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Margins of writing, origins of cultures: Unofficial writing in the ancient Near East and beyond

Oriental Institute Conference, February 25-26, 2005
1155 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL

Organizer: Seth L. Sanders

This is a conference on the politics of writing in the ancient Near East: what happens when people write their own languages, in environments dominated by imperial standard languages like Egyptian, Babylonian or Aramaic? This conference will be the first of its type, bringing together linguists, anthropologists, and scholars of the ancient Near East to discuss new directions for research. Among the senior scholars participating will be Harvard’s Peter Machinist (Hebrew Bible), Chicago’s Michael Silverstein (Linguistic Anthropology), Michigan’s Piotr Michalowski (Assyriology), and Theo van den Hout, executive editor of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary. Younger scholars include William Schniedewind, (UCLA) whose recent How the Bible Became a Book is arguably the first study of the Bible to see the question of writing as decisive for both literature and history, and John Kelly (Chicago), author of the forthcoming Technography, a study in the anthropology of knowledge focusing on the grammarians of ancient India and the engineering of Sanskrit.

Detailed Description

If history is written by the victors, how did the victors learn to write? Scholars have long focused on the official, state-sponsored written culture of the ancient Near East, devoting intimate attention to the building of canons, the life of genres, and the grammatical traditions of scribes. Yet there is a crucial blind spot in our view: the relationship between the vast but circumscribed body of cultivated writing and the actual life of language, as it was spoken and imagined by ancient Near Eastern people. The relationships between language and ethnicity, the connections between languages of empire and local identity, and the places where languages are born, live and die has remained largely terra incognita, the subject of brief speculations rather than focused empirical research.

This conference attempts to set a new agenda for ancient Near Eastern studies by focusing on a missing foundation: without marginal languages, there would be no Near Eastern history as we understand it. The rise of language varieties from low-status spoken “dialects” to the enduring symbols of whole cultures, from the Akkadian adoption of Sumerian, to the creation of Biblical Hebrew, to the Arabic reuse of Aramaic, is arguably the decisive event in setting the parameters of written ancient history. Without cultures that moved from the margins to the center through writing, we would have history but no “Babylonian,” “Israel,” or “Arabic.” And without the rediscovery of writing that remained at the margins, we might forget how official writing, too, began there. This conference will draw attention to the powerfully creative relationship between the history of writing and history itself.

Recent decades have radically expanded our view of the cultural trajectories writing has taken: at Ebla, an East Semitic variety was written in a largely Sumerian code; at Ugarit and Israel, a second alphabetic order, present also in South Arabian and Egyptian but written outside the Ugaritic chancery, was discovered; at Wadi el-Hôl, newly uncovered inscriptions located the alphabet’s origins in the remote desert, centuries earlier than many had imagined. Each case raises essential questions about the relationship between spoken vernacular, standard written language, and political identity.

Intellectual Background

These provocative discoveries come at a time when our resources for understanding the material are blossoming: historians and anthropologists have become acutely interested in changes in the material form of writing, but scholars of the Near East are too often unaware of this renaissance. Emblematic of this new awareness during the 80’s and 90’s was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which famously raised the question of how new combinations of technology and culture correspond to new political possibilities–a question that may be productively applied to ancient Near Eastern media. If modern citizenship in a nation-state became thinkable only after printing and industrial capitalism made mass vernacular-language readerships possible, what kinds of publics and readers were imagined by writers of the first alphabetic graffiti, regional vernaculars disguised as “universal” Sumerian, or unique writing systems only comprehensible within one city-state or kingdom? This is what the discoveries from Wadi el-Hôl, Ebla, Ugarit and Israel prompt us to consider. Work like Anderson’s should be debated in a Near Eastern context not because of its answers, specific to the modern period, but because of the questions it provokes: What is the historical relationship between the forms in which ancient speakers wrote, the genres they transmitted in writing, and the political forms they imagined in writing and enacted in history?

