W15 – (Mis)use of Sources: Ancient and Modern

Organizer: Jennifer Singletary (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)


  1. Jennifer Singletary (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)
  2. Johannes Bach (Helsingin Yliopisto = University of Helsinki)
  3. Céline Debourse (Universität Wien)
  4. Silvia Gabrieli (Università degli Studi di Padua)
  5. Gina Konstantopoulos (Helsingin Yliopisto = University of Helsinki)
  6. Dustin Nash (Muhlenberg College)
  7. Louise Neuville and Marie Young (Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne / Universität Heidelberg)
  8. Carole Roche-Hawley (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique)
  9. Karel Van Der Toorn (Universiteit van Amsterdam)
  10. Martin Worthington (University of Cambridge)

General Abstract

The incorporation, manipulation, and reference to material from sources is a key feature of both texts and artifacts throughout the ancient Near East. Strategies such as quotation, citation, and reference to sources; the combination, incorporation, redaction, translation, and copying of source material; and/or the attribution of information or inspiration to historical or fictional/non-existent sources endow ancient texts and artistic productions with authority, antiquity, relevance, (in)accessibility, and/or sacredness. These techniques highlight the writers’ and producers’ access to knowledge and tradition and emphasize their scholarly, literary, and artistic acumen, while simultaneously legitimating, contesting, or manipulating the knowledge and traditions that are disseminated through their re-use and reference. In addition, later uses of ancient sources have also employed them for a variety of purposes, from liturgical to popular, from historical reconstruction to forgery, from scholarly analysis to creative reinterpretation. This workshop aims to bring together an international group of scholars from the fields of Assyriology and other Near Eastern studies disciplines to compare the use and misuse of ancient sources in both ancient and modern contexts.
Through an interdisciplinary approach to this topic, the workshop seeks to investigate the dynamics of the acquisition, dissemination, and manipulation of knowledge and tradition from sources in various ancient Near Eastern cultures, as well as the use of ancient sources in modern contexts.

Contact: jennifer_singletary@alumni.brown.edu

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

Dr. Jennifer Elizabeth Singletary (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen; jennifer.singletary@uni-goettingen.de)

A Transtextual Reading of the ‘Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince’ (SAA 3, 32)
Johannes Bach (Helsingin Yliopisto = University of Helsinki; johannes.bach@gmx.net)

The text SAA 3, 32 has been treated from lots of different angles since its first edition in the 1930s by Wolfram von Soden. Since then, a row of theories on the text’s origin and purpose have been proposed. This presentation will not aim at offering a new general interpretation of that remarkable piece of Assyrian literature, but rather focus on its inter- and transtextual components. After a short overview of its contents I will discuss the UWV’s various connections to other literary texts, first and foremost to the Gilgamesh epic and the so-called God Type Texts (edited by Köcher). Finally, the talk will offer a new way of interpreting a specific aspect of the text that deals with the features of dMūtu (“Death”) by comparing the UVW’s method of portraying this divine entity with a modern poetic concept pertaining to the representation of the unknown.

The Misuse of Sources in the Study of the New Year’s Festival
Céline Debourse (Universität Wien; celine.debourse@univie.ac.at)

