Elite knowledge and imperial power in the ancient Middle East, Part II 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 continue to look back on how I came to write it, the big ideas in it, and the unexpected directions it led me in.

Babylonian scholars, royalty and revolt
In Chapters 5-6 I move down to Babylonia, southern Iraq, where the evidence set is different—an important historical fact in itself—so we can't tell an exactly parallel story. But I try. 

Chapter 5 again charts the long relationship between king, Nabu and scholarship. It's not the same as Assyria! Simply put, for Babylonian kings, Nabu was never god of wisdom; he was the divine crown prince, son of dynastic god Marduk. And Babylonian scholars did not universally embrace Nabu as they had in Assyria. But kings supported scholarship and scholars supported the crown—or they did until Persian king Cyrus invaded in 539 BC.

When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he needed the support of the local elite, i.e., the families that ran the big temples which supplied the temples and court with scholars. Simply put, he over-promised and within twenty years the relationship had broken down irreparably.  Babylonian elites felt deeply betrayed and exploited. They rebelled again and again.

As Caroline Waerzeggers showed 15 years ago, by 484 BC the Persians had had enough of revolting Babylonians and systematically removed the troublemakers. (We don't know how exactly but it can't have been pretty.) Loyalists prospered. Some temple communities collapsed completely, precipitating another survival bottleneck. The Persians couldn't allow Marduk's temple in Babylon to fail entirely — they needed its tax income — so they disempowered it instead.

Resistance, revival and a slow decline
In short, the year 484 BC marks the end of systematic royal patronage of cuneiform scholarship. Local worshippers and private clientele had always mattered to temples and scholars, but now they became almost entirely dependent on them. Somehow this reinvention worked, at least in some places, and cuneiform scholarship, related to temples in complex ways, hung on until the mid-1st century BC. But asû-healers and bārû-diviners didn’t make the cut. Their writings survived as heritage compositions, but the professions themselves disappear from the historical record. 

In Chapter 5 I also focus on how scholars in 4th-3rd century BC Uruk, the first generations under Greek-Seleucid rule, reacted to the loss of royal patronage. On the face of it they thrived on local support, building a new temple, Resh, which dwarfed Marduk's now derelict temple in Babylon. But, keenly aware of their own history, they were furious at royal neglect. Nevertheless, they continued to hope that one day they would once again get the king they deserved.

Chapter 6 digs into the micro-geographies of this grand narrative: where did different scholarly professions operate in Babylonia, before and after this second survival bottleneck of 520-484 BC? Which cities? In and/or out of temples? For how long? How far did scholarly knowledge travel at this time? It's no news to specialists that the last surviving cuneiform-literate communities were in Uruk and Babylon in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. But does this reflect historical reality or the happenstance of archaeological discovery? I think, by tracing shrinking communication networks, that I can show it's real.

A web of research and writing
Finally, to Chapter 7 (no coincidence! Cuneiform scholars loved the number 7 as the smallest co-prime integer to 60—but that's a story from an earlier book). Here I draw out some implications for historical practice. I won't go into that here but point to some of the other directions that writing Ancient Knowledge Networks has led me in. 

  • Very early on, the cuneiform-editorial work needed in the first phases of the project led me, my colleague Steve Tinney and many others to develop org ,the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, back in 2010. It's grown like Topsy since! I've used it to make a companion website with little corpus of all the cuneiform texts featured in the book at
  • Thinking hard about social & political geographies of knowledge production in antiquity led me to think about them in modern times too. So in 2013-2015 I led another AHRC-funded research project focused on knowledge production in and about the Assyrian city of Kalhu/Nimrud in antiquity and modernity:
  • And that work more or less led to what I'm mostly doing now (when I’m not being Head of UCL History): directing the Nahrein Network (2017–21). This AHRC-GCRF-funded research network seeks to redress the geographical balance of knowledge production about the Iraqi past, bringing Iraq itself back in.
  • Relatedly, I’m working with UCL’s Research Software Development Group to make Oracc more Arabic-friendly.
  • I'm also (slowly) finishing editorial work on 150 cuneiform tablets excavated in 2013-17 at the small archaeological site of Tell Khaiber in southern Iraq, for the Ur Region Archaeology Project led by Dr Jane Moon and colleagues at the University of Manchester. The material is from a different millennium, and a very different socio-political and intellectual context, but it can be analysed in intriguingly similar ways.
  • Finally, next year I'll be writing a short book called The Library: from Ashurbanipal to Alexandria and Beyond. I've promised my editor that this one will take considerably less than fifteen years from proposal to delivery.

