“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 9)

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a “dark age”. The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the “Age of Empires” as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians – although there is some limited evidence that there might’ve been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni – although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the “kings” may well’ve been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There’s also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn’t a cohesive whole during this time – it may’ve been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves “Mighty King, King of Assyria”, reflecting Assyria’s return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been – not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I’s first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and “encouraged” to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon – using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as “brother”. So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented – in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I’s reign – the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom’s heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It’s very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with “Some have viewed” and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He’s the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They’re not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I’m not sure how they know it’s chronological if there are no dates – perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done – against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He’s also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to’ve been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name “the Sea Peoples” comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place – archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we’re not entirely certain but there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There’s also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It’s not at all clear why these peoples were on the move – the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there’s no consensus. There’s also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People’s migrations had on the region – although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to’ve started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear – conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II’s reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not’ve been Sea Peoples who’d settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There’s even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown – some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age – as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn’t a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia – their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering “if it really happened” and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus – whilst saying that there’s “no evidence but”. They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I’ve presented here – but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I’m sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria – the Age of Empires is about to begin.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 8)

The next section of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE and focuses on the kingdoms in the west of the region – for instance the Hittites & the Mitanni. It also looks at their interactions with Egypt, because this is the era of the Amarna letters and the era of the Battle of Qadesh.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1650-1550 BCE: The Second Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1479–1458 BCE: Reign of Hatshepsut in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Western States

We start with the Old Hittite Kingdom in which parts of Anatolia, northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia were ruled over by Hittite kings from their capital in Hattusa. It last from around 1650 BCE to 1400 BCE, and is known from their own records: thousands of cuneiform texts were found in Hattusa dating from this period. The original origins of the Hittite people isn’t known, but they had probably been living in Anatolia for a few centuries by the time the Old Hittite Kingdom rose to prominence – Assyrian texts from before this period mention individuals with Hittite names in Anatolian cities. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language (so from the same broad family as English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit etc). Most of the other peoples in the region spoke Semitic languages (like Egyptian and Akkadian), or spoke Sumerian (which is a language with no known relatives). Rather conveniently for modern scholars some of the records discovered in Hattusa were bilingual and written in both Hittite and Akkadian.

The first king of the 15 or so who ruled the Old Hittite Kingdom was Huttusili I who conquered territory as far as the Euphrates River. His successor Mursili extended the kingdom as far southeast as Babylon but after his assassination the Hittites abandoned the territory across the Euphrates River. The next few kings all took the throne by assassinating their predecessor (or his heirs) and knowledge of this period mostly comes from a text known as the Proclamation of Telepinu. In this the new king (Telepinu) attempts to lay out rules for how the succession should work in the future, making it a strictly patrilinear succession. However he died without a direct male heir, and so these rules failed at the first hurdle. The second hundred years of the Old Hittite Kingdom seems to’ve been almost as turbulent politically as the first!

The kingdom of Mitanni is the next state the book considers. They started out as a confederation of Hurrian states in inland Syria & northern Iraq around 1600 BCE. The Hurrian language is part of a now extinct language group, and the people who spoke it are believed to’ve migrated from the Trans-Caucasus region. By 1450 BCE the Mitanni Kingdom was a prominent player in Upper Mesopotamia. Sadly none of their own records have been discovered so they’re mostly known from what the Hittites & Egyptians had to say about (and to) them. By 1500 BCE the Mitanni state had expanded into most of Syria, and this later brought them into conflict with an expanding Egypt (during the reign of Tutmosis III). Relations between the Mitanni and the Egyptians were somewhat warmer by the reign of Akhenaten – perhaps because the Hittites and Assyrians were both expanding again by this stage, and with these northern neighbours the Mitanni could do with southern allies. But not long after this the Mitanni state began to fragment and was subsequently defeated by the New Hittite Kingdom. It did continue to exist as a small buffer state between the Hittites and the Assyrians until around 1290 BCE, but the Mitanni’s days as a major state were over.

The power vacuum left in Babylon by the sacking of the city by the Old Hittite ruler Mursili was eventually filled by a Kassite dynasty who ruled c. 1570-1155 BCE. Quite a lot of evidence for these kings comes from their diplomatic correspondence (and diplomatic marriages) with the rulers of nearby states including the Egyptians and the Hittites. As well as the diplomatic evidence for these kings internal affairs are known from the administrative archives of Nippur. The Kassite people originally came from north-eastern Syria and had migrated into Mesopotamia sometime around the 18th Century BCE. The Kassite rulers of Babylon were thoroughly Babylonised, building temples to Babylonian gods, collecting & creating the Babylonian literary canon and preserving the Babylonian scribal tradition.