Margins of Writing will be the first conference of its type, addressing an aspect of Near Eastern history and culture that is significant and overlooked. It will bring together scholars of history and linguistics with Assyriologists, Anthropologists and Indologists, allowing scholars to share ideas on the possibilities of writing itself, a subject which, for philologists, renders all other subjects possible.


The format will be a two-day conference, composed of three panels and a final symposium, each one focused on a specific issue: Institutions, Vernaculars and Publics. “Institutions” will address how deliberately constructed groups create and change language over time: if writing is a hallmark of the state, what happens to writing when there is no state? If scribes are the masters and transmitters of writing, why does the alphabet seem to have been invented without them? “Vernaculars” will examine the back-and-forth between cosmopolitan written languages and local vernacular forms (ie. Standard Babylonian vs. Ugaritic; Hittite vs. Hieroglyphic Luwian, Official Aramaic vs. Classical, Qumran or Paleo-Hebrew): what happens when people write down the language they speak? Is this an act of national self-assertion, a piece of scribal art, or something else? “Publics” will ask what audiences the new writing systems created, presupposed, and excluded. We will look for hard empirical evidence and new ways of thinking for these questions.

Participant Titles and Bios

Paul-Alain Beaulieu, Harvard University

Official and Vernacular Languages: the Shifting Sands of Imperial and Cultural Identities in First Millennium B.C. Mesopotamia.
Beaulieu is an Assyriologist who specializes in the history and culture of Mesopotamia in the first millennium B.C. He is the author of The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539BC (Yale, 1989) and of The Pantheon of Uruk During the Neo-Babylonian Period (Leiden, 2003). He is currently working on two books on late Babylonian archives, one on texts related to the building of the North Palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, the other on a business family active in Larsa in the 6th century BC.

Jerrold Cooper, Johns Hopkins University

Cooper is an Assyriologist interested in Mesopotamian Historiography, the origins and development of writing systems, Sumerian literature, gender and sexuality, and the History of Assyriology. Recent articles include “Sumerian and Aryan: Racial Theory, Academic Politics, and Parisian Assyriology;” “Bilingual Babel: Cuneiform Texts in Two or More Languages from Ancient Mesopotamia and Beyond” and “Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica” (with S. Houston and J. Baines)

Jacco Dieleman, UCLA

Abundance in the margins: multiplicity of script in the Demotic Magical Papyri.
Dieleman is an Egyptologist who studies how language is used to create and maintain personal and religious identities. His research focuses on bilingualism, diglossia and translation in pharaonic and Greco-Roman Egypt. His dissertation recently appeared under the title Priests, Tongues, and Rites. The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE). Winner of the 2002 Basler Ägyptologischer Nachwuchspreis, his recent publications include “Miniaturization and the Opening of the Mouth in a Greek Magical Text (PGM XII.270-350)” (with Ian Moyer) and “Ein spätägyptisches magisches Handbuch. Eine neue PDM oder PGM?”

John Kelly, University of Chicago

Writing and the state: China, India, and general definitions
Kelly does research in Fiji and in India on topics including ritual in history, knowledge and power, semiotic and military technologies, colonialism and capitalism. He is the author of “What was Sanskrit For? Metadiscursive Strategies in Ancient India” and Represented Communities: Fiji and World Decolonization (with Martha Kaplan) about the constituting of nation-states out of empires. His forthcoming Technography: Sciences in the History of Cultures, raises questions for the anthropology of knowledge with a focus on the grammarians of ancient India and the engineering of Sanskrit.

Peter Machinist, Harvard University

Machinist studies ancient Near Eastern cultural, intellectual, and social history, focusing on Israel and Mesopotamia. Among his publications are Letters from Priests to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (with Steven W. Cole), “The Question of Distinctiveness in Ancient Israel,” “On Self-Consciousness in Mesopotamia,” and “The Fall of Assyria in Comparative Ancient Perspective.”

Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan

Introduction: The Lives of Languages
Michalowski studies the literary cultures of Sumer and Akkad in the second and third millennia B.C.E.; among his interests are the political uses of language, the relationship between literary theory and non-western writings, and the self-representation of cultural elites in pre-modern societies. His books include The Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur and Letters from Early Mesopotamia, and among his recent articles are “The Life and Death of the Sumerian Language in Comparative Perspective” and “The Ideological Foundations of the Ur III State.”

Annick Payne, University of Würzburg

Multilingual Inscriptions - Signs of Power or Signs of Weakness?
Payne is completing her PhD at the University of Würzburg on ‘Hieroglyphic Luwian Case Syntax,’ after earning the M.A. in London. Her work focuses on Anatolian languages and the development and evolution of scripts in Asia Minor and the Aegean. Her first book, Hieroglyphic Luwian, has just been published. Her articles and papers inclulde ‘Das Schrifttum der Hethiter’, ‘Überlegungen zur Hieroglyphenschrift der Assur-Briefe,’ ‘Masuwari in den hieroglyphen-luwischen Inschriften’, and ‘Writing Systems and Identity.’

Gonzalo Rubio, Pennsylvania State University

Writing in another tongue: Alloglottography and scribal antiquarianism in the Ancient Near East.
Rubio is an Assyriologist with a special interest in the linguistic and literary history of Ancient Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Recent articles include “Falling trees and forking tongues: The place of Akkadian and Eblaite within Semitic” and “The Languages of the Ancient Near East.” His first two books, Sumerian literary texts from the Ur III period and A linguistic analysis of Sumerian are scheduled to appear shortly.

Sheldon Pollock, University of Chicago

Pollock is an Indologist who has recently written The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Culture and Power in Premodern India and edited Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. He has worked for the past decade on the relationship between culture and polity in precapitalist South Asia, including the problem of vernacular and cosmopolitan languages. He is currently directing the international collaborative research project “Indian Knowledge Systems on the Eve of Colonialism.”

Seth Sanders, University of Chicago, Organizer

The Encounter Between Writing and Language in the Ancient Near East
Sanders is a Biblicist with strong interests in Semitic philology and linguistic anthropology. His research focuses on how Hebrew and related texts worked as tools to create religious and political experience.. An editor of Cuneiform in Canaan and Israel, he is working on a book entitled Vernacular Revelation: The Language of the Hebrew Bible and the Politics of Ancient Israel. Recent articles include “Performative Utterances and Divine Language in Ugaritic” and “What was the Alphabet for? The Rise of Written Vernaculars and the Making of Israelite National Literature.”

William Schniedewind, UCLA

Aramaic, the death of written Hebrew, and the rise of linguistic nationalism in the Persian and Hellenistic periods
Schniedewind is a Professor of Biblical Studies & Northwest Semitic Languages at UCLA and the author of How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel and the forthcoming A Primer for Ugarit: Language, Culture, and Literature (with Joel Hunt). Recent articles include “Prolegomena for the Sociolinguistics of Classical Hebrew” and “Linguistic Ideology in Qumran Hebrew.” He is at work on a social history of ancient Hebrew.

Michael Silverstein, University of Chicago

Silverstein studies the anthropology of language use, the relationships among language, culture, and cognition, and the history of linguistic and ethnographic studies. He is the author of “Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology,” “Indexical Order and the Dialectics of Sociolinguistic Life,” “‘Cultural’ concepts and the language-culture nexus” and of a popular book, Talking Politics: The Substance of Style From Abe to W. Among his edited volumes is Natural Histories of Discourse.