    Eleanor Robson, December 2019 

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Architecture and Fire, A Psychoanalytic Approach to Conservation

Posted on November 08, 2019 by Alison Fox

This book deals closely with fire. The nature of this element and our perception of it are ambiguous: fire is both good and evil. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard speculates that fire must have been the first object of reverie. The child of an early civilisation must have contemplated silently in front of flames, which is an attitude towards fire that is also witnessed today. Bachelard also reminds us that our knowledge of fire is not only limited but also taken for granted. We mainly learn about it through prohibition, from the elders. Architecture and Fire is therefore an attempt to compile information about fire, both as an element and a concept, through the engagement with sources from diverse disciplines aiming to illuminate our scattered and obscure knowledge of it. 

Architecture and Fire opens and closes with Black Umbrella, a 16mm film triptych depicting the burning of the Crystal Palace in 1934, the flying bomb raids in Central and East London in the 1940s, and the fire at the Houses of Parliament in 1958. All three films are made with discarded archive material that was discovered accidentally in a disused fire station in London. Black Umbrella touches on themes central to this book including the role of archives in the preservation of memory and the destruction of buildings by fire. It also signals the breadth of contemporary discourse on the concept of the archive.

As the title clearly suggests, this is a book on ‘architecture and fire’, a topic that has sadly received unprecedented attention in recent years. Every city in the world has at some point been scarred by a catastrophic fire incident. The fire at Grenfell Tower in London, at Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, in the outskirts of Athens, at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro or at Notre-Dame in Paris are just a few recent accidents that have not only shocked audiences worldwide but also awakened an interest in reassessing our understanding of how architecture, the urban landscape and societies together remember and respond to the continual risk of fire.

Finally, Architecture and Fire engages with two disciplines that are not traditionally studied alongside one another: architecture and psychoanalysis. It offers a reading of architectural conservation through Freudian psychoanalysis and specifically through the drives theory. This interdisciplinary approach aims to reassess key theoretical paradoxes and inconsistencies associated with conservation.

Stamatis Zografos

Author, Architecture and Fire, available as a free download

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OA Anthropology journals workshop, LSE, September 2019

Posted on October 04, 2019 by Alison Fox

In September, LSE held a one-day workshop organized by Dr Andrea Pia (LSE Anthropology), and funded by the LSE Department of Anthropology through the Research Infrastructure and Investment Fund, to share and discuss models for open access journal publishing in anthropology, with participants invited from a range of institutions and backgrounds. Presentations by a number of OA journal editors were followed by speakers from open access publishers and platforms, and from institutional libraries.

Journal editors introduced the structure of their publication outlets, their OA models and intended audience. They also reflected on the challenges they face in running an OA publication and the measures they put in place to overcome those challenges.

Among the journals presented were Made in China, Water Alternatives, British Journal of Chinese Studies, Allegralab, Entanglements, Journal of Political Ecology, ANUAC and Roadsides. The majority of the journals presented were standalone OA journals, run independently by the editors and their editorial boards, and several common themes emerged: the lack of funding available – either no funding, little funding, or funding in the form of short-term grants; and the amount of unpaid work involved by the editors and their associates (the term ‘labour of love’ was mentioned in many of the presentations). Some found securing submissions a challenge, and were hampered in their efforts by their lack of impact factor, which deterred many potential authors. Models such as the geography journal ACME were highlighted as an example of a journal that actively refuses to participate in impact factor systems, and for many present in the room IF was not considered significant.

