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date: 16 June 2019

(p. 1) Materiality and Literacies

Literacy has been a fashionable subject for academic research in recent years, especially among sociologists and historians (e.g. Street 1984; 1993; Olson and Torrance 2001; a more exhaustive list in Werner 2009: 340–341). But many of those studies are predicated on several assumptions that do not hold for the ancient Middle East: that literacy is alphabetic, environmentally if not educationally ubiquitous, and involves numeracy only at the margins. What did it mean to be literate and numerate in an environment that was not covered in writing, a world which it was possible to inhabit—especially outside the cities—without ever coming into contact with the written word, a world in which the slow, complex induction into the arts of writing entailed indoctrination into a self-conscious community of literati and numerati who wielded significant political, social, and intellectual power? Our view of ancient Mesopotamia is inevitably constructed through the eyes and words of the literate few. It is futile to pretend we can ever access what ‘the Mesopotamians’ as a whole did or said or thought: we know only of the unusual minority who had some access to, if not control over, the documentation that has survived the millennia.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it was not only professional, male scribes who could read and write cuneiform: as Niek Veldhuis and Brigitte Lion show in Chapters 4 and 5, there were different levels of cuneiform literacy, and different ways to engage with it, for men and women alike. Later in the book, Michael Jursa explores the functions of cuneiform within Neo-Babylonian temple communities in Chapter 9, while in Chapter 13 Michel Tanret looks at the professional, familial, and sentimental meanings of writing for a single individual in 17th-century Sippar. Indeed most chapters (p. 2) address questions of cuneiform literacy in one way or another; it would be otiose to single out more of them.

A distinguishing feature of cuneiform culture is that was essentially, fundamentally numerate (cf. Robson 2008): as Robert Englund shows in Chapter 2, the world's earliest written records are accounts of temple assets—land, labour, livestock, offerings—drawn up at the end of the fourth millennium bc, along with exercises in writing and calculating the necessary personnel and commodities. Over the course of several centuries cuneiform writing began to adapt itself for other purposes, but quantification remained one of its central functions. In Chapter 3, Grégory Chambon considers ways in which to analyse ancient uses of numbers and measures without inadvertently imposing anachronistic concepts of accuracy and standardization on them.

Cuneiform culture was peculiar by world standards in another way: for the medium it favoured and thus the sheer abundance of primary written evidence at our disposal. We may sometimes despair at the huge gaps in the historical record, the fragmentary state of our sources, and the frustratingly allusive ways in which the ancients expressed themselves, but in many ways Assyriologists have it lucky compared to historians of other ancient cultures. That abundance is the direct outcome of the fact that much of the time, cuneiform script was written on clay and other relatively imperishable media, as Jonathan Taylor explores in Chapter 1. The materiality of clay fundamentally shaped cuneiform culture, enabling tamper-proof preservation of the written word but discouraging lengthy writings or documentation that required frequent updating. By a careful study of excavation spots and tablet formats, Steve Tinney in Chapter 27 differentiates a variety of reasons for textual production in the Old Babylonian period, a variety which is not apparent when the sources are treated as disembodied text.

To compensate for the deficiencies of clay tablets, writing boards (Akkadian lē'u) with erasable waxed surfaces were used alongside them from at least the 21st century bc (Steinkeller 2004), plus papyrus (Akkadian niāru) from the mid-second millennium and parchment or leather rolls (Akkadian giṭṭu, magallatu) from the early first millennium onwards (see Philippe Clancier in Chapter 35). Practically no such artefacts survive—apart from a few now surfaceless Neo-Assyrian writing boards—although they are occasionally mentioned in tablets and sometimes depicted visually (Figure 1.8). We must never forget that cuneiform culture was only one literate culture amongst several in the ancient Near East, albeit the most longlived and prestigious.

Further reading

This book is not particularly about the languages of cuneiform culture—primarily the linguistic isolate Sumerian and the Semitic Akkadian—and nor does it assume that readers are especially familiar with them. Robson and Radner's (2009) simple online introduction to the Akkadian language in cuneiform script gives references to further reading. There are also several useful recent collections that discuss Sumerian, Akkadian and cuneiform alongside other ancient literate cultures: Houston (2004) is on the births of ancient scripts while Baines, Bennet, and Houston (2008) is about their deaths. Woodard (2008) gives detailed linguistic descriptions of the ancient languages of the Middle East, while a broader take on ancient literacy in the region is given in Sanders (2006). The standard textbooks on the history of the area—neither of which pay much attention to the topics discussed in this volume—are Kuhrt (1995) and Van de Mieroop (2007).


Baines, J., Bennet, J., and Houston, S.D. (eds.). 2008. The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication. London: Equinox.Find this resource:

Houston, S.D. (ed.) 2004. The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Kuhrt, A. 1995. The Ancient Near East, c.3000–300 bc. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Olson, D.R. and Torrance, N. (eds.). 2001. The Making of Literate Societies. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Robson, E. 2008. ‘Numeracy’ in T. Gowers and J.E. Barrow-Green (eds.), The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 983–91.Find this resource:

Robson, E. and Radner, K. 2009. Cuneiform Revealed. UK Higher Education Academy, this resource:

Sanders, S. (ed.). 2006. Margins of Writing, Origins of Culture: New Approaches to Writing and Reading in the Ancient Near East. Oriental Institute Seminars 2. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.Find this resource:

Steinkeller, P. 2004. ‘The function of written documentation in the administrative praxis of early Babylonia’ in M. Hudson and C. Wunsch (eds.), Creating Economic Order: Record-keeping, Standardization, and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East. International Scholars Conference on Ancient Near Eastern Economies 4. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, pp. 65–88.Find this resource:

Street, B.V. 1984. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

—— 1993. Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Van de Mieroop, M. 2007. A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–323 bc, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Werner, S. 2009. ‘Literacy studies in Classics: the last twenty years’ in W.A. Johnson and H.N. Parker (eds.), Ancient Literacies: the Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 333–84.Find this resource:

Woodard, R.D. (ed.). 2008. The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource: