Category Archives: Mesopotamia

Hidden women of history: Ennigaldi-Nanna, curator of the world’s first museum



The National Museum of Iraq photographed in February 2018. Many of the pieces discovered at the ruins of Ur, arranged and labelled by Ennigaldi-Nanna, can be found here.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

“It belongs in a museum.” With these words, Indiana Jones, the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist, articulated an association between archaeologists, antiquities, and museums that has a very long history. Indeed, even Jones himself would likely marvel at the historic setting of the world’s first “museum,” and the remarkable woman who is believed to have been its curator, the Mesopotamian princess, Ennigaldi-Nanna.

Ennigaldi-Nanna was the priestess of the moon deity Sin, and the daughter of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus. In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, around 530BCE, a small collection of antiquities was gathered, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artefacts.

C. Leonard Woolley (left) and T. E. Lawrence at archaeological excavations in Syria, circa 1912-1914.
Wikimedia Commons

This collection was considered by the British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, to be the earliest known example of a “museum”.

In 1925, Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur (now in the Dhi Qar governate of southern Iraq). They discovered a curious collection of artefacts among the ruins of a Babylonian palace. Especially unusual was that while the items were from different geographical areas and historical settings, they were neatly assembled together.

An example of Sumerian script on a foundation tablet 2144-2124 BCE (Lagash II; Ur III).
The Walters Art Museum

The items ranged in dates from around 2100 BCE to 600 BCE. They included part of a statue of the famous early king, Shulgi of Ur, who ruled around 2058 BCE, a ceremonial mace-head made of stone, and some texts. The statue, Woolley observed, had been carefully restored to preserve the writing.

There was also a Kassite boundary stele (called a “kudurru”), a written document used to mark boundaries and make proclamations. The stele was dated to around 1400 BCE, and contained, Woolley noted, a “terrific curse” on anyone who removed or destroyed the record it contained.

Many items were accompanied by labels giving details about the artefacts. These were written in three languages, including Sumerian. The labels have been described in modern scholarship as early examples of the “metadata” that is so critical to the preservation of antiquities and the historical record.




Read more:
Fifteen years after looting, thousands of artefacts are still missing from Iraq’s national museum


The museum, over 2,500 years old, was centred on cultural heritage, and it is thought to have perhaps had an educational purpose. Along with her other roles, Ennigaldi-Nanna is believed to have run a scribal school for elite women.

When considering the discovery, Woolley noted that the discovery of a museum associated with the priestess was not unexpected, given the close connection between religious specialists and education. He also commented on the “antiquarian piety” of the time of the museum’s construction — an interest in history was a common feature among monarchs from the Neo-Babylonian period.

A family fascination with history

Indeed, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appreciation for the past seems to have been a family trait. Her father Nabonidus had a fascination with history which led him to conduct excavations and discover lost texts. Many of the items in the collection were discovered by him, with Nabonidus sometimes described in the modern day as the world’s first archaeologist.

Stela of Nabonidus made of basalt.
Wikimedia Commons

Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and a religious reformer. His eldest son, Belshazzar, ruled as his regent for many years, but is perhaps best known for his appearance in the biblical Book of Daniel. In a famous scene, the unfortunate regent sees the end of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom coming when it is foretold through the writing of a disembodied hand on a wall.

King Nabonidus’ interest in history didn’t end with archaeology. He also worked to revive ancient cultic traditions relating to the moon deity, Sin (Sumerian Nanna). His daughter Ennigaldi was an important part of these efforts, indeed, her name is an ancient Sumerian one, meaning “the priestess, the desire of the Moon god.”

A boundary stele/kudurru showing King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash and the star the goddess Ishtar.
Wikimedia Commons

The appointment of Ennigaldi as high priestess in Ur reinvigorated a historical trend made famous by Sargon of Akkad, who installed his daughter, the poetess Enheduanna, in the role over 1000 years earlier.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Enheduanna, princess, priestess and the world’s first known author


By the time of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appointment, the religious role she would inhabit had long been unoccupied, and the rituals associated with the post had been forgotten. Nabonidus, however, describes finding an ancient stela belonging to Nebuchadnezzar I, and using it to guide his actions.

The historic aspects of the appointment of Ennigaldi-Nanna were further emphasised by Nabonidus when noting his research into the requirements of her role. The king describes consulting the writings of a previous priestess, a sister of the ruler Rim-Sin named En-ane-du.