The New Hittite Kingdom starts immediately after the end of the Old Hittite Kingdom, but it sounds like the first three or four kings are more of a transitional period. The true start of the return to prominence of the Hittites comes when Suppiluliuma I successfully carries out a coup against his brother in 1344 BCE. Most of what is known about this ruler comes from “The Deeds of Suppiluliuma”, which was written during the reign of his second successor. He ruled for nearly 20 years, and re-established the Hittite kingdom as a marjor state. He not only re-conquered Anatolia, he also conquered the Mitanni and several other kingdoms in Syria, and forced these states to sign long lasting peace treaties. He is also the King of the Hittites who a Queen of Egypt apparently wrote to asking for one of his sons to marry after the death of her husband (the Pharaoh) without an heir so that she could avoid being forced to marry a commoner. Suppiluliuma I is said to’ve been suspicious, but then sent one of his sons who was promptly murdered after he crossed the border – and this is the justification for subsequent tensions between the Hittites and the Egyptians. The Queen in question is often supposed to be Ankhesenamun (Tutankhamun’s widow). However (and the book sadly doesn’t mention this) the story is only known from one text dating from the reign of one of Suppiluliuma I’s successors, and I think there’s significant doubts about its truthfulness – it’s actually more likely to be Hittite propaganda. (Charlotte Booth talked about this a bit in the talk she gave to the EEG in July about Horemheb.)

According to texts from his son Mursili II’s reign called the Plague Prayers, Suppiluliuma I and his son (and first successor) Arnuwanda II both died of an epidemic of plague brought back with captives from a successful Syro-Palestinian military campaign. Which Mursili II believed was due to divine disfavour regarding the fratricide which let his father take the throne, and the campaign itself being in violation of a treaty with Egypt. This latter concern didn’t stop Musili II’s successor Muwatalli II from antagonising the Egyptians further, resulting in the Battle of Qadesh (more on this later in this post). The treaty after the battle was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III, who had usurped the throne from Muwatalli II’s son. Quite a lot of what we know about his reign (and his immediate predecessor’s) comes from his “Apology”, an autobiographical text that explains why he thought he should depose his nephew (who subsequently fled to Egypt, much to Hattusili III’s disgust). Hattusili III’s wife is also known from texts – in particular letters between herself and Ramesses II after Hattusili III’s death. She was acting at that point as Queen Mother, and is accorded the same sort of respect as Hattusili III by Ramesses II. It’s not clear if she was unusually respected for a Queen Mother, or if it’s just that she’s the only Hittite Queen Mother whose correspondence survives.

The capital of the Hittite kingdom was the city of Hattusa, which was located near the modern town of Bazkoy in northeast Central Anatolia (in Turkey). It was founded at some point early in the 2nd Millennium BCE, and was originally relatively small compared to other ancient Near Eastern cities. It was sacked a couple of times between 1750 BCE and 1400 BCE, then rebuilt extensively by Suppiluliuma I. This later city had two main regions: the royal acropolis (including large temples), and the lower city. Population estimates for this period range from 10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

Having made a comprehensive tour of the major players in the western part of the Middle East during this period the book now devotes a few pages to the minor Mediterranean and Syro-Palestinian states each of whom get a couple of paragraphs. I’m pretty much going to name check them here, rather than devote much attention to them. Ahhiyawa is considered a diplomatic equal to the Hittites, given the correspondence during the New Hittite Kingdom period. Both textual and archaeological evidence suggests these people may be the Mycenean Greeks. The Luwians lived in Western Anatolia and were at times a vassal state of the Hittites, and the language (a close relative of Hittite) was dominant in the region after the fall of the New Hittite Kingdom. Carchemis and Aleppo were both part of the array of small Syro-Palestinian states, as were Astata, Alasiya (modern Cyprus) and Alalakh. All of these states were at times vassals of the Hittites and at times more independent. The state of Ugarit was caught between the two superpowers of the Hittites & the Egyptians – and thus were courted by both with offers of support against the other. The Amurru people were further south, and in the Egyptian sphere of influence – and a thorn in the sides of their neighbours, who complained to the their mutual overlords about the Amurran’s employment of bands of mercenary warriors known as the ‘Apiru to harass their neighbours.

