Reading and Writing in Babylon Hardcover – Feb 2 2011
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Many books have been written on the origins of the cuneiform script and the role of reading and writing in Mesopotamia. But Charpin's book has no rival that could even stand in its shade. (Karel van der Toorn, President, University of Amsterdam, and author of Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible)
Charpin takes up a subject that's been debated by Assyriologists for many years: Did scribes alone have the knowledge to read and write cuneiform, the earliest writing, invented by the Sumerians around 3200 B.C.E.? Charpin focuses on what may be called the 'classical' period of Mesopotamian civilization, the period between the Babylonian rulers Hammurabi (1792–1750 B.C.E.) to Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 B.C.E.). Charpin's work at Ur some 20 years ago convinced him that what was thought to be a school was in fact a residence for clergy who home trained their children and apprentices to read and write cuneiform. His research has convinced him that literacy was not limited to professional scribes. The depth and range of material Charpin includes is indeed impressive. In sections that will be of particular interest to lay readers and students, Charpin goes into detail about reading a cuneiform tablet and the apprenticeship of a scribe. He informs the reader that the oral, spoken word—Sumerian or Akkadian—was most important in Mesopotamian society, and it was the survival of the written over the spoken word that produced the expansion of writing. Required reading for scholars in the field and their students. (Joan W. Gartland Library Journal 2010-10-01)
This introduction to the birth of cuneiform writing in the Babylonian empire is an engaging primer on the lexicon of linguistics… Charpin has written a scholarly work of incredible breadth. (Publishers Weekly 2011-01-24)
[Reading and Writing in Babylon] is a groundbreaking and fascinating contribution to the study of ancient literacy, readable by all-comers. (Eleanor Robson Times Literary Supplement 2011-07-23)
Charpin has written a book that is accessible to those outside the small academic field of Assyriology. The work is remarkable for its level of detail and the breadth of its concern. Charpin is able to keep one eye on the specifics of numerous texts and their archaeological contexts. At the same time, he is able to situate the written legacy of these ancient cultures in a broad sociological context, while arguing in some places for a generally new approach to reading and integrating the wealth of material into cognate fields. (Phillip Michael Sherman Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012-06-01)
About the Author
Dominique Charpin is Professor of Mesopotamian History at the Sorbonne, Paris.
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Some inscriptions were made on stone, such as the famous stele with the Code of Hammurabi, but most were made on small clay tablets. The tablets were small enough to hold in one hand. When the writer had filled the front surface with writing using stylized characters derived from pictograms, he (nearly always he) would either turn it over and keep writing or start another tablet. The speed of the writer mattered, because as the clay began to dry out, the writing surface became harder, and it was more difficult to make clean marks in the clay surface. When the “document” was finished, it was allowed to air dry. Only special tablets intended for repeated use were fired like pottery for hardness. As a result, the tablets that survived to our time were buried in dry dirt and ruined buildings for two thousand years or more.
Most cuneiform writing is in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the languages of ancient Sumer and Akkad. Akkadian continued to be used even as peoples in the area began speaking different languages due to invasions and rivalries between kingdoms, much as the Western world used Latin long after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The most famous of the cuneiform writings are now known as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation story that relates the exploits of the god Marduk. Cuneiform writing was quickly perceived as an innovation of great practicality, not only for accounting, but enabling a king or court official or general to send a message to someone many miles away. Tablet letters that were confidential were enclosed in a clay envelope that was imprinted with the sender’s seal. If the clay envelope was broken, the recipient knew the letter had been read.
Charpin describes and quotes from a wide variety of messages, mostly from the late second and early first millennium. His approach is encyclopedic, making it impossible in a brief review to mention all the topics he covers. Suffice it to say he discusses the technology of writing, the likely incidence of literacy, the teaching of writing, the practice of reading letters out loud to the recipient, the need for literate secretaries and the difficulties of maintaining confidentiality of messages, standards for dating and situating cuneiform texts, modes of address, formulaic blessings and curses, and much more. If you have ever wondered about cuneiform writing and want to dig into the subject deeply, this would be an excellent introduction. The text was composed in French and translated into English. Chardin says in his preface that this edition is a revised version of the French edition. He says he wanted to reach a wide audience and so wrote in a less technical manner than he would for his fellow Assyriologists. The translation reads well, though it often seems somewhat more scholarly than popular. Anyone with a few college literature or history courses in their background should find this book informative.
The text is augmented with 51 black and white photographs and diagrams of tablets of various types. The descriptions under the illustrations are succinct and interesting. All sources are cited with in-text references, and side issues are occasionally taken up in endnotes. The bibliography is full and up to date (prior to publication). This would make an interesting gift for someone you know (yourself?) who has an interest in ancient history or the development of writing technology. Given the usual price of academic press books, which can cost $100 or more, this one is a great bargain. Highly recommended.
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