Theo Van den Hout, University of Chicago

Second millennium Anatolia: One society, two scripts and two languages
Van den Hout is executive editor of the Chicago Hittitle Dictionary. He is interested in questions of ancient record management, Hittite history and linguistics as well as the history and languages of first millennium Anatolia. His most recent book is The Purity of Kingship and among his recent articles are “Self, Soul and Portrait in Hieroglyphic Luwian” and “Miles of Clay: Information Management in the Ancient Near Eastern Hittite Empire”

Christopher Woods, University of Chicago

Pragmatics and Language Death: New Evidence and Arguments from Sumerian Grammatical Texts
Woods is a Sumerologist whose research explores linguistic and cultural dimensions of early writing systems. Among his papers are “The Deictic Foundations of the Sumerian Language” and “Of the Euphrates, Shamash, and Sippar: The Orthographical, Topographical, and Mythological Background of the Spelling UD.KIB.NUN.” His first two books, The Sumerian Conjugation Prefixes and Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon 18, are in preparation.

Paul Zimansky,. Boston University

Writing, Writers and Reading in the Kingdom of Van
Zimansky is a Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology Boston University, and currently a visiting Professor in the History Department at Stony Brook University. He has excavated at Nippur (Iraq), Bastam (Iran), ‘Ain Dara (Syria), Tell Hamida (Iraq), Mashkan-shapir (Iraq), and Ayanis (Turkey). His publications include Ecology and Empire: Structure of the Urartian State (1985), Ancient Ararat: A Handbook of Urartian Studies (1998), The Iron Age Settlement at ‘Ain Dara, Syria (1999), and The Anatomy of a Mesopotamian City: Survey and Soundings at Mashkan-shapir (2004). The last two are co-authored with Elizabeth C. Stone.

Preliminary Schedule and Abstracts

Oriental Institute Margins of Writing Conference Presentation Schedule

Friday, February 25


Gil Stein, Oriental Institute Director, Welcome
Seth Sanders, Post-Doctoral Scholar, Organizer
The Encounter Between Writing and Language in the Ancient Near East

Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan
The Lives of Languages

Discussion of the history of languages in the ancient Near East are often based on specific conceptual categories and analogies that influence and prejudice the debate. We speak of imperial or hegemonic languages in a manner that betrays the post-colonial origins of such categories. We think of other languages as vernaculars and contrast them with imposed dominant written conventions, but compared, let us say, with the work done on vernacularization in India, we have not analyzed the full range of historical and socio-linguistic factors associated with such changes in habit. It seems to me that we need to first define the very nature of the languages involved and of their status as written conventions. Were there really imperial languages in the ANE? Why is it that in certain periods certain types of documents were written in dead or artificial languages, and why is it that in some places such as Ebla, Hattusha, or Ugarit the same scribes would use different written languages for different tasks? It may be that the answer to such questions can only be gleaned from an intersection of a series of different lines of analysis. More or less standard socio-linguistic and historical analysis must be contrasted with specific study of the life lines and the very identity of the written forms of expression used in the ANE. Did anyone ever really write their own vernacular, and if so under what conditions? A number of years ago I tried to address some of these questions in the context of Ebla and the misleadingly labeled Eblaite language and I returned to some of them more recently in the context of a discussion of the death of Sumerian. I would like to rethink these issues in a broader ANE context.


John Kelly, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago
Writing and the State: China, India, and General Definitions