The last couple of double-page spreads of this section look more closely at the interactions of the Middle East with their Egyptian neighbours. The first of these talks about the Amarna Letters – a collection of cuneiform tablets discovered in the Egyptian city of Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) which was briefly the capital of Egypt during Akhenaten’s reign (and only existed for that 20 years). 90% of the 380 surviving tablets are copies of the diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and their neighbours from Year 30 of Amenhotep III’s reign through Akhenaten’s reign, Smenkhare’s reign and into the first year of Tutankhamun’s reign. Most of them are the incoming correspondence, although some are outgoing (either unsent or copies, it’s not known which), and all are composed in Akkadian which was the diplomatic lingua franca of the era. Some of these letters are to rulers that the Egyptians at least superficially regarded as their peers – addressing each other as “brother”. However it’s notable that in the marriage alliances Egyptian women never married foreign princes, instead the default was vice versa. Other letters are between Egypt and its vassal states.

The Battle of Kadesh

And the section finished with a closer look at the Battle of Qadesh – which Ramesses II depicted on several temple reliefs (the above picture is from the Ramasseum). The site of the battle was strategically important – it sat on the crossroads of two major trade routes, and dominated the fords of the Orontes River. It had been significant in Egyptian foreign affairs even before Ramesses II’s campaign – for instance it lead the coalition of rebellious towns that Tutmosis III defeated at Megiddo c.1457 BCE. During the reign of Akhenaten the Egyptians made two unsuccessful attempts to remove the Hittites from the region, and for the next generation or so the city swapped allegiances several times. By the time of Ramesses II the Egyptians felt it necessary to make a concerted effort to recover Qadesh and reassert their power in the region. The Battle of Qadesh took place in c.1275 BCE, and the Egyptians record several accounts of it – all of which talk about Ramesses II annihilating the Hittites. But if you read between the lines, and remember that the Egyptians didn’t tend to write down bad things, you can see that the truth is more of an inconclusive draw. About 15-20 years after this the two sides signed a peace treaty – which rather astonishingly not only survives in both Hittite and Egyptian documents, but the two versions are also in agreement with each other! There was indeed peace (relatively speaking) for the remainder of the time that the Hittite state existed. This section of the chapter finishes with the note that “Soon thereafter, Qadesh was destroyed, probably by the Sea Peoples”. I don’t imagine the Qadeshian citizens had enjoyed any of its turbulent history, however!

The next (and last) part of this chapter of the book is about the rise of the Assyrians, on their way to be the first large scale empire in the Middle East.

“The Ark Tablet: How the Life of an Assyriologist Could be Transformed by a Single Tablet with Sixty Lines of Writing” Irving Finkel (Part 4 of BSS Study Day)

The last talk in the Bloomsbury Summer School’s Cuneiform Study Day was about the ark tablet that Irving Finkel has recently published a book about. There was also a TV documentary about the discovery of the tablet, and the building of a boat using the information in the tablet as a starting point (which I’ve written about before). The talk was mostly unconcerned with the TV programme, but about halfway through Finkel did go on a digression about the awfulness of it (as he saw it) – the “turning it into ‘good’ TV” process made it shallow and theatrical in all sorts of ways he didn’t like. He did think the boat was cool, tho!

Finkel started off by giving us some context for Flood Stories in cuneiform texts (which is exactly what I complained the TV programme didn’t do). George Smith in 1852 was the first person to read a cuneiform tablet containing a version of the Ark Story. This was the first time it was shown that a Biblical story pre-dated the Bible. The impact of this in society at the time was huge (much larger than it would be today), as it’s such a fundamental Old Testament story. There are close & specific links between the story that Smith read and the Biblical version, too. One of these is the releasing of the two birds to see if there is any land yet. However the boat as described in that text is cubical, so those who were particularly upset said that showed it was all a coincidence. The tablet that Smith read is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and is actually one of the more recent cuneiform texts with a Flood Story. Since Smith’s discovery other (older) versions have been found. Although details differ, including the protagonist, they all share a common point that the gods had decided that the creation of humanity had been a mistake. The gods thus cause a flood to wipe them away, but one man is saved by one god warning him.

The new tablet that Finkel has translated & published dates to around 1800BC. It was initially brought to the British Museum along with various other bits & pieces by a man who’d inherited it from his father (who’d picked up these things on various trips). Finkel thought it was a letter at first glance, but then when he read the first lines it was clear that it was a Babylonian Flood Story and it didn’t match the ones he’d seen before. Which was very exciting, but sadly the chap who owned it took it away again and it was a while before Finkel had the chance to properly study it.

