The Phillipps Babylonian Cylinder: MS 3902 (Tales of the Phillipps Manuscripts #4)

Among the 23,837 entries in Sir Thomas Phillipps’s printed catalogue of his manuscripts are two unusual items:

3902   A Babylonian Cylinder, with arrow-head inscriptions

3903   Fragment of a Babylonian Inscription

They appear in a section of the catalogue entitled “Captain Mignan, Oriental MSS. &c.”, which also includes 35 Arabic and Persian manuscripts (Phillipps MSS 3904-3938) (1). This group of items was bought by Phillipps in 1829 from Captain Robert Mignan of the East India Company, for a total of £300 (2).

Mignan’s hand-written list of these items still survives among Phillipps’ papers (3). The cylinder is described as follows:

A cylinder composed of the finest furnace baked clay, with the cuneiform writing engraved upon its surface; executed with great delicacy, and beauty. This valuable piece of antiquity is the largest of two, only known to exist in this, or any country. It was discovered in a winding souterrain beneath the ruin at Babylon called by the natives of the country “Kasr” – or The “Palace”, which occupies the supposed site of the great western palace, and hanging gardens. (Length nine inches – circumference sixteen inches)

This account is very similar to a story told by Mignan in his book Travels in Chaldaea, published in 1829. Here he recounts how he discovered a cylinder in late 1827, in the Babylonian ruins known as El Hamir, eight miles from the town of Hillah, “in one of the innumerable unexplored passages, at the eastern side of that remarkable ruin the Kasr, or great castellated palace” (4). Mignan describes this cylinder as being nine inches long and fifteen inches in circumference, and his published drawing shows that it contained three columns of cuneiform writing.


Mignan, Robert, Travels in Chaldaea (1829)

The cylinder remained in the Phillipps collection until 1945, when it was acquired by Lionel and Philip Robinson as part of the unsold residue. They advertised it for sale in 1948, describing it as “one of the most famous relics of Babylonian antiquity” (5). The asking price was £2,500. The accompanying photograph shows that the cylinder has three columns of cuneiform text. Its dimensions are given as 8¾ inches (22.2 cm) in length and 5⅞ inches (14.9 cm) in maximum diameter. The sale catalogue does not quote the Phillipps number and makes no reference to Mignan.

The catalogue entry contains a lengthy account of the history and contents of the cylinder, based on a memorandum by “a well-known Assyriologist”. The text of the cylinder begins by recounting Nebuchadnezzar’s architectural achievements: the building of the East Wall of the City of Babylon, the restoration of the temple tower, and the rebuilding of various other temples: Nebo’s temple, Ezida, at Borsippa, Ebarra at Sippar, Eanna at Erech, and Egishshirgal at Ur. The cylinder’s specific purpose was to commemorate Nebuchadnezzar’s reconstruction and enlargement of the palace of his father Nabopolassar.

The catalogue entry acknowledges that little is known about the history of the cylinder before Phillipps acquired it. The author speculates that it might have been dug out of the ruins of Babylon by Arabs excavating there for the Abbé Beauchamps in 1784. He notes that the cylinder was copied in 1818 by Carl Bellino, who was working for Claudius James Rich, the East India Company’s resident in Baghdad and a keen collector of cuneiform antiquities. When Bellino made his copy, the cylinder was in the possession of the Catholic-Armenian Vicar-General of Ispahan, who lived in Baghdad. This information is derived from later accounts published by G.F. Grotefend, the German scholar who received a number of facsimile transcriptions from Bellino at that time, and gradually published them over the next four decades. Bellino himself died in 1820.

This account is at odds with that given by Captain Mignan. The Phillipps Cylinder could not have been copied by Bellino in 1818 and subsequently discovered in the ruins of Babylon by Mignan in 1827. What are the possible explanations for this discrepancy?

It is possible that two different cylinders have become confused. If this is the case, the first cylinder would have been transcribed by Bellino in Baghdad in 1818, and the transcription sent to Grotefend. A second cylinder could then have been found by Mignan in 1827 and never seen by Bellino. Which of these then became the Phillipps Cylinder? On the basis of Mignan’s descriptions, it was almost certainly the second one. But, in that case, the Bellino transcription could not have been made from the Phillipps Cylinder.

During the course of the nineteenth century, however, the Phillipps Cylinder did become identified as the source of the Bellino transcription. This transcription served as the basis for facsimiles published by Grotefend in 1850 (6) and by Henry Rawlinson in 1861 (7). Grotefend did not connect his transcription with the Phillipps Cylinder. Rawlinson, on the other hand, described his facsimile as being “From a Clay Cylinder found at Babylon and now in the possession of Sir Thomas Phillipps Bart of Middle Hill”. He seems to have been the first to connect the Bellino transcription and the Phillipps Cylinder in this way. But Rawlinson refused to see the cylinder for himself, according to Phillipps (8):

I offered to shew it to Sir Henry Rawlinson, but he did not chuse to come to me, therefore it is at the service of some other Babylonian Interpreter, who will not eat up his own words so often.

Phillipps also claimed that Rawlinson had described it as the “Bellino Cylinder” (9). This may simply have meant that Bellino had already transcribed this cylinder (which might explain Rawlinson’s lack of interest in seeing it). The object which is now known as the Bellino Cylinder is completely different; it has only a single column of 64 lines, dates from the reign of Sennacherib, and has been in the British Museum since 1825 (10).

A year after Rawlinson’s facsimile appeared, Henry Fox Talbot published a translation of the text (11). Talbot and Phillipps had exchanged several letters about the cylinder in the preceding five years, and Phillipps had sent at least one photograph of it to Talbot, in December 1856 (12):

I have had several trials to obtain a good impression of the Babylonian Inscriptions, but I have not succeeded yet. I forward to you the best yet made, with the hope that you may be able to decipher some of it.

It appears to me that none of the Lenses have been large enough. I have two Collodions on Glass for you, but they will require to be carefully packed in a small box, so as not to rub, & I intend to get it made.

The fragment enclosed is part of the other half; the man broke the glass before he cd take the Talbotype, so I made him take the largest fragment of it.

Phillipps may be referring to photographs of the cylinder taken by Mrs Amelia Guppy in 1853, which are preserved in a photograph album now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University (13). The album contains a selection of prints and negatives showing the cylinder (described by Phillipps as a “Babylonian Urn”), either on its own or in combination with what appears to be Mignan’s “Fragment of a Babylonian Inscription”. But none of these photographs would have been suitable for Talbot to use in making his transcription.

Nowhere does Talbot say that he has actually seen the Phillipps Cylinder. Nor does he mention using Phillipps’ photograph for his translation. His only references are to Grotefend’s 1850 engraving and Rawlinson’s 1861 lithograph, both of which he owned and used:

This inscription is from a clay cylinder, found at Babylon and now in the possession of Sir T. Phillipps Bart., of Middle Hill. The cuneiform text was admirably copied in facsimile by Bellino, many years ago; and the engraving of this on a copper plate, by the care of Grotefend, is equally excellent. More recently, it has been lithographed in larger and plainer characters in Pl. 65 of the New Volume of Inscriptions, published by the Trustees of the British Museum, under the skillful direction of Sir H. Rawlinson.

Talbot’s translation was followed by various other translations in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The text was eventually incorporated into the standard compilations of Neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions: Langdon (1912), where it is identified as Nr. 9; Berger (1973), where it is identified as Nbk Zyl III,4; and Da Riva (2008), where it is given the identifier C34 (14). There is no evidence that Langdon ever saw the cylinder; he appears to have worked from the published facsimiles. Both Berger and Da Riva describe the cylinder as formerly in the Phillipps collection at Middle Hill, with its present whereabouts unknown.