Rim-Sin reigned over 1200 years before Nabonidus came to power. While some scholars doubt Nabonidus’ discovery of the stela of Nebuchadnezzar I, his recovery of the writings of the priestess, En-ane-du, has greater acceptance.

Ruins in the town of Ur, Southern Iraq, photographed in 2006. Around 530BCE, a small collection of antiquities was gathered here, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artefacts.
Wikimedia Commons

Little known today

Ennigaldi is largely unknown in the modern day. An exception to her modern anonymity may be found in the luxury fashion line, Ennigaldi, which creates pieces inspired by ancient Babylonian architecture.

While relatively little is known of the life of Ennigaldi, there are other well-known women in her family tree. Ennigaldi’s grandmother, Adad-guppi, was also a powerful priestess involved in the political world of her son, Nabonidus. Adad-guppi is best known in the present day from her “autobiography,” a cuneiform account of her life, written in the first person. Adad-guppi’s autobiography records the blessings she received from the moon deity such as living to the age of 104 with a sound mind and body.

The city of Ur and its museum were abandoned around 500 BCE, due to deteriorating environmental conditions. These included a severe drought, along with changing river and silt patterns. The prevalence of drought has also been cited as a likely cause of the falls of many earlier kingdoms from the Bronze Age.

The story of the world’s first known museum, its curator, and her family, shows the timeless appeal of conserving the treasures of the past. At the same time, the disappearance of this early institution of learning over two millennia ago demonstrates the significant overlap in the important areas of cultural heritage and environmental conservation.The Conversation

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Archive of Sumerian Literature


At the BookShelf

The link below is to an archive website for Sumerian literature, one of the first known languages and some of the earliest known literature.

For more visit:
http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/

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Hidden women of history: Enheduanna, princess, priestess and the world’s first known author



File 20190207 174861 1s749k2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Standard of Ur mosaic, 26th century BC.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.

The third millennium BCE was a time of upheaval in Mesopotamia. The conquest of Sargon the Great saw the development of the world’s first great empire. The city of Akkad become one of the largest in the world, and northern and southern Mesopotamia were united for the first time in history.

In this extraordinary historical setting, we find the fascinating character of Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter. She worked as the high priestess of the moon deity Nanna-Suen at his temple in Ur (in modern-day Southern Iraq). The celestial nature of her occupation is reflected in her name, meaning “Ornament of Heaven”.

Enheduanna composed several works of literature, including two hymns to the Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). She wrote the myth of Inanna and Ebih, and a collection of 42 temple hymns. Scribal traditions in the ancient world are often considered an area of male authority, but Enheduanna’s works form an important part of Mesopotamia’s rich literary history.

Ancient Akkadian cylindrical seal depicting Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna.
Wikimedia Commons



Read more:
Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war


Enheduanna’s status as a named poet is significant given the anonymity surrounding works of even earlier authors. Yet she is almost entirely unknown in the modern day, and her achievements have been largely overlooked (a notable exception is the work of Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador).
Her written works are deeply personal in subject, containing numerous biographical features.

Enheduanna’s cycle of temple hymns concludes with an assertion of the work’s originality and its authorship:

The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.

While clearly asserting ownership over the creative property of her work, Enheduanna also comments on the difficulties of the creative process — apparently, writer’s block was a problem even in ancient Mesopotamia.

Long hours labouring by night

In her hymns, Enheduanna comments on the challenge of encapsulating divine wonders through the written word. She describes spending long hours labouring over her compositions by night, for them then to be performed in the day. The fruits of her work are dedicated to the goddess of love.

Enheduanna’s poetry has a reflective quality that emphasises the superlative qualities of its divine muse, while also highlighting the artistic skill required for written compositions.

Her written praise of celestial deities has been recognised in the field of modern astronomy. Her descriptions of stellar measurements and movements have been described as possible early scientific observations. Indeed, a crater on Mercury was named in her honour in 2015.

Enheduanna’s works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing using clay tablets but have only survived in the form of much later copies from around 1800 BCE, from the Old Babylonian period and later. The lack of earlier sources has raised doubts for some over Enheduanna’s identification as the author of myths and hymns and her status as a religious official of high rank. However, the historical record clearly identifies Enheduanna as the composer of ancient literary works, and this is undoubtedly an important aspect of the traditions surrounding her.