The New Year’s Festival is the best-known Mesopotamian ritual, both within the field of Assyriology and outside of it. It has sparked many discussions, but consensus about its meaning, purpose, and influence on other traditions has never been reached. Yet, the study of the festival is problematic not only in that sense; so, too, is the fact that the festival’s course of events as it is accepted today was reconstructed by means of many sources of diverse nature and from different places and periods of origin. Furthermore, chronology is rarely taken into account, which results in the fact that the reconstructed festival is a virtual and not an actual one. It is especially troubling that barely any attempts at dating the ritual texts (Racc.)—the most important sources—have been undertaken, and even though those texts are only known from Hellenistic tablets, it is taken for granted that they are merely copies of an older original.
Primarily based on a study of the literary themes exhibited by the New Year’s Festival texts, and secondarily supported by linguistic considerations, I argue that these texts are creations of the Hellenistic period. As such they are clearly embedded in their Hellenistic literary context in Babylon (and beyond). However, establishing a late composition date for the New Year’s Festival texts does not render the study of the festival any easier—to the contrary. The source material must be reconsidered; an endeavour in which a source’s date and place of origin, but genre as well should be taken into account. I hope to bring the misuse of sources in the study of the New Year’s Festival to light by disentangling the web of—wrongly—forged interconnections that it presents today and submitting each source to historical criticism. That will enable us to consider the New Year’s Festival in Mesopotamia as the historically developed phenomenon that it is.

Enūma Eliš: A Glorious Past and a Curious Present
Silvia Gabrieli (Università degli Studi di Padua; alvean86@gmail.com)

This paper will briefly describe how the Epic of Creation was transmitted during the 1st millennium BCE, and later also during the first centuries of our Era, both to Babylonian and Assyrian scholars and to a wider audience, even of non-Mesopotamian origin. In the second part the paper will focus mostly on how the epic is transmitted nowadays outside academia, in specific case studies taken from modern day music and comics.
How was knowledge of the Enūma Eliš transmitted in the past? How is it possible to transmit the knowledge of the poem nowadays?
Starting from these two questions, the proposed paper aims at highlighting several different strategies which were used in ancient and modern times to promote the dissemination of knowledge regarding the Babylonian Epic of Creation. Wanting to focus mostly on the modern day approach, we will analyze very briefly how ancient scholars (Babylonian and Assyrian ones) studied it, mostly through copies and peculiar texts, such as commentaries and “recensions”, and even “counter- texts.” The Enūma Eliš was not a product only for intellectuals, it could be known also to a wider audience, thanks to the so called “performance” of the Babylonian Akītu Festival of the month of Nisannu, during which the text served as the “sacred book” of Marduk’s theology and it was read (or recited?) aloud. After the conquest of all the Ancient Near East by Alexander the Great, it seems that the text lost its appeal and appeared only in reinterpretation of the mythical tale by Berossos (4th cent. BCE) or by Eudemus of Rhodes (4th cent. BCE) and, later, also by Damascius (6th cent. CE). It seems that the knowledge of the text got lost in time until Smith’s recovery and translation of the ancient fragments of the Epic in 1875-1876.
Nowadays the modern transmission of the Enūma Eliš happens both inside and outside academia; particularly we will examine some cultural products, from very peculiar fields, such as comics and music. The aim of this second part will be to analyze what the contemporary “popular” perception of the poem is, now that the text has been almost completely reconstructed in its written form and it is available almost for everybody to read.

The Reception of Mesopotamia: From Victorian Spectacle to Science Fiction and Snow Crash
Gina Konstantopoulos (Helsingin Yliopisto = University of Helsinki; gina.konstantopoulos@helsinki.fi)

From the nineteenth century to the modern day, the place of Assyriology within popular culture has often been eclipsed in comparison to the more widespread popularity of Egyptology. Despite this, there are a number of instances where Mesopotamia held considerable popular attention. One particularly famous spike of public interest is tied to the first excavations of the mid-nineteenth century, whose finds captured the Victorian imagination, with full-page spreads in the Illustrated London News detailing the exciting "Nimroud Sculptures." Although the nineteenth century and early twentieth century fixated upon either Biblical links or archaeological finds, Mesopotamia's presence in popular culture during the latter half of the twentieth century was increasingly connected to texts and language, particularly Sumerian. Furthermore, while the reception of Mesopotamia in the Victorian period was, in many ways, an orientalist fascination with the past, the reception in more modern popular culture shifted to look forward, inventing past histories as well as new science-fiction futures. This paper considers the modern reception of Mesopotamia, focusing in particular on its appearance in science fiction, as exemplified by the use of Sumerian in Neal Stephenson's 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, perhaps the most in-depth appearance of the language in modern science fiction. Snow Crash draws strongly on Mesopotamian mythology, and features Sumerian as essentially the fundamental programming language for humanity as whole. This paper will analyze the shift in the reception of Mesopotamia in popular culture, considering how its representation in more modern contexts reflects equally modern and distinct perspectives on the ancient world.

