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date: 06 July 2022

(p. 553) Making knowledge

Creativity and innovation are concepts that feature prominently in works on ancient Near Eastern technology and artistic production (e.g. Bourriau and Phillips 2004; Cancik-Kirschbaum 2007; Gunter 1990; Shortland 2001; Wilde 2003). Mesopotamia is widely recognized as an innovator or early adapter of the seeder-plough, the pottery wheel, bronze metallurgy, the production of glass, and chariot warfare, to mention but some of the most famous examples. However, with the invention of cuneiform script as the obvious exception (see Englund in Chapter 2), the role of creativity and innovation is far less frequently made explicit in studies concerned with literate culture where, quite on the contrary, the longevity and orthodoxy of the cuneiform tradition are often emphasized.

But, as F.R. Kraus stressed in his appreciation of the intellectual achievements of the Old Babylonian period, cuneiform culture was highly innovative. For him:

Old Babylonian man…. when maintaining what he had inherited and seeking out his own new path…. gave the world three very different gifts, and each of the highest value: the rational fair handling of civil legal disputes; the methods of scientific observation and systematic classification; and grammar and bilingual dictionaries. (Kraus 1973: 144–145; translated from German)1

The first of these innovations—legal procedure—is Sophie Démare-Lafont's subject in Chapter 16, while Niek Veldhuis, in his analysis of the different levels of cuneiform literacy in Chapter 4, discusses the third topic.

(p. 554) Scientific observation in cuneiform scholarship, the second of the innovations singled out by Kraus, is discussed by Francesca Rochberg in Chapter 29. Highlighting the changing aims, interests, and methods of observing natural phenomena, she compares and contrasts two first-millennium bc corpora of observational texts focused on the phenomena of the moon and the planets: the Neo-Assyrian scholars' reports and the Neo-Babylonian Astronomical Diaries. Stressing the impact on these observations of the changing goals and standards of the social contexts that produced them, Rochberg demonstrates the infusion of judgement on perception and the consequent interdependence of observation and theory.

The first two chapters of this section identify innovation and creativity as key factors in two social and intellectual environments that usually are described as bastions of traditionalism: scholarly libraries and the schooling system. In Chapter 26, Eleanor Robson's analysis of the creation of new cuneiform genres and compositions and their dissemination focuses on the evidence from six Assyrian and Babylonian libraries and collections of scholarly tablets from between the 7th and 2nd centuries bc, while in Chapter 27 Steve Tinney portrays the new cuneiform text corpus as it emerged at the end of the Old Babylonian period in the aftermath of the demise of Sumerian as a spoken language and the ensuing stagnancy of Sumerophone intellectual culture.

The creative qualities immanent in the cuneiform script are perhaps most apparent when considering how this writing system, originally conceived to fit the requirements of the Sumerian language, was adjusted for the needs of Akkadian, and subsequently also for a range of other languages. Chapter 28 provides a case study on how cuneiform was adapted to suit new cultural and social environments (cf. Rogers 2003): Mark Weeden discusses its transformation in Hittite Anatolia in the middle of the second millennium bc and analyses the impact of cuneiform in this political, social, and intellectual context.

Chapter 30, finally, is dedicated to the Hellenistic historian Berossos, the author of a history of Babylonia who was active during the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochos I (r. 281–261 bc). If creativity is defined as the ability to form new links between existing ideas, then Berossos is a good example of a creative mind at work. Geert De Breucker locates him between (Mesopotamian and Greek) tradition and innovation, and emphasizes that by building a bridge between cuneiform and Greek culture the Babylonian historian created one of the most important sources for Mesopotamian culture and history. Indeed for almost two millennia between the disappearance of cuneiform culture and its rediscovery in the 19th century Berossos' history of Babylonia constituted the only native witness.

Further reading

Landsberger's ‘Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt’ (1926; translated as The Conceptual Autonomy of the Babylonian World, 1977) remains a milestone in the appreciation of the originality of cuneiform culture but, as Sallaberger (2007) has pointed out, it is best understood within the intellectual context in which it was conceived. A recent discussion of cuneiform lexicography with a special focus on the creative aspects of lexical lists is Edzard (2007), with Taylor (2007) providing a useful overview of the genre and its development over two (p. 555) millennia. Pearce (1998) is a short study of innovation in commentaries on omen texts, linking them with the conventions of lexical lists. George (2007: 451–453) and Finkel (1988) study Sin-leqe-unninni and Esangila-kin-apli, two men whom later cuneiform tradition credited with significant textual creativity, while Heeßel (2009) draws well-deserved attention to Raba-ša-Marduk, a Babylonian physician active at the Hittite royal court, whose writings were also valued at the Assyrian court.