The Grotefend 1850 engraving, based on Bellino’s transcription

Did any of the people associated with the Phillipps cylinder ever cross-check it against the transcriptions? Grotefend was never in a position to do so; Rawlinson does not appear to have done so; and there is no evidence that Talbot did. The Robinsons’ sale catalogue does not say whether their expert Assyriologist had checked the Phillipps Cylinder against the Grotefend or Rawlinson facsimiles. The photograph provided in the sale catalogue is too small to be used for this kind of checking.

The only evidence of cross-checking is provided by Phillipps himself. According to him, Rawlinson “sent me the Inscription which Grotefend had had printed from it, & it tallies correctly with it” (15). This appears to mean that Phillipps had checked the Grotefend facsimile against his cylinder and found that they matched. If this is correct, it supports the view that the Bellino/Grotefend facsimile was indeed made from the Phillipps Cylinder. The alternative explanation is that there were two cylinders with identical texts – one of which disappeared some time after Bellino’s transcription was made, allowing his facsimile to become attributed to a different cylinder with the same text. But this seems improbable, especially since there is no other known copy of this text today.

If Bellino’s transcription was indeed made from the Phillipps Cylinder, then Mignan’s story of his discovery is probably untrue. The alternative – that the cylinder described in Mignan’s book is not the one he sold to Phillipps two years later – is very unlikely. The descriptions in Mignan’s book and in his handwritten list are very similar, strongly suggesting that they refer to the same cylinder. Perhaps Mignan simply took the cylinder from the Catholic-Armenian Vicar-General of Ispahan, with or without his permission, and brought it back to England to sell to Phillipps.

Their subsequent dealings were fraught with difficulty. Mignan seems to have returned to Babylon in 1830, at Phillipps’ request, with the aim of finding more objects of a similar type. But Phillipps was dissatisfied with the results, rejecting a set of cuneiform bricks as too damaged and worn, and a set of small cylinders and cornelians as not what he wanted, though valuable. He refused to pay, and a box of artefacts remained in storage at the British Museum, in the care of Sir Frederic Madden. In 1838, Mignan brought a writ against Phillipps for failing to pay both the costs of his trip and the price of the artefacts (16). It is hard to judge whether Phillipps was simply being difficult and contrary, or whether Mignan was a rather unscrupulous opportunist, trying to unload inferior or unwanted pieces on to a wealthy collector.

If the origins of the Phillipps Cylinder remain something of a mystery, its present whereabouts are not well-documented. A systematic search through the CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) database reveals no known Neo-Babylonian royal cylinders which match the Phillipps Cylinder for number of columns, dimensions, text and provenance (17). A three-column cylinder now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (CDLI no. P429992), as the result of a donation in the early 1970s, is similar in size to the Phillipps cylinder but has a different text (18). A three-column cylinder now in the Walters Arts Museum in Baltimore (WAM 48.1800) is also similar in size to the Phillipps Cylinder, but has fewer lines (138 as opposed to 171) and was bought by the Museum from Mrs Henry Walters in 1941. Another three-column cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar, privately owned, is poorly documented, but the CDLI record (Anonymous 480739) does include a photograph. The shape of this cylinder is clearly different from the shape of the Phillipps cylinder. None of the other surviving cylinders listed in CDLI resemble the Phillipps Cylinder.

According to Munby, it was bought from the Robinsons by Dr Martin Bodmer, the well-known Swiss collector, through the bookseller Heinrich Eisemann (19). Munby does not give his source for this statement. Only one Babylonian cylinder from the Bodmer Collection is listed in CDLI (FMB 000; CDLI no. P427638). It has two columns and therefore cannot be the Phillipps Cylinder (20).

Direct contact with staff at the Fondation Martin Bodmer has confirmed that the Philllipps cylinder is indeed still part of the Bodmer collection and is displayed as one of the first items in the permanent exhibition of the Fondation’s public museum in Cologny, Switzerland. There are no images or documentation relating to the cylinder on the Web site of the Fondation. Modern catalogues of Neo-Babylonian inscriptions appear to be unaware of its present location.