Read more:
Friday essay: the recovery of cuneiform, the world’s oldest known writing


Aside from poetry, other sources for Enheduanna’s life have been discovered by archaeologists. These include cylinder seals belonging to her servants, and an alabaster relief inscribed with her dedication. The Disk of Enheduanna was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley and his team of excavators in 1927.

The Disk of Enheduanna.
Zunkir/Mefman00/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The Disk was discarded and apparently defaced in antiquity, but the pieces were recovered through excavations and the scene featuring the writer successfully restored. The scene depicts the priestess at work: along with three male attendants, she observes a libation offering being poured from a jug.

Enheduanna is situated in the centre of the image, with her gaze focused on the religious offering, and her hand raised in a gesture of piety. The image on the Disk emphasises the religious and social status of the priestess, who is wearing a cap and flounced garment.

Art imitates life

Enheduanna’s poetry contains what are thought to be autobiographical elements, such as descriptions of her struggle against a usurper, Lugalanne. In her composition The Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna describes Lugalanne’s attempts to force her from her role at the temple.

Inanna temple relief.
Wikimedia Commons

Enheduanna’s pleas to the moon god were apparently met with silence. She then turned to Inanna, who is praised for restoring her to office.

The challenge to Enheduanna’s authority, and her praise of her divine helper, are echoed in her other work, such as in the myth known as Inanna and Ebih.

In this narrative, the goddess Inanna comes into conflict with a haughty mountain, Ebih. The mountain offends the deity by standing tall and refusing to bow low to her. Inanna seeks help from her father, the deity Anu. He (understandably) advises her against going to war with the fearsome mountain range.

Inanna, in typically bold form, ignores this instruction and annihilates the mountain, before praising the god Enlil for his assistance. The myth contains intriguing parallels with the conflict described in Enheduanna’s poetry.

In the figure of Enheduanna, we see a powerful figure of great creativity, whose passionate praise of the goddess of love continues to echo through time, 4000 years after first being carved into a clay tablet.

Note: Translations of the Temple Hymns are taken from Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford 1998.The Conversation

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


In ancient Mesopotamia, sex among the gods shook heaven and earth



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The “Burney Relief,” which is believed to represent either Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, or her older sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the underworld (c. 19th or 18th century BC)
BabelStone

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.


Sexuality was central to life in ancient Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East often described as the cradle of western civilisation roughly corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey. It was not only so for everyday humans but for kings and even deities.

Mesopotamian deities shared many human experiences, with gods marrying, procreating and sharing households and familial duties. However when love went wrong, the consequences could be dire in both heaven and on earth.

Scholars have observed the similarities between the divine “marriage machine” found in ancient literary works and the historical courtship of mortals, although it is difficult to disentangle the two, most famously in so-called “sacred marriages”, which saw Mesopotamian kings marrying deities.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh


Divine sex

Gods, being immortal and generally of superior status to humans, did not strictly need sexual intercourse for population maintenance, yet the practicalities of the matter seem to have done little to curb their enthusiasm.

Sexual relationships between Mesopotamian deities provided inspiration for a rich variety of narratives. These include Sumerian myths such as Enlil and Ninlil and Enki and Ninhursag, where the complicated sexual interactions between deities was shown to involve trickery, deception and disguise.

The goddess Ishtar as depicted in Myths and legends of Babylonia & Assyria, 1916, by Lewis Spence.
Wikimedia

In both myths, a male deity adopts a disguise, and then attempts to gain sexual access to the female deity — or to avoid his lover’s pursuit. In the first, the goddess Ninlil follows her lover Enlil down into the Underworld, and barters sexual favours for information on Enlil’s whereabouts. The provision of a false identity in these myths is used to circumnavigate societal expectations of sex and fidelity.

Sexual betrayal could spell doom not only for errant lovers but for the whole of society. When the Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal, is abandoned by her lover, Nergal, she threatens to raise the dead unless he is returned to her, alluding to her right to sexual satiety.

The goddess Ishtar makes the same threat in the face of a romantic rejection from the king of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is interesting to note that both Ishtar and Ereshkigal, who are sisters, use one of the most potent threats at their disposal to address matters of the heart.




Read more:
Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war


The plots of these myths highlight the potential for deceit to create alienation between lovers during courtship. The less-than-smooth course of love in these myths, and their complex use of literary imagery, have drawn scholarly comparisons with the works of Shakespeare.