This version of the story includes a “How To” manual for building the ark. Unusually it describes a boat that is round – shaped like a coracle. Coracles are normally pretty small scale, but this one is much bigger. Finkel made the point that it didn’t need to go anywhere (coracles are normally propelled by oars, so it might be difficult to move a larger one) – for the occupants to survive the flood it only needed to float. The numbers and instructions in the text are surprisingly specific – not like mythological numbers generally are. If you calculate how much of the materials you would need to make a boat of that design the figures come out within 1% of those in the text. And the instructions match up well with those in a book published in the 1930s (AD) talking about coracle building in the more modern Middle East. So this is effectively the story being interrupted for an (accurate) info-dump about boat building. Finkel pointed out that this would’ve been of interest to the audience for the story, particularly if it was told orally (as it probably was) – there would be many fishermen and other river-goers who might want to know just how big this big boat was and so on. (It made me think of things like Tom Clancy’s novels where the story gets interrupted for a loving description of exactly what sort of gun is being used).

After his digression about the TV programme Finkel talked about his interest in the broader picture into which this tablet fits. Primarily – how did this ancient Mesopotamian legend end up retold in the Jewish Bible? Clearly the Exile of the Jews in Babylon must have something to do with it. Judea is invaded twice by Nebuchadnezzar, and this is documented in both the Old Testament and in the bureaucratic records of the Babylonian Empire. The texts corroborate each other to a pretty high degree – for instance there are people named in the text of the Hebrew Bible who are also mentioned in Babylonian documents. The second invasion of Judea is when Jerusalem was sacked and the bulk of the Jews were forcibly marched to Babylon. Finkel talked a bit here about what it must’ve been like for the Jews – his analogy was that in terms of culture shock it must’ve been much like it was for the rural Eastern European Jews who emigrated to New York in the 1930s.

The Book of Daniel talks about the young nobles of the Judeans being instructed in the language and literature of the Babylonians during the exile. This was a policy on the part of the Babylonians intended to indoctrinate the Judean elite with Babylonian culture, so that they would be less likely to rebel and instead be assimilated. Evidence from the Bablyonian side of the education of the Judeans includes a tablet which lists the Aramaic alphabet in cuneiform signs. The cross-cultural mixing went both ways – written around this time is a Babylonian tablet musing about monotheism and postulating that all the other gods are manifestations of Marduk. I.e. that Adad is “Marduk of the Rain” and so on.

At the time one of the ways students learnt to read & write was copying out set texts. From student tablets that have been found archaeologists have some idea of the school curriculum of the time that the Judeans were in Babylon. The stories they would’ve been copying included not only the Flood Story, but also one with a baby discovered in bulrushes and other legends of early rulers who lived unfeasibly long lives. And these all have parallels that end up in the Hebrew Bible.

This was a good talk to end the day on, and answered several of the things I was curious about after the TV programme. I intend at some point to read his book about the tablet, too. Overall this was a very interesting study day. Finkel is a very good speaker – my write-ups of his talks are sadly a rather dry rendition of the actual performance.

“The Royal Game of Ur: From Ancient Grave to Modern Rebirth” Irving Finkel (Part 3 of BSS Study Day)

The third talk of the Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day about cuneiform was all about the Royal Game of Ur. Irving Finkel is interested in board games as well as being an expert on ancient Mesopotamian cultures and so this game is of particular interest to him. There were six boards for it found the Royal Cemetery of Ur (in southern Iraq) by Leonard Woolley. The photo below is one that I took of the board on display in the British Museum. These boards date from around 2600BC and for a long time they were the only game boards of this sort to be found. Other similar examples are now known from around the same sort of time (for example from eastern Iran, and from the Indus Valley).

The Royal Game of Ur
Board for the Royal Game of Ur

The game is a race game, and the probable route is that the players start their pieces at the right hand end of the big block of squares and proceed horizontally leftwards to the rosette squares – one player at the top, one at the bottom. They then both move along the central line all the way to the right, where they separate and each follow their own track to the final rosette on the lefthand end of the small block of squares where they leave the board.

Somewhere around about the transition from the 2nd Millennium BC to the 1st Millennium BC the board changes shape. Instead of the two players separating and looping back at the end of the central run the run is extended by a further four squares. This shift in design takes place everywhere the game is played at around the same time. Finkel said this is probably because it makes the end of the game more exciting – in the original layout once you got to the split point then you probably knew you couldn’t be prevented from winning, but you still had to play out the last whatever moves before you actually won. The game spread even further with this changed layout. When the Hyksos invaded Egypt (in the Second Intermediate Period) they brought the game with them. In fact the game boxes from Tutankhamun’s grave have senet on one face and the modified Game of Ur board on the other face. Finkel took great delight in tweaking the noses of the Egyptologists in the room at this point – he pointed out that when the hieroglyphs on the sides are the right way up then the senet board is face down. So he thinks that makes it likely that the Game of Ur was the primary game not the Egyptian game of Senet!