Assyriology and the Allosaurus: Inverse Rhetorical Strategies Concerning the ‘Past’ at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter
Dustin Nash (Muhlenberg College; dustinnash@muhlenberg.edu)

The Creation Museum and the affiliated Ark Encounter, both located in northern Kentucky, are the premier Young Earth Creationist public attractions in the world. Operated jointly by the parachurch apologetics ministry AiG (“Answers in Genesis”), the expressed goal of these facilities is to convince visitors that the Bible accurately records the natural history of our planet. Thus they present artifacts, dioramas, interactive video displays, and placards to argue that science supports the biblical description of God’s creation of the cosmos and a global flood. Most scholarly attention regarding these depictions of the past have focused on their portrayal of dinosaurs and the assertion that these “terrible lizards” cohabited with humans. Yet, while paleontology presents a clear challenge to the chronology that the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter advocate, so does Assyriology. Despite this similarity, the present paper will show that the facilities deploy strikingly different rhetorical strategies in their representation of dinosaurs versus ancient human societies of the Near East. More specifically, a focused analysis of how these Young Earth Creationist attractions utilize Sumerian and Akkadian sources, representations of cuneiform writing, and ancient Mesopotamian material culture (especially artistic representations of the Uruk period) in comparison to that of dinosaurs reveals consistent boundaries of silence and justification. Thus, while significant textual space is devoted to explaining an alternative dating for geological strata, the archaeological and textual evidence of ancient Mesopotamian history is left almost entirely unexamined. This suggests that expectations of visitor unfamiliarity regarding ancient Near Eastern history and literature has structured the rhetoric of both attractions, allowing them to legitimate the cultural memory of the past that they construct through the strategic appropriation of information drawn from the field of Assyriology without devoting space to its critical examination.

Scribal Interest for the Past: Late Babylonian Copies of Ancient Royal Inscriptions
Louise Neuville (Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne) and Marie Young (Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne / Universität Heidelberg; marie.young@hotmail.fr)

Copying played a fundamental role in the transmission of Ancient Mesopotamian knowledge. Thanks to this essential practice Mesopotamian scribes could preserve their documentary collections, by a regular refreshment of the written media without affecting the content of the text.
The main purpose of this practice was to ensure the preservation of scholarly and literary collections. Sometimes, however, scribes also copied ancient texts which have sunk into oblivion for centuries or even millennia before being rediscovered. The royal inscription from the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC, which were copied by Babylonian scribes in the 1st millennium BC are undoubtedly the best examples of this practice.
The colophons of these documents recording the glorious deeds of ancient kings indicate that they were often copied from stelae or bricks which come from happy discoveries during the renovation of monumental buildings.
This paper aims at studying the interest of 1st millennium BC scribes in the accounts of old kings ‘exploits, by relying on a corpus of inscriptions from Babylon, Borsippa, Uruk, Ur, and Sippar. It will focus on the status of theses copies, their addressee, their chronological distribution, the nature of their content, as well as on the scribal milieu which produced them. Material issues will also be addressed, especially the kind of medium and layout, in order to identify similarities and/or divergences.