Bourriau, J. and J. Phillips (eds.) 2004. Invention and Innovation: the Social Context of Technological Change 2: Egypt, the Aegean and the Near East, 1650–1150 bc. Oxford: Oxbow Books.Find this resource:

Cancik-Kirschbaum, E. 2007. ‘Die Technikgeschichte und die Wissenschaften vom Alten Orient: Prolegomena und Perspektiven’ in W. König and H. Schneider (eds.), Die technikhistorische Forschung in Deutschland von 1800 bis zur Gegenwart. Kassel: Kassel University Press, pp. 139–61.Find this resource:

Edzard, D.O. 2007. ‘Die altmesopotamischen lexikalischen Listen—verkannte Kunstwerke?’ in C. Wilcke (ed.), Das geistige Erfassen der Welt im Alten Orient: Sprache, Religion, Kultur und Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 17–26.Find this resource:

Finkel, I.J. 1988. ‘Adad-apla-iddina, Esagil-kin-apli, and the series SA.GIG’ in E. Leichty et al. (eds.), A Scientific Humanist: Studies in Memory of Abraham Sachs. Philadelphia: University Museum, pp. 143–59.Find this resource:

George, A.R. 2007. ‘Gilgamesh and the literary traditions of ancient Mesopotamia’ in G. Leick (ed.), The Babylonian World. London: Routledge, pp. 447–59.Find this resource:

Gunter, A. (ed.) 1990. Investigating Artistic Environments in the Ancient Near East. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.Find this resource:

Heeßel, N.P. 2009. ‘The Babylonian physician Raba-ša-Marduk: another look at physicians and exorcists in the Ancient Near East’ in A. Attia and G. Buisson (eds.), Advances in Mesopotamian Medicine from Hammurabi to Hippocrates. Cuneiform Monographs 37. Leiden: Brill, pp. 13–28.Find this resource:

Kraus, F.R. 1973. Vom mesopotamischen Menschen der altbabylonischen Zeit und seiner Welt, Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afdeling Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks 36/6. Amsterdam: North-Holland.Find this resource:

Landsberger, B. 1926. ‘Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt’, Islamica 2: 355–72.Find this resource:

—— 1977. The Conceptual Autonomy of the Babylonian World, trans. T. Jacobsen, B.R. Foster, and H. von Siebenthal, Monographs on the Ancient Near East 1/4. Malibu: Undena.Find this resource:

Pearce, L.E. 1998. ‘Babylonian commentaries and intellectual innovation’ in J. Prosecký (ed.), Intellectual Life of the Ancient Near East: Papers Presented at the 43rd Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Prague, July 1–5, 1996. Prague: Oriental Institute, pp. 331–8.Find this resource:

Rogers, E.M. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th edn. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Sallaberger, W. 2007. ‘Benno Landsbergers “Eigenbegrifflichkeit” in wissenschaftsgeschichtlicher Perspektive’ in C. Wilcke (ed.), Das geistige Erfassen der Welt im Alten Orient: Sprache, Religion, Kultur und Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 63–82.Find this resource:

Shortland, A. (ed.) 2001. The Social Context of Technological Change in Egypt and the Near East, 1650–1150 bc. Oxford: Oxbow Books.Find this resource:

(p. 556) Taylor, J. 2007. ‘Babylonian lists of words and signs’ in G. Leick (ed.), The Babylonian World. London: Routledge, pp. 432–46.Find this resource:

Wilde, H. 2003. Technologische Innovation im zweiten Jahrtausend vor Christus: Zur Verwendung und Verbreitung neuer Werkstoffe im ostmediterranen Raum, Göttinger Orientforschungen, Reihe IV: Ägypten 44. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.Find this resource:


(1) ‘…. der Mensch der altbabylonischen Zeit…. , als er instandhielt, was er ererbt hatte, und eigene neue Wege einschlug…. hat der Welt drei Güter verschiedenster Art, aber jedes von höchstem Werte, gegeben: die vernünftige, gerechte Behandlung von bürgerlichen Streitfällen; die Methoden wissenschaftlicher Beobachtung und systematischer Klassifizierung; Grammatik und zweisprachiges Wörterbuch.’