Bringing this back to cuneiform writing Finkel discussed the first known written rules for a board game – which are on a cuneiform tablet dating to 119BC right near the end of the period that cuneiform was used. The front of the tablet has a 4×3 grid, each square of which has a zodiac sign & an inscription in. This seems to be some form of divination game – fling the dice, read off your fortune. On the reverse there are the rules for a “game fit for nobles” called the Game of Pack of Dogs. The first part of the text is a library tag written by the scribe who wrote the tablet explaining what it is and where it was copied from, the rest is the rules of the game. The rules talk about different pieces for each side, and they start in different places depending on type and on the dice roll. For instance if you roll a 5 the piece called the Storm Bird will start on square 5. There are also rules for when each type of piece lands on one of the special squares (marked with rosettes on the game board above). The rules are full of puns/jokes based on the fact that the phrase for “pack of dogs” also means “troop of soldiers”.

These are believed to be the rules for a descendent of the Royal Game of Ur, because of similarities to the only known modern survival of the game. There is a Jewish community in India who are descendants of Jews who moved there in the 1st Millennium BC from Babylon. They play a game on a board similar to the second layout for this game, using rules that are similar to the ones from the cuneiform tablet.

Game of Ur Board Scratched at Gate Guardian's Feet
Game Board Scratched at Gate Guardian’s Feet

Finkel finished up by talking a bit about the spread & popularity of the game. He believes it was invented in the Indus Valley in the 3rd Millenium BC, and rapidly spread through the surrounding area – to Iran and then Iraq, and through India into Sri Lanka. As mentioned before the board changes in the 1st Millennium BC and this change propagates through the whole of the game playing region. It was widely played – game boards are found scratched in floors all over the region, even between the feet of the Winged Assyrian Bull gate guardians that are in the British Museum. However it was replaced almost entirely by backgammon – leaving only that one survival discussed above.

“Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System” Irving Finkel (Part 1 of BSS Study Day)

At the end of February the Bloomsbury Summer School had a study day on cuneiform, presented by Irving Finkel called “The Wonder of Cuneiform: A Passionate Exploration of Some of Mesopotamia’s Most Important Ancient Records”. Finkel is a curator at the British Museum and has recently written a book (and presented a TV programme (post)) on a tablet containing a previous unknown version of the Ark myth including details of how to build an ark. As I’m learning Akkadian it sounded like an interesting day to go to. He’s a good speaker, managing to be entertaining as well as informative about a subject that could easily have been quite dry. There were four talks throughout the day, the first was an overview of the writing system and the other three each covered a text in cuneiform. I had intended to write a single post about all four talks, but after writing this first one I’ve decided to split it into four separate posts.

Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System

The title of this talk was definitely chosen to tweak the noses of the Egyptologists in the room (of which there were many as most of the BSS’s study days are Egypt related). It worked too – I was sat between J and Janet (who we know from the EEG) and they were both muttering about how hieroglphs are better than cuneiform 😉

Cuneiform writing originates sometime in the 4th Millennium BC in the geographical area that is now Iraq. Finkel told us about a couple of theories of its origin – the first one he talked about was the token theory, which he isn’t terribly convinced by. In this theory first small objects (stones, clay shapes) of particular forms were used to keep records, and later these were drawn onto clay and became pictographs. He thinks this theory requires being selective about the evidence, so isn’t very plausible. Instead he pointed out that cylinder seals exist at least as far back as evidence of writing so it’s not a big jump to think they started by drawing pictographs on clay to keep records.

The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is bureaucratic in nature. People were beginning to live in cities, which have a much higher administrative overhead and so record keeping began to be essential for the rulers of the population. Finkel said that mathematics begins at the same time as writing, for the same sorts of reasons, and the first examples found written down are quite complex so they must’ve been doing it for a while (I think by mathematics he means arithmetic and accountancy not algebra etc).

The first known language written in cuneiform (c.3300BC) was Sumerian, which is a language that has no known relatives. Obviously there were likely to’ve been some at the time, all the rest have just died out without trace. Akkadian, which I’m learning, was written in cuneiform later on and is a Semitic language.

