BMCR 2012.07.33

The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford handbooks

, , The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford handbooks. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xxxii, 805. ISBN 9780199557301 $150.00.


This thick volume gathers a total of 35 papers on a variety of issues which are equally distributed in seven different sections: materiality and literacies; individuals and communities; experts and novices; decisions; interpretations; making knowledge; shaping tradition. The thematic thread guiding this handbook is the strong focus on textual evidences and on cuneiform writing as vehicle of communication in the Ancient Near East. Further, texts are dealt with not only as written documents, but also as material artefacts that can provide significant social, historical and archaeological information. The volume illustrates the dilated life of cuneiform writing in the Near East, covering the time span from the end of the 4 th millennium to the Hellenistic period, and therefore putting emphasis on the fact that cuneiform was subjected to changes and adaptations. With regard to the papers, some tend to be general, while others are presented as case studies. In fact, it is clearly stated by the editors that this book doesn’t intend to be exhaustive, in the sense of dealing with all aspects of cuneiform writing, but to offer a non-monolithic overview on different topics and methodological approaches that authors and scholars can benefit from. Although divided into sections, there are cross-references throughout the volume in order to create a sense of unity. The volume has no footnotes; bibliographical references are incorporated in the main body of the text, although each article contains a “Further reading” section at the end. A final unifying bibliography instead of single bibliographies for each article would have been much appreciated in order to make the book slightly more manageable.

Part I of the handbook, “Materiality and literacies”, begins with an article by Jon Taylor, who explores all the aspects and phases related to tablet manufacture, from clay manipulation to sealing and enveloping practices. Robert Englund and Grégory Chambon offer two related papers on early computation: Englund deals with 4 th millennium proto-cuneiform administrative accounts from Uruk, while Chambon, after going through 3 rd millennium metrology, focuses on the specific case of Ebla. Veldhuis concentrates on the three levels of literacy (functional literacy, technical literacy, and scholarly literacy) that, according to him, can be seen in the Old Babylonian period, and on the relevant textual sources for the study of each case. This first section is closed by Lion’s article on education and degrees of literacy in women in ancient Mesopotamia in the long run, and other aspects related to writing and gender.

Part II “Individuals and communities”, explores how single human beings interact with one another and become part of the social tissue. Benjamin Foster analyses the notion of person in cuneiform sources, and the different ways of representing and codifying individuality in relation to family, death, education, perception, etc. Van Koppen deals with the Old Babylonian composition of the Atram-hasis poem in relation to the scribe Ipiq-Aya, his family and his professional career. Brunke reflects on food consumption, cooking and commensality through the study of Ur III texts. Jursa presents a study on the place of scribal training and literacy in the administration of all the economic and productive activities carried out by neo-Babylonian temple households. In turn, Von Dassow engages in a more conceptual discussion on the ideas of individual and collective freedom.

Part III, “Experts and novices”, deals mainly with the transmission of cuneiform knowledge. Cohen and Kedar explore the relations between teacher and student through the dissection of documentary sources of two historical cases: the scribal education in Late Bronze Emar, on the one hand, and the neo-Babylonian and Late Babylonian apprenticeship contracts, on the other. Charpin brings the discussion to another level by reconstructing the complex professional relationship between the diviner Asqudum and the king Zimri-Lim of Mari as offered by letters and administrative documents. Tanret provides an outstanding biographical picture of the gala (a type of cultic performer) Ur-Utu, whose education, economic activities and personal life are largely reconstructed through the combined analysis of the textual and archaeological data of his archive from Old Babylonian Sippar-Amnanum. Ziegler takes up the topic of musical education, performance and performers who were working in the reign of Mari, giving also space to the biographical vicissitudes of specific individuals. In the last article of this section, Zamazalová undertakes the study of princes’ education understood as the process that prepares a prince for kingship, taking Assurbanipal as a case in point.

Part IV, “Decisions”, is a section devoted to those processes involving decision-making and the resolution of conflicts. Démare-Lafont inquires into two major questions, the different contexts of justice dispensation, on the one hand, and the trials at court, on the other, with an overview on the officials and institutions that delivered justice in ancient Mesopotamia. Radner contributes an article on counselling in the Assyrian empire and the role played by highest state officials and scholarly experts, who could dramatically influence royal decision-making. Fuchs gives a general overview on the well-studied topic of warfare during the Assyrian empire, while Löhnert analyses some aspects of laments and lamentation literature in relation to their function of restoring the divinely stated world order as well as of reconciling the individual with the gods. Schwemer deals with the ambiguous field of “magic” in Mesopotamia and provides a survey of different practices, both defensive and aggressive, that, according to the author, could be labelled as “magical”.