Theoretical Knowledge and Practical Applications of Archaizing Paleography in the Cuneiform World
Carole Roche-Hawley (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique; carole.roche-hawley@cnrs.fr)

Paleographic lists existed already in the early second millennium in Babylonia. Cuneiform scribes, of the 2nd and 1st millennium, were able to read and reproduce older inscriptions, even those dating from the 3rd millennium. In this paper, I propose a comparison between such theoretical knowledge, as it was taught in Mesopotamian and peripheral schools, and practical applications of such knowledge, for example in copies made by intellectuals in order to preserve ancient inscriptions, or in ancient forgeries, such as the cruciform monument.
The topic I would like to extend in this paper is a comparison of this “scholarly knowledge” with the actual use of archaizing signs in some texts. Did the scribes employ “old fashioned” sign forms for making “old fashioned” looking inscriptions? Did they use such knowledge in order to read and understand actual older texts that they were copying? How did they use such paleographic knowledge for display purposes, for the propaganda needs of kings, for example? Would such allow them to proclaim their own belonging to the long sweep of Mesopotamian history (for example, a known inscription of Šamšī-Adad seems to have been “inspired” by a much earlier one from Šamšī-Adad I)? Or allow Assyrians to be perceived as legitimate in Babylonia (cf. the Babylonian inscriptions of Essarhaddon)?

Echoes of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle in Papyrus Amherst 63
Karel Van Der Toorn (Universiteit van Amsterdam; K.vanderToorn@uva.nl)

Though written in Demotic characters, Papyrus Amherst 63 contains traditional Aramaic songs, complaints and narratives that go back to the Aramaic-speaking communities in Persian Egypt. Among them is a group of Syrians from Hamath. They venerated Bethel and the Queen of Heaven. The Syrian section of the Amherst papyrus (columns 6-11) contains several ritual songs to Bethel. They picture Bethel as a storm god on the model of Baal. The similarities between them are not fortuitous since the papyrus shows that several mythological themes from the Baal Cycle—such as the defeat of Yamm and the building of Baal’s palace—have been transferred to Bethel. This paper explores the profile of Bethel in the Amherst papyrus and demonstrates the connection with Ugaritic literature.

Filming The Poor Man of Nippur
Martin Worthington (University of Cambridge; mjw65@cam.ac.uk)

In May 2017, Cambridge Assyriology filmed The Poor Man of Nippur. Funding was secured from The Philological Society, The London Centre for the Ancient Near East, The Thriplow Charitable Trust, St John’s College Cambridge, Trinity College Cambridge, The CHW Johns Fund for Assyriology in the University of Cambridge, The Judith E Wilson Fund, and The Henry Sweet Society. 
The parts were acted out by members of the Cambridge Mesopotamian community, chiefly Undergraduate and MPhil students, using costumes hired from the National Theatre.  Leading speaking roles went to students who had the story as one of their ‘set texts’ for the year. Locations were in Cambridge and environs.
The project was produced by Kathryn Stevens and Martin Worthington, and directed by Martin Worthington. The music was supplied by Stef Conner, well known in Mesopotamian circles for her album The Flood. Rachel Tookey was video editor.
The film will be launched open-access online in Autumn 2018. A preview screening for members of the Rencontre will take place. In this paper, which will be easier to follow for those who have seen the film, I will discuss some of the project’s aims, and what we learned from pursuing them. Namely:
First, the project was an exploration of innovative teaching methods—not only for those directly concerned, who found themselves interfacing with an ancient language they had not experienced previously, but also in the sense that the film is a resource that can be used in Akkadian-teaching worldwide.
Second, it was a step in the direction of launching Performance Studies for Babylonian narratives (an area where we lag far behind Classics and other disciplines). Staging the story brought up questions and challenges which are not usually considered when dealing with sources in print form.
Third, the project is one of several public outreach initiatives launched by Cambridge Assyriology, of which another is the launch of a conference on Egyptology and Assyriology as University subjects, for students who are choosing what to study at University (http://tinyurl.com/EgMesConf). It is hoped that the film, together with an accompanying documentary, will do something to stimulate public interest in the study of ancient languages; and also, The Poor Man of Nippur lending itself especially well to this, make ancient Mesopotamian cultures seem less ‘alien.’

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