On a more positive note, the independence of many of these journals was felt to offer the freedom to experiment, either in terms of the nature and subject matter of the content itself or in terms of the affordances of online publishing, which allows for audio-visual components and unlimited images. Some of the presentations focussed not only on open access and the limitations of commercial publishing models, but also the limitations of academia in which creativity and passion – the very reasons many of the speakers entered academia – can be stifled by policy and evaluation. For mid- or late-career academics, the journals and their alternative models were seen by some as a publishing option where they had the freedom to publish what they wanted, an option that many early career researchers, often in precarious academic positions, would not feel able to participate in due to the pressure to publish in established outlets. So despite the challenges, this form of publishing was seen as a positive by many, engendering community spirit and the positive outcomes of collective endeavour.

The publishers and platforms who gave presentations – UCL Press, LSE Press, Libraria and Knowledge Unlatched – offered an alternative view, where larger-scale OA initiatives were supported at institutional level or through crowd-funded alternatives such as global library subscriptions, to enable open access publishing to happen on a bigger scale. While the benefits of these models were clear in terms of the support that they can offer academics with open access publishing and the higher volume of outputs they can deliver, many researchers at the meeting questioned whether scale was necessary or even desirable and emphasised the importance to them of freedom and independence in their endeavours.

Academic-led open access publishing forms an important part of the OA ecosystem, encouraging culture change and experimentation. For many academics, it clearly also contributes to a sense of personal satisfaction and the ability to pursue one’s passion and beliefs, although greater access to funding to undertake these kinds of publications would clearly be welcome.

Lara Speicher, Head of Publishing, UCL Press

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Book launch: Re-mapping the Centre and Periphery

Posted on April 23, 2019 by Alison Fox

We are delighted to announce a book launch to celebrate the publication of the new open access book Re-mapping the Centre and Periphery, edited by Tessa Hauswedell, Axel Körner, and Ulrich Tiedau

Time: 18:00 - 20:00

Date: 29th April 2019

Location: IAS Common Ground, Ground floor, South Wing, UCL, London, WC1E 6BT

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Historians often assume a one-directional transmission of knowledge and ideas, leading to the establishment of spatial hierarchies defined as centres and peripheries. In recent decades, transnational and global history have contributed to a more inclusive understanding of intellectual and cultural exchanges that profoundly challenged the ways in which we draw our mental maps.

Covering the early modern and modern periods, Re-Mapping Centre and Periphery investigates the asymmetrical and multi-directional structure of such encounters within Europe as well as in a global context. Exploring subjects from the shores of the Russian Empire to nation-making in Latin America, the international team of contributors demonstrates how, as products of human agency, centre and periphery are conditioned by mutual dependencies; rather than representing absolute categories of analysis, they are subjective constructions determined by a constantly changing discursive context.

Through its analysis, the volume develops and implements a conceptual framework for remapping centres and peripheries, based on conceptual history and discourse history. As such, it will appeal to a wide variety of historians, including transnational, cultural and intellectual, and historians of early modern and modern periods.

This book launch is supported by the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), the Centre for Transnational History (CTH) and the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), UCL. 

All welcome. Please note that there may be photography and/or audio recording at some events and that admission is on a first come first served basis. Please follow this FAQ link for more information.

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OPERAS survey on usage of open scholarly communication in Europe

Posted on May 09, 2017 by Alison Fox

The OPERAS consortium is launching a survey on the usage of open scholarly communication in Europe, in particular in the field of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH). The purpose of the survey is to identify current practices and services that should be developed or invented. It will serve as a basis for defining the future infrastructure of OPERAS.
The survey is aimed at  5 different audiences, all of whom are impacted by open access: publishers, researchers, libraries, funders and the general public. It will primarily collect information and suggestions  about common standards, good practices, new features and new integrated services.

Your participation would be welcomed- the links below are open until the 31 May 2017.

publishers :
libraries :
researchers :
general public :

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