Intriguing observations that writing historically encounters language rather than beginning from it—that writing begins as an iconic record of things rather than other signs, marking storage contents or recording transactions, and later represents words and encounters the problem of recording syntax—might provoke us to reopen questions about the relationship of codified language to the state. At least in some places, did writing as a semiotic technology connect to and extend state power, as a regulative mechanism, before it related to and relayed language? My suspicion, and it is only that, is that the story will not follow one trajectory, that we will have strands of development of writing with and without language as its primary communicated substrate and with and without immanence in state power. Important things then happen when writing of language becomes a vehicle of state. Our models of the emergence of codified language as a state project (Anderson, Bourdieu, Eugen Weber) deal with cases absurdly late for the posing of basic questions. My own work takes up a comparison in something more like a middle period, comparing the development of Sanskrit mostly outside of both writing and state apparatuses, with the emergence of writing-dependent literary Sinitic and the archive in China, which recent scholarship (Connery, Lewis) have portrayed as central to the Chinese state as a project (including the famous Confucian “rectification of names”). At stake is definition of the state itself. Weber’s famous commitment to the state as monopoly on legitimate violence is trailed, within the conception of “legitimacy,” by concern over how the state expresses and renders legitimate its actions—a premise not about modes of destruction and coercion but about modes of communication. Should a reasonable definition of the state also involve the emergence and use of means of communication, semiotic technologies? In these terms, we can reconsider long-standing puzzles in South Asian history: the engineering of Sanskrit largely outside of writing, and the development of “religious” authority systems, Brahmin and Buddhist, only loosely connected to means of coercion and destruction. What is a monastery, as a semiotic technology? And we can contrast South Asian patterns of development in semiotic technologies with those in China, reconsidering the classic comparative puzzle in state formation in Asia: why did China “centralize” so early, with such stability, in comparison the more evanescent imperial formations of South Asia? Why did India generate the ecumenical cosmopolis that Pollock has described, texts spreading much further than states across South, Southeast and Central Asia, while a Chinese officialdom archived evidence of its successful harmonizations of wen and we for millennia (and imposed a death penalty for unofficial calendar-making, and went looking for Sanskrit to archive, too)? Attention to the existence and distribution of semiotic technologies (who controls and distributes knowledge and information, how?) might give us new insights into the history of state power and its others: a more variegated history of monopoly of means of destruction with and without means of communication (the Chinese, the Mongols) and vice versa, the historical trajectories of means of communication with and without means of coercion (the state archive, the monastery).

Gonzalo Rubio, Pennsylvania State University
Writing in another tongue: Alloglottography and scribal antiquarianism in the Ancient Near East

The term alloglotography was coined by Ilya Gershevitch in his study of how the inscription of Darius at B_____n was written. The Elamite version was most likely the first to be engraved, then the Babylonian one, and finally the Old Persian. If the Persian king used Old Persian as his language, one may wonder why Elamite figures so prominently on the rock. According to Gershevitch, the Elamite version is the true original and represents the actual words of Darius, whereas the Old Persian on the inscription is a retranslation or back-translation. This means that the Great king uttered the words in Old Persian, but the scribes wrote them down in Elamite and read them back to him (as the inscription says) in Old Persian.

Alloglottography–i.e., writing a text in a language different from the language in which it is intended to be read–was not unusual in the Ancient Near East. Cross-culturally alloglottography is not such a rare phenomenon (e.g., the Kojiki and the Manyoshu in early Japan). Likewise, Sumerian texts from Ebla (Tell Mardik, in Syria, mid 3rd millennium) were actually read in Semitic. Moreover, the sometimes difficult linguistic attribution of some Early Dynastic texts (especially the so-called “ancient kudurrus”) to Akkadian or Sumerian may point to a similar situation.

In fact, partial alloglottography was inherent to cuneiform writing: Akkadian texts are full of Sumerograms, and Hittite texts abound in both Sumerograms and Akkadograms. The writing of Middle Iranian languages involved the use of Arameograms. The use of a written language different from the language of utterance seems the epitome of textual antiquarianism. There is a particular breed of scribal traditionalism in this antiquarian devotion to a script and a language, regardless of the practical act of reading. Alloglottography and scribal antiquarianism enhance the highly artificial nature of all cuneiform traditions.

Basic References

I. Gershevitch. “The alloglottography of Old Persian.” Transactions of the Philological Society 1979: 114–190.
I. Gelb, P. Steinkeller, and R.M. Whiting. Earliest land tenure systems in the Near East: Ancient kudurrus (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1991), pp. 11–14.
M. Civil and G. Rubio, “An Ebla incantation against insomnia and the Semiticization of Sumerian: Notes on ARET 5 8b and 9.” Or. n.s. 68 (1999): 254–266.
G. Rubio. “The languages of the Ancient Near East” In Blackwell=s Companion to the Ancient Near East (ed. D. Snell. Oxford: Blackwell), in press.