Part V, “Interpretations”, explores the different ways for making sense of the world in ancient Mesopotamia. Koch focuses on the divinatory disciplines of astrology and extispicy, using a variety of sources (letters, reports from diviners, rituals, etc) to study the phases of identification and individuation of meaningful signs, interpretation of the sign, and neutralization of negative signs. Steele offers a general view on the computation of time, calendars and their usefulness in different activities such as administration and cult organization. Hubert Vulliet takes up a very specific textual typology, the Sumerian letters of the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods, as the object of her study. Frahm throws light on the king represented as scholar, wise man and sage both in mythical and in propagandistic contexts. Baker casts an interesting light on the urban life of 1 st millennium Babylon analysing the architectural spaces in relation to the population living in the city.

Part VI, “Making knowledge”, analyses the production of written knowledge in cuneiform script. Robson calls into question the old scholarly idea that cuneiform texts stayed unchanged throughout the millennia, and gives several examples of textual innovation that are traceable in Mesopotamian sources. Tinney studies those literary compositions that were used for pedagogical aims in order to learn Sumerian and Akkadian in the Old Babylonian period. A similar topic, that is, education and cuneiform learning, is the object of the paper by Weeden, who explores the adaptation and uses of this writing system in areas outside Mesopotamia, such as Hattuša, Emar and Ugarit. Rochberg touches upon the role of observation and recording of celestial phenomena with regard to divination and its relation to the development of astronomy. De Breucker deals with the famous figure of Berossos and his work, the Babyloniaca, which, known only through fragments, sought to present Babylonian history to a Greek audience.

In the last part, “Shaping tradition”, Wiggermann offers an interesting reflection on how agriculture and cattle breeding were crucial in power representations of earlier times (third and beginning of second millennium), and how this was replaced by other images of power from the second millennium on. Böck presents an overview on the materia medica quoted in cuneiform texts, using recipes and lists of plants and medicinal ingredients as main sources. Brisch inquires into Ur III and Old Babyloanian expressions of royal ideology, analysing the images of the successful and unsuccessful king in Sumerian literature. Waerzeggers analyses the neo-Babylonian temple as cult centre in relation to the king and royal beneficence. Clancier closes the volume with an article on Hellenistic Uruk and the ancient families that continued to operate and exercise authority after the arrival of the Greeks, preserving old traditions and knowledge through the use of cuneiform script.

The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture is not the first of its kind, even though its conceptual approach is quite innovative. It criticizes the scholarly tendency of analyzing different elements of “cuneiform culture” independently: politics, religion, administration, science, etc. Other manuals, book collections and handbooks on the Ancient Near East have organized and presented the material in other ways, and at this point it would be useful to glance at previous works in order to understand better how the volume under review contributes to the editorial world. The three-volume L’alba della civiltà. Società, economia e pensiero nel Vicino Oriente Antico,1 which is probably the first “encyclopaedic” work on ancient Mesopotamia, follows the tripartite division “Society” (vol. 1), “Economy” (vol. 2), and “Thought” (vol. 3). Better known to both specialists and students is the monumental Civilizations of the Ancient Near East,2 which, coordinated by Sasson, presents the novelty of gathering contributions on the whole of the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Western Asia, Anatolia, Ugarit, Canaan and Israel, Syria, etc). Organized under less “innovative” headings (“Environment”, “Social institutions”, “History and culture”, “Religion and science”, “Language, writing, and literature”, etc), articles offer a panoramic view on each topic. A third example of an all-encompassing work is the Reallexikon der Assyriologie,3 an ongoing encyclopaedic work whose technicalities make it a piece designed for the specialist and for the student of Assyriology.

On the other hand, we find compact volumes that somehow intend to offer a more manageable alternative to the abovementioned works. A recent example is the A Companion to the Ancient Near East,4 an introductory work that follows, although in a much abbreviated way, the organizing principles of Sasson’s Civilizations. We also have manuals which are usually focused on political, socio-economical and institutional history, like the groundbreaking Antico Oriente. Storia, società, economia by Mario Liverani;5 and the more recent A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 BC by Van De Mieroop.6

The Oxford Handbook places itself somewhere among all these editorial options without totally affiliating to any of them. This is due to the fact that it intends to address a variety of methodological approaches and current academic perspectives applied to the study of ancient Mesopotamia, as well as putting emphasis on specific case studies that can help us understand bigger historical developments. From this point of view, The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture will not replace previous works on cuneiform writing and Ancient Near East history, but will add to them by giving new insight on data, perspectives and methods. This book will be found useful by Assyriologists and historians of the Ancient Near East, students, and a broader scholar public as well.


1. Moscati, Sabatino (ed), L’alba della civiltà. Società, economia e pensiero nel Vicino Oriente Antico. Vol. 1-3. Torino: UTET, 1976.

2. Sasson, Jack M. (ed), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. 1-4. New York: Scribner, 1995.

3. Reallexikon für Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1932-.

4. Snell, Daniel C. (ed), A Companion to the Ancient Near East. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

5. Liverani, Mario, Antico Oriente. Storia, società, economia. Roma: Laterza, 1988.

6. Van de Mieroop, Marc, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.