The Big Idea of writing was the move from pictographs representing concrete things (sheep, cow, house etc) to using them to represent sounds, and also abstract grammatical necessities. An example of the first is that the word for “beer” is “kash”, so when you want to write down something about the Kashite King you use a beer pictograph for the first syllable of his country. And you know from context that this is kash-something not beer-something. An example of the second is that the beer pictograph is also used to represent the word for “its”, for no other reason that that this was decided to be so. Dictionaries are found from very early in the history of cuneiform listing these arbitrary designations.

The system (which signs mean what things) was clearly developed once – the only change in cuneiform writing over the 3,000 years that it is used is that the shapes of the signs become more cursive. The repertoire remains the same, and they represent the same syllable sounds or concepts throughout (even when writing a different language). Finkel believes that this was may even have been the work of a single individual who was both charismatic enough and important enough to enforce his (or her) ideas on the rest of the scribes. And once you have a functional system in place then bureaucratic inertia keeps it in place. The system that was developed isn’t necessarily the best or easiest system! Each sign has more than one value, so the system is inherently ambiguous. Also there are often multiple ways of writing the same sound, chosen mostly by whim of the scribe. Context is very important for working out what was being written about. And I’m discovering it gets worse when it starts being used to write Akkadian as not all features of the language are represented in the writing system – long and short vowels for instance. Context is all that tells you if you’re reading nārum (river) or narûm (stela).

development of the sign for head in cuneiform
Development of the sign for head
Made by wikipedia user Dbachmann

Prior to the standardisation the writing system had developed from plain pictographs in two ways. First the basic signs were modified to represent more words. For instance the sign for “head” could be turned into one representing “mouth” by adding a line for a mouth. And then you could add to that sign the one for “bowl”, and you represent “ration”. The next step (which continued long after standardisation of the sign repertoire) was to move from pictographs to more stylised & abstract signs. This began with a change in how the signs were drawn – at first a point was used to actually draw in the clay, but then they began to use wedges of reed to make impressions in the surface of the tablet (the shape this produces is what “cuneiform” as a word refers to). If you look at the diagram above you’ll also notice that they rotated the signs 90° at some point (I thought it was later in the process than that diagram suggests, however).

Finkel finished this introductory talk by giving us a brief overview of what the British Museum has in its collection of cuneiform tablets. There are around 130,000 of them in the museum, 25,000 of which came from a library in Nineveh. This is analogous to the much later Library of Alexandria in a couple of ways – first because it was supposed to be complete, and second because it got burnt to the ground. However unlike papyrus scrolls clay tablets are actually preserved by burning, and so it was dug up in modern times nearly intact. Apparently there’s going to be a new display relating to this in the British Museum soon.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 1

Back in January there was a five part series on the Written Word as part of the In Our Time series, which is what we’ve chosen to listen to next. This is a slightly different format in that instead of 3 guests in the studio Bragg is going to museums etc & talking to the curators & experts there.

This programme covered the initial development both of writing itself, and of the alphabetic system we use today. He went and looked at (and described to us) examples of early cuneiform writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese oracle bones, which are three of the four independent inventions of writing. It’s interesting that something so fundamental to modern civilisation was invented so few times – as well as the three I listed there’s also an independent development on the American continent, but all other writing systems were developed from other systems or directly inspired by other systems.

(It’s actually a little controversial to say that Egyptian writing was developed independently like I did in the preceding paragraph – it may’ve been inspired by cuneiform, however the earliest known Egyptian writing is getting to be early enough that it’s more likely to be independent. Also J’s been reading a book about the development of writing, and it also makes the point that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems developed for different reasons – Mesopotamian writing was proto-book keeping, Egyptian writing had religious significance. So probably independent origin.)

I actually found the Chinese stuff the most interesting as it was completely new to me – in ancient China (in the Shang Dynasty) the rulers read oracles in the pattern of cracks that you get by using a hot poker on ox shoulder bones. These oracles were then recorded on the bones by scribes in the earliest known forms of modern Chinese characters, which makes the Chinese system the longest consecutively used modern writing system.

The programme also name checked Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B (a syllabic system that was an early way to write Greek), and then moved on to the development of our more familiar alphabet. It made the point that the Greek alphabet was the first to write down vowels – previous alphabetic systems were for Semitic languages and due to the way those languages are structured the consonant sequences are less ambiguous (as I understand it). So to a native speaker it’s a lot more obvious in context what a word is than it would be in English (or presumably Greek).