Jacco Dieleman, UCLA
Abundance in the margins: multiplicity of script in the Demotic Magical Papyri

During the Greco-Roman period Egypt’s native population witnessed a number of fundamental societal changes resulting from enforced Greek and Roman rule and the immigration of large numbers of foreign, mainly Greek, settlers. Transformations occurred in such diverse fields as government, demography, administration, urban development, religion, consumption patterns and the formation of elites, either imposed by law or as gradual developments. Changes of such a magnitude must have had their effect on the cultural identity of the native elite, who may have felt being relegated to the margins of society by the new Greek-speaking ruling class. Since language plays a vital role in constructing and maintaining such an identity, the wealth of preserved textual sources of this period, in both the native and Greek language, begs to be addressed. This paper will focus on the Demotic Magical Papyri, a corpus of bilingual magical spells preserved on four manuscripts dated to the second-third century CE. These spells, written in Egyptian (Demotic and Old-Coptic) and Greek, make use of seven scripts, two of which are a cipher script. The free use of multiple scripts presupposes a well educated scribe, who was not only familiar with the specific orthographic rules of the scripts but also with their associated scribal traditions. The question is then whether the scripts, when adopted into a new textual and cultural environment and combined with other scripts, retained their specific cultural connotations for the composers and users of these spells. Whatever the answer to this question may be, could the adaptation of multiple scripts be interpreted as a conscious attempt on the part of the composers and readers of the texts to construct a layered cultural identity meaningful in, and suitable for, the pluralistic Hellenistic world?

Jerrold Cooper, Johns Hopkins, Respondant


Christopher Woods, University of Chicago
Pragmatics and Language Death: New Evidence and Arguments from Sumerian Grammatical Texts

What I plan to do is to write on the pragmatics of the grammatical text and new arguments for an OB death of Sumerian. Of course, the death of Sumerian as a spoken (as opposed to written) language is an endlessly fascinating problem in Assyriology and one, without new, spectacular evidence, that will remain in the realm of informed, learned speculation. But recent opinion (Cooper, Michalowski, Kienast) has argued, quite persuasively, for an earlier third-millennium death rather than a later OB death. I will bring new arguments to the discussion that will argue the latter position. The argument will be based on 1. the great number of demonstrative element entries in the OB grammatical texts (aside from anaphora, deictics live, of course, in the realm of spoken language); 2. texts which have been understood as grammatical texts, and indeed may have formed part of this corpus, but are, I will argue, lists of Sumerian commands to agricultural workers; 3. the appearance of proverbs in the OB scribal curriculum, i.e., highly idiomatic Sumerian, which points again to the existence of a spoken language. I will also survey the various arguments for late v. early death of Sumerian, but, more importantly, bring some cross-cultural comparisons to bear on the issue which will show just how hard it is to kill a language in a pre-industrial society.

Annick Payne, University of Wurzburg
Multilingual Inscriptions—Signs of Power or Signs of Weakness?

Comparison of ancient and modern script inventions have shown that writing arises mainly out of either economic need and/or the desire to demonstrate power. Amongst the largely illiterate societies of the Ancient Near East, writing held a prestigious position, but monumental inscriptions could hardly have been ‘read’ be the ordinary passers-by. On a visual level, of course, such texts would have proclaimed power both in- and externally; they may also have been part of an attempt to forge a collective identity within geo-political units without homogenous ethnic and linguistic identity. An examination of the purpose behind these inscriptions may shed further light on their intended audiences.

If indeed monumental inscriptions in a specific language and script acted as political identity marker, how then are we to interpret multilingual inscriptions? Did they show superior writing skills in comparison to monolingual inscriptions, demonstrating domination over several population groups, in short, were they signs of power? Or rather, were they signs of weakness, acknowledging the might of other dominant population groups, attesting to the less than absolute power of their author? Or is the picture altogether more complex and requires further differentiation?