Love poetry

Ancient authors of Sumerian love poetry, depicting the exploits of divine couples, show a wealth of practical knowledge on the stages of female sexual arousal. It’s thought by some scholars that this poetry may have historically had an educational purpose: to teach inexperienced young lovers in ancient Mesopotamia about intercourse. It’s also been suggested the texts had religious purposes, or possibly magical potency.

Several texts write of the courtship of a divine couple, Inanna (the Semitic equivalent of Ishtar) and her lover, the shepherd deity Dumuzi. The closeness of the lovers is shown through a sophisticated combination of poetry and sensuousness imagery – perhaps providing an edifying example for this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction nominees.

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing Dumuzid being tortured in the Underworld by the galla demons.
British Museum

In one of the poems, elements of the female lover’s arousal are catalogued, from the increased lubrication of her vulva, to the “trembling” of her climax. The male partner is presented delighting in his partner’s physical form, and speaking kindly to her. The feminine perspective on lovemaking is emphasised in the texts through the description of the goddess’ erotic fantasies. These fantasies are part of the preparations of the goddess for her union, and perhaps contribute to her sexual satisfaction.

Female and male genitals could be celebrated in poetry, the presence of dark pubic hair on the goddess’ vulva is poetically described through the symbolism of a flock of ducks on a well-watered field or a narrow doorway framed in glossy black lapis-lazuli.

The representation of genitals may also have served a religious function: temple inventories have revealed votive models of pubic triangles, some made of clay or bronze. Votive offerings in the shape of vulvae have been found in the city of Assur from before 1000 BC.

Happy goddess, happy kingdom

Divine sex was not the sole preserve of the gods, but could also involve the human king. Few topics from Mesopotamia have captured the imagination as much as the concept of sacred marriage. In this tradition, the historical Mesopotamian king would be married to the goddess of love, Ishtar. There is literary evidence for such marriages from very early Mesopotamia, before 2300 BC, and the concept persevered into much later periods.

The relationship between historical kings and Mesopotamian deities was considered crucial to the successful continuation of earthly and cosmic order. For the Mesopotamian monarch, then, the sexual relationship with the goddess of love most likely involved a certain amount of pressure to perform.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a goddess’ vulva could be compared to a flock of ducks.
Shutterstock.com

Some scholars have suggested these marriages involved a physical expression between the king and another person (such as a priestess) embodying the goddess. The general view now is that if there were a physical enactment to a sacred marriage ritual it would have been conducted on a symbolic level rather than a carnal one, with the king perhaps sharing his bed with a statue of the deity.

Agricultural imagery was often used to describe the union of goddess and king. Honey, for instance, is described as sweet like the goddess’ mouth and vulva.

A love song from the city of Ur between 2100-2000 BC is dedicated to Shu-Shin, the king, and Ishtar:

In the bedchamber dripping with honey let us enjoy over and over your allure, the sweet thing. Lad, let me do the sweetest things to you. My precious sweet, let me bring you honey.

Sex in this love poetry is depicted as a pleasurable activity that enhanced loving feelings of intimacy. This sense of increased closeness was considered to bring joy to the heart of the goddess, resulting in good fortune and abundance for the entire community — perhaps demonstrating an early Mesopotamian version of the adage “happy wife, happy life”.

The diverse presentation of divine sex creates something of a mystery around the causes for the cultural emphasis on cosmic copulation. While the presentation of divine sex and marriage in ancient Mesopotamia likely served numerous purposes, some elements of the intimate relationships between gods shows some carry-over to mortal unions.

The ConversationWhile dishonesty between lovers could lead to alienation, positive sexual interactions held countless benefits, including greater intimacy and lasting happiness.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Friday essay: the recovery of cuneiform, the world’s oldest known writing



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A relief at the ancient Persian city of Persepolis (now in modern Iran), including inscriptions in cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing.
Diego Delso/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

It is a little-known piece of history that Saddam Hussein was a great fan of ancient Mesopotamian literature. His enthusiasm for epics written in cuneiform – the world’s oldest known form of writing – can be seen in his own efforts at writing political romance novels and poetry. Hussein’s first novel, Zabibah and the King, blended the Epic of Gilgamesh with the 1001 Nights, and was adapted into a television series and a musical.

Zabibah and the King, 2000, by Saddam Hussein.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Indeed, the Iraqi dictator was said to be so immersed in his novel-writing that he left much of the military strategising to his sons leading up to the 2003 war. He continued writing in prison, using a card table as a writing desk. This example from the modern genre of “dictator literature” provides an unusual insight into the diverse reception of cuneiform literature in the modern day.