The Phillipps Cylinder “ranks high among the great records of Babylonian antiquity” (21). It would be fitting for a scholarly description and images from its present custodians to be made available on the Web.

It is still possible to buy cylinders of this kind. A cuneiform cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II was sold at auction as recently as April 2014, fetching $605,000. This measured 8¼ inches in length, with two columns of text (22). Another cylinder was advertised for sale in 2015 on AbeBooks for $1.75 million, by an antiquarian bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (23). This was described as “8¼ inches high” and containing the “Royal Proclamation of his re-building-to-perfection efforts of the Temple E-barra/E-ulla at Sippar (in ancient country of Babylonia)”.

  1. Phillipps, Sir Thomas, Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum in Bibliotheca Phillippica, facsim. ed. (S.l.: Orksey-Johnson, 2001), p. 54
  2. Munby, A.N.L., Phillipps Studies 3 (Cambridge: University Press, 1954), p. 56
  3. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Phillipps-Robinson Manuscripts, d.291, f. 12
  4. Mignan, Robert, Travels in Chaldaea (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1829), pp. 228-9.
  5. William H. Robinson Ltd, Catalogue 77: A Selection of Extremely Rare and Important Printed Books and Ancient Manuscripts (London, 1948), lot 127, pp. 132-4
  6. Grotefend, G.F. “Die Erbauer der Paläste in Khorsabad und Kujjundshik: Zweiter Nachtag zu den Bemerkungen über ein ninivitisches Thongefäss”, Abhandlungen der Historisch-Philologischen Classe der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften in Göttingen 4 (1850) 201-206
  7. Rawlinson, H.C., The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, Vol. I: A Selection from the Historical Inscriptions of Chaldea, Assyria, & Babylonia (London, 1861), plates 65 and 66.
  8. London, British Library – Fox Talbot Collection, Acc 20590 (Phillipps to Talbot, 31 July 1856)
  9. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Phillipps-Robinson e. 389 f. 12-14 (Phillipps to Talbot, 24 October 1856)
  11. Talbot, H.F. “Translation of an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar”, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, series 2 vol. 7 (1862) 341-375
  12. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Phillipps-Robinson e. 389 f. 24v-25 (Phillipps to Talbot, 8 December 1856)
  13. Harvard University, Houghton Library, Mrs. Guppy’s photographs of charters, seals, & antiquities at Middle Hill, Phillipps MS 20976 (Houghton, Horblit TypPh Album 30)
  14. Langdon, Stephen, Die neubabylonischen Königsinschriften (Leipzig, J. C. Hinrichs, 1912), Nr. 9, p. 19-20, 88-95 (transcription and German translation); Berger, Paul-Richard, Die neubabylonischen Königsinschriften: Königsinschriften des ausgehenden babylonischen Reiches, 626-539 a. Chr. (Kevelaer: Verlag Butzon & Bercker, 1973), pp. 287-8 (Nbk Zyl. III, 4); Da Riva, Rocío, The Neo-Babylonian Royal Inscriptions: an Introduction (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2008), p. 121 (Text C34)
  15. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Phillipps-Robinson e. 389 f. 12-14 (Phillipps to Talbot, 24 October 1856)
  16. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Phillipps-Robinson d.285, f. 95-107
  17. Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative:
  18. Artzi , Pinhas, “A Barrel Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon” Israel Museum News 10 (1975), 49-51
  19. Munby, A.N.L., Phillipps Studies 5 (Cambridge: University Press, 1960), p. 108
  20. Da Riva, Rocío, “Nebuchadnezzar II’s Prism (EŞ 7834): a new edition,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 103 (2013), 196-229 (at 221)
  21. William H. Robinson Ltd, Catalogue 77: A Selection of Extremely Rare and Important Printed Books and Ancient Manuscripts (London, 1948), lot 127, p. 132

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