History—despite being complete—is never static. The stele that contains Hammurabi’s Code was discovered in 1901. However, the Code was known about before the stele was discovered and our understandings of its laws continue to change with time.
Thousands of clay tablets documenting legal transactions have survived from ancient Mesopotamia. Some of them date as far back as 27th century BCE. The first evidence of Hammurabi’s Code was found in 1854. Clay tablets unearthed at the mound of Tell Sifr in the south-east of modern Iraq contained business contracts that could be linked to a codified system of law.
As Assyriologists (archaeologists who study ancient Mesopotamia) continued to explore the Middle East in the 1800s, they continued to dig up contract tablets and other legal writings. These discoveries led German Assyriologist Dr. Bruno Meissner to speculate about their common content. He believed that a unified law code existed during the First Babylonian dynasty, 1830-1531 BCE. As more pieces of the archaeological puzzle were dug up, more concise speculation could be made.
In 1899, German Assyriologist Dr. Friedrich Delitzsch claimed that “it may further be conjectured that no other than Hammurabi himself... gave the command to unify the laws and ordinances then current into one Code of Law.”2 Delitzsch dubbed this unified system of law “Hammurabi’s Code.” Though a unified legal code had not yet been discovered, by the close of the 19th century it was presumed to exist and it had a name.
Meanwhile, the French government commissioned mining engineer, geologist, and archaeologist M.J. de Morgan to excavate the site of Susa, the Ancient City of the Persian Kings in the south-west of modern-day Iran. In December 1901, his team unearthed the first of three large fragments of black basalt. Joined together they made up a 2.25-metre pillar: the hypothesized Code of Hammurabi had been discovered. Found some 375 kilometres from the Babylonian city of Sippar, the place believed to be the stele’s original home, it is thought that it was taken to Susa by the Elamites around 1100 BCE as a trophy of conquest.
2. Edwards, C. (1904). The Hammurabi Code. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, p. 3.
Even though the stele of Hammurabi’s Code had been unearthed, several dozen of Hammurabi’s laws were still unknown. This was because Shutruk-Naknunte, King of Elam, created a particularly confounding problem 3,100 years ago. When he took the stele as a trophy of war, he had some of its text scraped off so that his name could be carved into it. While the Elamite engraving never happened, the damage lived on. On the front side of the stele is the relief sculpture, the prologue, and 64 laws. Below this is a blank space where Shutruk-Naknunte had the stele scraped. The back side of the stele was unharmed except for the ravages of age, containing another 182 laws and the epilogue.
Vincent Scheil, an Assyriologist appointed by de Morgan to take part in the French excavation of Susa, estimated in 1902 that 34 laws had been lost across five columns of text. Seven years later, German Assyriologist Arthur Ungnad showed at least two more full columns of laws were likely missing.
Even though the stele containing Hammurabi’s Code is missing several columns and other laws are only partially known because of the damages of age, it is not impossible to fill in the blanks. In addition to the clay tablets referencing the Code that had been found prior to the stele’s discovery, outright duplications of the Code have also been dug up. Perhaps most importantly, remnants of at least two more steles containing Hammurabi’s Code have also been discovered: it is believed that these steles were placed on public display at Babylonian temples during Hammurabi’s reign. Together, these remnants have helped fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, they are not perfectly preserved and span an age range of 1,000 years, complicating efforts to precisely fill in the missing laws. However, to-date about 30 of the missing laws have been partially or completely restored.
Although Hammurabi did not number his laws, translators of the Code believed it was important to number each law for reference purposes. The first translation of Hammurabi’s Code, created by Vincent Scheil in 1902, used the following system:
Scheil believed that 34 laws were scraped off by Shutruk-Naknunte, King of Elam. Later archaeological work revealed that 34 was probably a low estimate.
When the Code was unearthed, only three of the missing laws were known. Today, close to 30 of the laws are now known. Yet, nobody really knows how many laws are missing. Thus, numbering the Code’s laws has been a source of debate. In the early days, the three missing laws were numbered a, b, and c. Some translators continue to use the a-b-c system. Others have used different methods, such as starting a new numbering system for the back side. Even others have attempted to create a unique system for the missing laws that can accommodate the insertion of any new discoveries.
Regardless of how the laws are numbered, exact numeration past 64 will be an impossible task unless the entire Code is discovered.