Elite knowledge and imperial power in the ancient Middle East, Part I of II

Posted on December 03, 2019 by Alison Fox

Ancient Knowledge Networks is a book about how knowledge travels, in minds and bodies as well as in writings. It explores the forms knowledge takes and the meanings it accrues, and how these meanings are shaped by the people who use it. Here I look back on how I came to write it, the big ideas in it, and the unexpected directions it led me in.

Knowledge is local as well as global
In antiquity, just as now, knowledge was both social and political. It didn’t simply exist but shaped, and was shaped by, the people who created, used, rejected and adapted it in large and small ways. Facts, methods and theories have histories and geographies just like we do. These histories and geographies are particularly visible in cuneiform culture of the ancient Middle East (to c.50 BC) because many clay cuneiform tablets are excavated archaeological artefacts. This means that, unlike historians of many other places in antiquity, we have literally tens of thousands of autograph manuscripts which we can locate and date very precisely. 

Unfortunately, many other cuneiform tablets were either dug up by antiquarians in the 19th century, before archaeological recording methods existed or were considered important; or were deliberately and illegally looted in more recent times. Huge questions of ethics and legality apart, unprovenanced cuneiform tablets are almost worthless for the type of research I’ve done for the past twenty years, as tablets are inherently portable. Any dates and locations written on them can therefore only inform us about their circumstances of production, not use or abandonment.

So it’s very strange, at least to me, that no-one before has taken full advantage of tablets’ rich archaeological context, in combination with the material and textual evidence of the objects themselves. There are some lovely micro-historical studies of finds from particular places, to be sure, but macro-geographical approaches seem to be entirely new.

To be fair, it’s taken me nearly fifteen years to do this work, starting with a four-year AHRC-funded research project at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) in Cambridge in 2007–11, and involving many, many collaborators. I thought I’d nearly finished the manuscript in 2013 when I moved to UCL History, but in the end it took a further five years or more to get right. It’s been a stupidly large project and in retrospect I was a bit mad to do it. But I am so glad I did!

Historical theories are not historical facts
In Chapter 1 of the book I say a little about how I think HPS-type approaches are useful for cuneiform studies (and why I try to avoid the word Mesopotamia wherever possible). I give an overview of the book’s argument there too.

Chapter 2 then asks why hasn’t anyone done this before? I give two answers. First, King Ashurbanipal’s famous “library” in 7th century BC Nineveh, which was discovered very early in the history of my discipline, in the 1840s, and therefore still dominates our thinking. But on closer examination it turns out to be really atypical of cuneiform tablets collections and probably not a library in any meaningful sense at all. Second, “the stream of tradition”, a famous, mid-20th-century concept in cuneiform studies which suggested knowledge flowed effortlessly and unchangingly down the centuries and across the cuneiform world. Ironically this has become accepted as a hard fact, not a theory to be discussed and challenged. I argue that these two concepts—Ashurbanipal’s library, the stream of tradition—should each be recognised as belonging to a particular historical moment, namely mid-Victorian London and 1960s Chicago.

What might useful replace them? I set out some ideas from the history of books and from the sociology and geography of modern techno-science that have helped me rethink. In short, the writings of Bruno Latour, David Livingstone, and Robert Darnton all help us understand how networks of people, artefacts, writings — and deities, I add — move around and interact to create and recreate knowledge that address particular, localised needs and interests. 

Assyrian experts and their patrons, royal and divine
Chapter 3 is where the fun starts, with the ancient history itself. (You can jump straight to Chapter 3 if you want.) To keep things simple, I focus on five erudite literate professions of cuneiform culture: the asû and āšipu (both types of healer), the bārû and ṭupšar Enūma Anu Ellil (types of diviner) and kalû (lamenter) in the first millennium BC. I’m also interested in the scholars’ human and divine patrons: royal families and their entourages; temples and their priestly communities; and private clientele. Chapters 3–4 cover Assyria, c.880–610 BC, while chapters 5–6 look at Babylonia, c.650–50 BC, tracking change over time and local variation. 

Chapter 3 charts the increasing importance of cuneiform scholarship to Assyrian imperial ideology and practice, along with worship of Nabu, god of wisdom, over two centuries, followed by its sudden collapse in the reign of Ashurbanipal in the mid-7th century BC. We'll come back to this... But first, I'm particularly interested in Nabu's temples in Assyrian imperial centres. Their scale, layout and decor tell us as much about the changing relationship between king, god and scholarship as any textual evidence, as room is made of all of them in these buildings.

In chapter 4 I remain in Assyria, looking at abundant micro-geographical evidence for where different types of royal scholars practiced, how they moved about the empire, and—most importantly—how members of the same professions were systematically excluded from imperial knowledge production if they were not in this royal clique.

The collapse of Assyria from the inside out
This abundance of imperial documentation comes from a thirty-year period, c.670–640 BC, a generation before the final rout of the Assyrian empire in the 610s BC. This is no coincidence. The empire failed for many reasons: systems collapse is multi-causal and complex, a rich area of research for both archaeologists and historians. However, as Miguel Civil showed forty years ago, in the cuneiform world, failing institutions typically left behind a generation or so's worth of records right before the end. He made the case for the so-called Third Dynasty of Ur at the end of the 21st century BC and we can now see the same phenomenon elsewhere. 

So while scholars and others in 'ordinary' Assyrian cities continued to write in cuneiform right until the invaders came in the late 7th century BC, we can precisely track the abandonment of cuneiform for imperial purposes in the 640s, alongside a retreat from provincial governance. This happened immediately after Ashurbanipal's devastating civil war with his brother Shamash-shumu-ukin, ruler of Babylon, in 652-648 BC. It must have bankrupted both regions and brought in no revenue, unlike previous conquests of new territories.

Why does this matter to our story? Because it means that Ashurbanipal's "library", accrued to monopolise access to scholarly knowledge, was abandoned long before Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC. The very fact that its tablets are available to us mean that they were lost to antiquity.

I estimate, very roughly, that about half of written scholarly knowledge of the 7th century BC was buried in Nineveh. We have long known that cuneiform scholarship died out in the Assyrian empire. I argue that Ashurbanipal's imperial collecting/looting (depending on how you look at it) almost killed off Babylonian scholarship too. Stealing a term from evolutionary biology, I say that the end of Ashurbanipal's patronage of cuneiform scholarship was a "survival bottleneck event". That is, it almost died out, but managed to recover, though only in Babylonia, c.650–520 BC, when another “survival bottleneck” began.

In Part II I’ll look at Babylonia and at same of the other directions writing this book has led me.

Eleanor Robson, December 2019

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