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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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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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