BMCR 2012.06.54

Reading and Writing in Babylon. (Translated by Jane Marie Todd)

, Reading and Writing in Babylon. (Translated by Jane Marie Todd). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. xiii, 315. ISBN 9780674049680 $29.95.


The Babyloniaca, a third century B.C.E. work composed by the Babylonian priest Berossos to defend the antiquity and great learning of the Babylonian tradition to a newly Hellenized world, contains an account of the origin of writing. The god Oannes (half-man, half-fish) elevated humanity from an animalistic state with the introduction of written script. The first scribal instructor was divine. For those whose exposure to ancient Near Eastern languages such as Sumerian and Akkadian is because of training in contiguous fields such as biblical studies or classics, the myth is an evocative one. There is something imposing, otherworldly, and intimidating for many students about embarking on the study of these languages and the cultures which made use of them. Dominique Charpin, Professor of Mesopotamian History at the Sorbonne, notes at the very beginning of his work that the field of Assyriology has always been at a competitive disadvantage with regard to interest by the larger society. “No doubt Assyriology would be more popular if cuneiform writing were as appealing as Egyptian hieroglyphics and if a genius had early on provided the key to it. But such is not the case” (4). Egyptologists, apparently, get all the respect. His work seeks to introduce readers to the various writing systems present in ancient Babylon while providing a thorough overview of the various kinds of texts produced by ancient scribes. In the process, he also examines the social contexts responsible for the production of texts and pays close attention to what we can really know about how texts were used and preserved from one generation to the next. The work originally appeared as Lire et écrire à Babylone in 2008.

Following an introduction that briefly narrates the history of the discovery and decipherment of cuneiform languages in the 19th century and discusses the practical matters involved in deciphering and reading tablets, Charpin devotes the first chapter to questions about the nature of scribal practice. He focuses particularly on the issue of scribal “schools” or edubba (tablet house). He highlights that “what is known about these edubba is based in large part on literary texts describing the activities that took place in the schools” (26) and that our knowledge of the particularities of such institutions and our ability to identify by means of archaeological surveys their presence is highly constrained. He argues, in essence, that our use of the term “school” invites anachronism. A more likely context, he claims, are highly trained individuals who agreed to take on apprentices, likely in their homes. “All in all, scribal apprenticeships may hardly have been different in their sociological reality from other ways of transmitting knowledge…they occurred primarily in the context of the family” (32). Our desire to find official (state/temple sanctioned) schools, teaching what seems to us to be a highly difficult skill, may say more about our own context than it does about the ancient Mesopotamian one.

Another significant argument in chapter one is the contention by Charpin that modern students of cuneiform languages make the understandable mistake that learning the language was much more difficult than it actually was. Our exposure to various cuneiform languages and local and temporal changes within the tradition provides us with an overstated sense of how difficult it might have been for a scribe to learn to write and read in one place and one point in time. He states concisely that “the present day epigraphist’s knowledge must not be confused with that of the person in antiquity” (65).

In the second chapter, Charpin examines the nature of archival documents and what we can know about how they were produced and preserved. He helpfully provides a primer of sorts to questions related to material culture in his discussion of the medium of clay. He also discusses the relationship between the language of “culture” and the vernacular. Chapters Three and Four provide an overview of various genres of texts preserved from antiquity. Correspondences of various sorts and methods for ensuring their reliability by their recipients are discussed in chapter three. There is a particularly interesting discussion here of envelopes and authenticating seals. The following chapter focuses on oaths, contractual texts and treaties. In this context, Charpin stresses the notion that orality comes before the written text in ancient Mesopotamia. At the same time, “it came to be recognized that not only did the written document serve to transmit information through space, it could also allow the spoken word to survive the person who uttered it” (176).

Chapter Five is focused on the place of so-called “literary texts” within the larger canon of Mesopotamian literature. Charpin opens with an attempt to clarify the concepts of ‘work’ and ‘author’ as they relate to the ancient context before focusing on the related issue of libraries and archives in ancient Mesopotamia. He stresses throughout that modern scholarly fascination with literary texts, such as the Gilgamesh Epic, is an anachronistic index for determining the importance of such texts in their original context. “Acquisition records” or catalogues of texts at the “Library” of Ashurbanipal demonstrate the marginal number of literary texts in comparison to texts dealing with “exorcism, astrology, teratology, divination by auspicious omens, medicine, oneiromancy, and heptoscopy” (196). Charpin suggests that the latter texts would have had vocational utility with regard to priests, diviners and others. He also points to the larger numbers of texts which are analogous to our notion of reference works and how modern anthologies of Mesopotamian literature often do not include these texts. “These compendia constitute the vast majority of ‘scholarly’ texts that have been preserved. Modern anthologies generally do not include them: the texts are so monotonous that reading them usually brings on boredom” (184). The fabled Library of Ashurbanipal is also cut down to a more modest size by Charpin. Drawing on the colophons found on texts recovered from the library, he demonstrates how these texts were derived from other places throughout Ashubanipal’s empire for the purpose of demonstrating the power and authority of the king. The term for library itself, girginakku, is not used for the collection of Ashurbanipal; that term is reserved for a collection of texts housed in the Temple of Nabu, patron god of scribes.

He concludes the chapter with the observation that, despite its military ascendancy, Assyria was culturally dependent on previous Babylonian tradition. (He draws an interesting comparison here to the military/cultural relationship between Greece and Rome.) He also argues that Mesopotamian culture became “ossified” (213) around 1200 BCE and tended to reproduce/copy the same set of texts over and over again. I suppose, however, that one scholar’s cultural ossification is another’s cultural maturity as it moves towards canonization and the production of commentary literature.

The final chapter provides a discussion of texts written as gifts for the gods (votives and foundational inscriptions) and the rise of texts intended for the future. In particular, he points to the rise of historiographical texts and the presence of linear storytelling. He mentions that, so compelling was the narrative model offered by Mesopotamian annals, that early Assyriologists in the 19th century composed histories of the ancient Near East which were hardly more than paraphrases of the ancient texts. Those with expertise in ancient Israelite literature may nod their heads in agreement and recognize a tendency that still exists.

Charpin has written a book that is accessible to those outside the small academic field of Assyriology. The work is remarkable for its level of detail and the breadth of its concern. Charpin is able to keep one eye on the specifics of numerous texts and their archaeological contexts. At the same time, he is able to situate the written legacy of these ancient cultures in a broad sociological context, while arguing in some places for a generally new approach to reading and integrating the wealth of material into cognate fields.