The decipherment of cuneiform in the late 18th century, a tale of academic virtuosity and daring, revealed a “forgotten age” and challenged the traditional, biblical view of history. One scholar was even put on trial for heresy for the wonders he uncovered in the translated script.

For over 3,000 years, cuneiform was the primary language of communication throughout the Ancient Near East (roughly corresponding to the Middle East today) and into parts of the Mediterranean. The dominance of the cuneiform writing style in antiquity has led scholars to refer to it as “the script of the first half of the known history of the world”. Yet it disappeared from use and understanding by 400 CE, and the processes and causes of the script’s vanishing act remain somewhat enigmatic.

Cuneiform is composed of wedge-shaped characters and was written on clay tablets (often likened to marks made by a chicken scratching in the mud). Unlike other ancient writing media, such as the papyri or leather scrolls used in Ancient Greece and Rome, cuneiform tablets survive in great abundance. Hundreds of thousands of tablets have been recovered from ruined Mesopotamian cities.

The discoveries yielded from the recovery of cuneiform writing continue to unfold in unexpected and exciting ways. In August this year, mathematicians at an Australian university made international headlines with their discovery involving a 3,700-year-old clay tablet containing a trigonometric table. The researchers said the cuneiform table reveals a sophisticated understanding of trigonometry — in some ways more advanced than in modern-day mathematics!

Lost in translation

It is difficult to overstate the influence of cuneiform literature in the ancient world. Many languages throughout a vast geographical span over thousands of years were written in cuneiform, including Sumerian, Hittite, Hurrian and Akkadian. Among these, Akkadian (an early cognate of Hebrew and Arabic) became the lingua franca of the Near East, including Egypt, during the Late Bronze Age.

Cuneiform was used to preserve the official royal correspondences between leaders of empires, but also simple transactions and record-keeping that were part of daily life. Over time, the skill of writing moved outside the main institutions of cities, such as temples and scribal schools, into the hands of citizens, as well as into private homes.

Despite its dominance in antiquity, the use of cuneiform ceased entirely at some point between the first and third centuries CE. The great empires of the Ancient Near East experienced a long decline over many centuries, which ultimately resulted in the loss of Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform as written languages.

Cuneiform’s sphere of influence shrank after the sixth century BCE, before vanishing entirely. The disappearance of cuneiform accompanied, and likely facilitated, the loss of Mesopotamian cultural traditions from the ancient and modern worlds.

There are several schools of thought surrounding the disappearance of cuneiform, including competition with alphabetic languages (where letters correspond to sounds) such as Aramaic and Greek, and the decline of writing traditions. However, the process of the transition from cuneiform to alphabet is yet to be clearly understood.

Deciphering the code

The resurrection of cuneiform writing systems was described by legendary Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer as an “eloquent and magnificent achievement of 19th century scholarship and humanism”.

In the 15th century, cuneiform inscriptions were observed in Persepolis (in modern-day Iran). The script’s patterned dashes were not immediately recognised as writing. The name “cuneiform” (a Latin-based word meaning “wedge-shaped”) was given to the undeciphered writings by Oxford professor Thomas Hyde in 1700.

Hyde viewed the cuneiform markings as decorative rather than conveying language — a widely held view in academic circles of the 18th century. Despite some efforts to popularise the name “arrow writing”, “cuneiform” gained general acceptance. Yet cuneiform remained cryptic, and its ancient masterpieces buried and inscrutable.

The modern-day decipherment of cuneiform owes a great debt to the rulers of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, who reigned in what is modern-day Iran in the first millennium BCE. These rulers made cuneiform inscriptions recording their achievements.

The most important of these inscriptions for the decipherment of cuneiform was the Behistun inscription, which recorded the same message in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. This trilingual inscription was carved into the face of a cliff in Behistun in what is now western Iran.

The Behistun inscription, high above the ground in Iran.
KendallKDown/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Detailing the successes of King Darius I of Persia, the Behistun inscription was inscribed on rock some 100 metres off the ground around 520 BCE. In 1835, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was training troops of the Shah of Iran when he encountered the inscription. In order to reach the writings and transcribe them, Rawlinson needed to dangle from the cliffs, or to stand on the very top rung of a long ladder. From these precarious positions, he copied as much of the inscription as possible.