In this paper, I propose to examine Hieroglyphic-Luwian, Lycian, and Persian multilingual texts from the 1st millennium with the following aims: Firstly, to define the relationship between the text versions (translation - transposition - summary - unconnected) and the reciprocal influences of the various versions. Secondly, to reconstruct the intended audience, as well as the historical setting and historiographical aim behind the texts.

William Schniedewind, UCLA
Aramaic, the Death of (Written) Hebrew, and Jewish Nationalism in the Persian Period

By 581 BCE (the Babylonian exile), the linguistic landscape in Palestine had changed dramatically and the written Hebrew language was almost lost in the mist of the displacement of the Jewish people. There was no social infrastructure for scribal training in Hebrew during the Persian period; instead, Jewishscribes were trained in Aramaic, which was the language of the Achaemenid empire. The paleo-Hebrew script ceased to be used, and Aramaic script replaced Hebrew script even in the copying and writing of Hebrew manuscripts. While Aramaic undergoes transformations typical of a living language and script, the Hebrew script is essentially frozen and revived as part of nationalistic movements in the Persian and Hellenistic period. Vernacular Hebrew continued to be used throughout this period and would have been critical for the revival of Hebrew later in Hellenistic period.

Michael Silverstein, University of Chicago, Respondant

Saturday, February 26


Theo VandenHout, University of Chicago
Second millennium Anatolia: One society, two scripts and two languages

If we speak in terms of winners and losers (“If history is written by the victors”) second millennium Anatolia presents an interesting case of two winners and two losers. The society of the Hittite kingdom and empire between 1650 and 1180 BC was one of two scripts and two languages: Hittite written in cuneiform and Luwian in a “hieroglyphic” writing system. Assuming that the conditions and roots for both writing systems in 17th century Anatolia were equally favorable and present, it is legitimate to ask why the winner won and then lost and why the loser lost but ultimately won. The Hittite decision in favor of the cuneiform system in the earlier second millennium and the Hittite political dominance for the next 500 years may have been a serious setback for the further development of the hieroglyphic system for a considerable length of time. Ultimately, however, the rise of the latter could not be stopped. The Hittite ruling class itself used the hieroglyphic script and with it the Luwian language in certain well-defined contexts and an increasing influence of the Luwian language on Hittite can be observed. With the collapse of the Hittite empire shortly after 1200 BC it was the Hittite language and its cuneiform script that vanished and the Luwian language and hieroglyphic script that survived. Starting from the origins of both writing systems in Anatolia I want to look into the question to what extent the choice for the cuneiform system had to do with the Hittite political-military success, what the role of the hieroglyphic system was in that society and why in the end it “won.”

Paul-Alain Beaulieu, Harvard University
Official and Vernacular Languages: the Shifting Sands of Imperial and Cultural Identities in First Millennium B.C. Mesopotamia

This paper will discuss the complex relation between ethno-linguistic identity, culture, religion, and the state in Mesopotamia from the heyday of Imperial Assyria until the Seleuco-Parthian period. The main themes to be treated will be the following. The relation of official Akkadian (Standard Babylonian) to the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian vernaculars and the reasons for its demise after the Persian conquest of Babylon, exploring among other issues why the Achaemenid rulers promoted a version of the Late Babylonian vernacular (“Achaemenid Akkadian”) to the status of official language. The very different relation which Arameans and Chaldeans developed in relation to Mesopotamian civilization and its languages; I will argue that an Aramean cultural and linguistic identity emerged in Mesopotamia and elsewhere during the first millennium, in contrast to the Chaldeans who wholly embraced Babylonian culture and eventually became identical with the Babylonians in the view of others (Israelites and Greeks in particular). The end of Akkadian and the cuneiform tradition during the Seleuco-Parthian period within the context of the competition between Greek and Aramaic, and the fact of the survival of the historical memory of Assyria and Babylonia in traditions peripheral to these cultures (the Jewish tradition is the most conspicuous; the Aramean tradition of Ahiqar must also be taken into account), while the native Babylonian effort by Berossus to preserve Babylonian traditions in Greek ultimately failed to attract widespread attention. These questions will be discussed taking into account the extremely complex ethno-linguistic composition of Mesopotamia in that period.

