. W. Johns. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1903. Reprint. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2000. The first English translation of Hammurabi’s Code, undertaken shortly after the original French translation in 1902. This volume contains a valuable introductory section that describes the actual circumstances surrounding the discovery of the stone bearing the Hammurabi inscriptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Hammurabi and Women.” Harper’s Bazaar, April, 1903, 403. Perhaps the earliest popularly oriented article providing factual information from the original French translation published a few months earlier. Addresses an interesting subsection of Hammurabi’s Code.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wooley, Sir Leonard. Digging Up the Past. 2d ed. London: Ernest Benn, 1954. A historical introduction to the field of archaeology. Wooley’s wide-ranging knowledge of Mesopotamian archaeology, based on his pioneer excavations at Sumerian Ur (now Muqaiyir, Iraq), earned for him “senior status” among archaeologists who not only carried out scientific research but also provided very readable accounts of significant stages in the progress of archaeology.

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