A “Kurdish boy”, whose name seems to be lost to history, assisted the daring endeavour. The boy was said to have used pegs dug into the rock wall as anchors to swing across the cliffs and reach the most inaccessible parts of the writing. Returning home, Rawlinson began working to unlock the secret of the lost script, perhaps with his pet lion cub by his side.

Of the three languages, the Old Persian was the first to be decoded by Rawlinson. Scholars working on deciphering the script gained a sense of the chronological placement of the inscription and recognised some repeated signs, thereby gleaning something of the content and structure of the writings.

The presence of king lists in the Behistun inscription, which could be compared with lists in Herodotus’ Histories, provided a point of reference for deciphering the signs. Other Greek historians, and the Bible, were also consulted in the process. Through the contributions of a number of scholars in the first half of the 19th century, cuneiform slowly began to reveal its secrets.

The Behistun inscription in western Iran was key to unlocking cuneiform – and the intellectual riches inside it.
dynamosquito/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The significance of the Behistun inscription in the translation of cuneiform is often likened to the importance of the Rosetta Stone for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. In recent years, the inscription has been the focus of restorative efforts, after sustaining various types of damage — notably when Allied troops used the inscription for target practice during World War II. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Cuneiform controversy

As the deciphering went on, divisions developed in the academic community over whether efforts to unravel cuneiform had proven successful. Part of the controversy stemmed from the extreme intricacy of the writing system. Cuneiform languages are made up of a collection of signs, and the meaning of these signs shows a great deal of variety.

In the Akkadian language, for example, a cuneiform sign may have a phonetic value — but not always the same phonetic value — or it may be a logogram, symbolising a word (such as “temple”), or a determinative sign, such as for a place or an occupation. This gives the translation of cuneiform a puzzle-like quality. The translator must select the value of the sign that appears best suited to the context.

Some scholars probably had sensible reasons for questioning the deciphering of cuneiform. Others held the inaccurate view that ancient Assyrians would have lacked the capacity to comprehend such a difficult writing system. To resolve the controversy, the British scientist W.H. Fox Talbot suggested a kind of cuneiform competition.

The British Royal Asiatic Society held the contest in 1857. Four scholars – Fox Talbot, Rawlinson and a Dr Hincks and a Dr Oppert – made unique translations of a single, previously unseen, cuneiform inscription. Each scholar then sent their translation in strict confidence to the society for comparison. After opening the sealed letters and examining the four translations, the society decided that the similarities between them were sufficiently compelling to declare cuneiform deciphered.

The rediscovery of cuneiform literature was not without further controversy. Fierce debates were conducted in eloquent handwritten letters over who had contributed to the discovery and decipherment of texts, and who deserved credit for the achievement.

A recently discovered clay tablet telling part of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform.
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

As well as this, the content of the literature caused friction in the academic communities of the 19th century. Prior to the rediscovery of cuneiform, the most prominent source for the Ancient Near East was the Hebrew Bible. The ability of cuneiform literature to provide a new perspective on the rich history of Egypt and Mesopotamia was embraced by many, but viewed with suspicion by others. For some, the translation of the long-forgotten writings raised the possibility of conflict between cuneiform sources and biblical literature.

Perhaps one of the most overt examples of these tensions in scholarly circles can be seen in the career of Nathaniel Schmidt from Colgate University. Schmidt was tried for heresy in 1895, due to the view that many of his translations of cuneiform appeared contrary to biblical traditions. He was dismissed from his position at Colgate in 1896. Following his dismissal, the eminent scholar was recruited by Cornell University (his controversial departure from Cornell made his appointment something of a “bargain”), where he taught Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac and many other ancient languages.

From cuneiform to the stars

The recovery of cuneiform has provided access to an embarrassment of textual riches, including hundreds of thousands of legal and economic records, magico-medical texts, omens and prophecies, wisdom literature and lullabies.

Masterpieces of ancient literature, such as the Gilgamesh Epic, Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld and Enuma Elish, have found new audiences in the present day. One can now even find cuneiform cookies.

Cuneiform has also aided scientific mysteries. Babylonian records of a solar eclipse, written in cuneiform, have helped astronomers figure out how much Earth’s rotation has slowed.

The decipherment of the cuneiform script has reopened a timeless dialogue beyond ancient and modern civilisations, providing continued opportunities to better understand the world around us, and beyond.


The ConversationNote: This essay contains details from the article “Comparative Translations”, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18, 1861. My grateful thanks to the Royal Asiatic Society for generously allowing access to their collection.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Mesopotamia – Sumerians



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