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

Continue reading →

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

Continue reading →

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

Continue reading →

Scroll to top