Paul Zimansky, Boston University
Writing, Writers and Reading in the Kingdom of Van

At first glance, the development of writing in Urartu, an area of illiteracy until the late 9th Century BC, falls into a familiar pattern for emerging secondary polities. First, a writing system is borrowed from a literate neighbor in conjunction with a language and a measure of ideology. The system was then modified and used for the local language. In Urartu the original model was Neo-Assyrian cuneiform and the first texts are outright plagiarism. By the beginning of the 8th Century, the Urartian language was being written in a distinctive cuneiform script.

At this point, however, the development ceased to be typical. For more than a century, Urartian cuneiform served exclusively for royal display. There is virtually no evidence of its use for administration, letters, or literature. No texts whatever were composed in the name of anyone but the reigning king. Although Urartu was territorially extensive and tightly organized, the only records that might be construed as bureaucratic are in hieroglyphic scripts. Some of these are Luwian forms, but elsewhere they appear to be local. It is unclear whether they comprise one or several systems, or if any represent a full writing system.

In the 7th Century, writing practices changed with what appears to be a dramatic reorganization of the kingdom. Cuneiform appeared on clay tablets and bullae and in non-royal contexts, but it differs somewhat from the system that continued to be used in royal inscriptions. One authority (Diakonoff) has even argued that writing on clay was inspired by non-Assyrian sources.

The paper will explore the factors behind these changes and illustrate the distribution of script types, uses and users on the basis of recently excavated evidence from Ayanis and Bastam.

Sheldon Pollock, University of Chicago, Respondant

Final analysis and roundtable discussion

Peter Machinist, Harvard University, Respondant

Information for Participants

How the Conference Will Be Run:

The goal of the conference is not a series of interesting lectures, but a conversation that sets new directions for scholarship. This takes more preparation than the average conference, but has the potential to be much more interesting and productive. We will spend most of the conference discussing the papers, which will be distributed in advance, rather than reading them out loud. The small size and seminar format of the conference are designed to insure focused, in-depth discussion of the key issues, at a level that is simply not possible at large, generalized academic meetings. The conference proceedings will be published as an edited volume by the Oriental Institute. We plan on publishing in paperback to make the volume inexpensive and accessible to the widest possible scholarly audience.

Timetable and Deadlines:

The most important thing is that the presenters provide complete drafts of papers for the respondents to read by January 7, 2005. This will make possible the level of informed discussion necessary for the conference to succeed, and provide the basic text for the book. During December, I will call presenters to discuss scheduling and directions for the paper. If your schedule will not allow you to produce a draft by early January, please let me know as soon as possible.

  1. Bios: I will use the bio you have submitted. Any corrections should be made by December 1, 2004. These bios will be posted on the conference website at the beginning of January, 2005.
  2. Audiovisual needs: please let me know by January 7, 2005 whether you would like to use any audiovisual equipment such as computers, slide projectors, etc.
  3. Drafts of papers: Presenters must provide drafts by January 7, 2005, which will be posted on the conference website. These drafts can be made accessible only to other participants, or to a wider public. In order to open the discussion to the broader scholarly community, a publicly accessible version is best.

What We Will Provide:

For all out of town participants, we will arrange airline tickets for arrival Thursday afternoon or evening (February 24), pay for travel expenses and arrange transportation to and from the airport. We will provide lodging Thursday and Friday nights at the Quadrangle Club, less than two blocks from the Oriental Institute on the University of Chicago campus. We will also provide group meals and refreshments during the conference period (Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon) for all participants.


Organizer, Seth L. Sanders
Post-Doctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute
(773) 834-3290
1155 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637

Revised: March 10, 2009

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