Aššurbanipal at the British Museum

DgCt-puW0AU9TK6Last weekend I finally got a chance to visit the British Museum’s exhibition on the Assyrian king Aššurbanipal. There’s been a lot of good word-of-mouth about it so I was looking forward to it, and while it wasn’t perfect, the exhibition didn’t disappoint.

Although no-one on the CREWS Project directly works on first-millennium Assyria, Aššurbanipal’s a name that’s cropped up a few times on this blog because of his strong interest in writing and scholarship. He’s one of the few Mesopotamian rulers known to have been literate – in fact, this was a source of great pride for Aššurbanipal, who claims in one inscription:

‘I learnt the lore of the wise sage Adapa, the hidden secret, the whole of the scribal craft. I can discern celestial and terrestrial portents and deliberate in the assembly of the experts. I am able to discuss the series “If the liver is a mirror image of the sky” with capable scholars. I can solve convoluted reciprocals and calculations that do not come out evenly. I have read cunningly written text in Sumerian, obscure Akkadian, the interpretation of which is difficult. I have examined stone inscriptions from before the flood, which are sealed, stopped up, mixed up.’

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What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean

My research has taken a fun turn towards practical experiments lately, as some of our Twitter followers may have noticed. It isn’t just because I wanted to get away from the computer (though I did…); it’s because I have been working on a problem where direct evidence is scarce and/or difficult to interpret, and where experimentation is surprisingly elucidating.

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My work on a replica Cypro-Minoan tablet.

We know that during the Bronze Age a number of civilisations around the eastern Mediterranean were using clay to write on. From Mesopotamian cuneiform to Linear A and B in the Aegean, people found that this reusable natural resource provided a vital tool for making records. But they didn’t all use it in the same way, and they didn’t all use the same implements or methods to write on it – instead traditions of writing display considerable regional differences, whether or not there might have been any influences from one place to another. Continue reading “What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean”

Scribes and Spooks: Exorcists in Ancient Mesopotamia

A little while ago an unexpected thing happened to me. While happily going about my research, I recalled something I’d read not long after I started working for the CREWS Project – a reference to a Mesopotamian family who worked as exorcists. I’d always found this a fun concept and tweeted about it. And, well… it turned out a lot of other people liked this idea too.

For a while now I’ve been meaning to dig up the original reference and write something about Mesopotamian exorcists that had a more solid foundation than my off-the-cuff and hazy memories. This is good material for a CREWS Project blog post, because the link between writing and exorcism in ancient Mesopotamia was much closer than you might expect. And what better time than Hallowe’en? Draw the curtains, make your incantations against Pazuzu and rotate your heads 360 degrees (don’t really do this) as we take a trip into the demon-haunted and bewitched world of Mesopotamian exorcism.

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CREWS Display: A Cypriot Seal with a Fish-man

We have finally come to the last object in our special display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Don’t be too sad yet though, because there is still more than a month to come and see it (until 10th June 2018) if you have a chance to visit Cambridge.

This week’s object is a little stamp seal from ancient Cyprus, featuring a fish-man with Cypriot Syllabic writing behind him to the top-left, probably 7th-6th C BC. At just 2.1 x 1.2 cm, it’s the second smallest item of our set. Now part of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection, we do not know exactly where it came from but its Cypriot provenance can be confirmed because of its Cypriot Syllabic inscription.

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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies

The ancient world was a dangerous place, with potential enemies at every turn, as well as a wide array of monsters, demons and illnesses waiting to prey on the unwary. Fortunately, there were many ways to fight back, including writing and related practices. By coincidence, I recently learned about three of these in two days. Continue reading “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies”

Learning about Cuneiform Tablets Behind the Scenes at the British Museum

We’ve talked before on this blog about the importance of hands-on experience with inscriptions. Seeing and handling the real thing gives a much clearer idea of the practical realities of reading and writing an ancient script than working from a transcription or even a drawing or photograph.

So I was very lucky this week to be able to visit the British Museum with Cambridge’s Assyriologists, for a behind-the-scenes tour and a hands-on session with some of their many cuneiform tablets.

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Writing Gods and Myths II: Mesopotamia

Today we will continue our journey through the myths about writing and its patron gods in Ancient Mesopotamia. This area is especially important, as it is in the Sumerian city of Uruk where we have the first attestations of writing in the form of pictographs c. 3200 BC. Later, Sumerians would develop from these pictographs what we call “cuneiform” writing (which consists of abstract wedge-shapes representing words or syllables).

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Mesopotamian pictograms. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/329081

One of the Mesopotamian stories that talks about the creation of writing involves Enmerkar, one of the mythological kings of Uruk. According to the Sumerian King List he was the second king of the First Dynasty of Uruk and the builder of the city. In the epic poem that narrates the conquest of Aratta by king Enmerkar it is said that his messenger, who had the task to transmit the messages between the two kings (Enmerkar and the king of Aratta), was failing to remember these messages. Therefore, Enmerkar had the idea of writing them down on clay.

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