Key points of this article that can be understood in 3 lines in number
- The study of ancient Mesopotamian cultures and languages is called Assyriology. It includes many old civilizations and needs to decode cuneiform writings.
- Many old civilizations have been understood better due to ancient findings and illegal trade of cuneiform texts. These discoveries were made since the 19th century.
- To learn Assyriology, one needs to undergo special training in ancient languages and history. Many schools and research centers globally provide these programs.
Assyriology studies Mesopotamia, including history, languages, and cultures. It was named after focus on Assyrians in written records. Now called Ancient Orientalism, it still uses Assyriology to understand cuneiform writings from different cultures. The main aim is to decipher and interpret these texts.
The impact and contributions of Archeology: Discovering the jewels of the past.
Since the 19th century, people have found old writings in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. These writings are called cuneiform texts. They tell us about life a long time ago. People discovered these texts in two ways. Sometimes they found them by accident or took them without permission. This has been happening for a long time.
Since the late 1800s, texts from various ancient sites were sold on the black market: Lagash, Sippar, Kirkuk, Borsippa. The diggers were locals who wanted money. The tablets were sold to Western museums like London and Paris and Yale.
From the mid-1900s to the early 2000s, people kept digging illegally in many places of the Ancient Near East. Emar, Tigunanum and Al-Yahud have some text pieces taken from such secret digs. We don’t even know where these sites are located exactly.
Josué J. Justel, who wrote the report, is in the photo. He is copying a Neo-Babylonian brick.
Official excavations provide important historical information. In the 19th century, large deposits were found in Nineveh, Ur and Tello. At the beginning of the 20th century, excavations were conducted in Assur, Babylon, Nuzi, Mari, Ugarit and Hattusha. Towards the end of the same century, Ebla was discovered. These discoveries expanded our knowledge of the Ancient Near East and provided valuable context to cuneiform documentation.
Finding a letter between kings in a peasant’s room isn’t the same as finding it in the royal palace. Similarly, discovering a lexical text in a library is different from finding it in an official’s residence. And locating an adoption contract in someone’s home is not the same as finding it in a temple.
Assyriologists need archaeology and proper recording of discoveries to interpret history, society, and culture.
Assyriologists: Mesopotamian antiquity guardians.
Assyriologists decode ancient text by translating it. Understanding ancient languages and reading cuneiform signs is necessary for translation. This task requires specific preparation.
Specialists need to train their “reading eye” to comprehend the language of texts. This is crucial because both aspects are connected.
In Mesopotamia, people used cuneiform to write. They used a special tool called a calamus or reed to make marks on clay. The marks looked like small wedges because they were carved obliquely at the tip of the tool.
In ancient times, people used signs to communicate. Signs were made up of wedges arranged differently. These signs could mean a syllable or an idea/word (ideogram). Experts interpret which sign represents a syllable or idea in specific situations.
Signs can have different values based on time, area and scribal school. For instance, DINGIR represented a star.
The sign can be read as “god” or “heaven”. It can also be read as different syllables like “an”, “il”, or “sa” based on the context and location.
3D recreation of the mythical Tower of Babel. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Authors think there are almost 800 signs in cuneiform writing history. However, only around 200 were used in each era or region.
Throughout history, different civilizations used varied languages in Mesopotamia. Some people spoke Indo-European languages like Hittites and Persians. Others spoke Semitic languages like Akkadians (Assyrian and Babylonian dialects), Canaanites etc.
There are languages with unclear origins like Sumerian or Hurrian. Assyriologists control the two most important languages used in Mesopotamia: Sumerian and Akkadian. Both have unique grammar and vocabulary. It is complicated to control both languages.
Specialists often know one or two extra languages, based on their work time and area. For instance, an Assyriologist studying Neo-Babylonian world needs knowledge of Aramaic. It was the common language for trade in Southern Mesopotamia at that time.
After understanding the text, interpretation is essential. Researchers have different orientations for interpretation. Some clarify historical aspects like Hammurabi’s control over his provinces. Others study social elements like women’s legal capacity in Sumerian times. Some learn about linguistic issues such as the evolution of Sumerian language over a thousand years.
Texts contain information, and historians must analyze them to create valid interpretations. They should give context, express, and contrast the results obtained.
How do you learn all this?
Assyriologists have specialized training. They need to be good at reading and understanding ancient writing. They also must know how to look at historical texts and understand the time and place where things happened.
Francesc Cambó (1876-1947) was a Catalan politician known as “the cultural entrepreneur” and “the patron.” Photo: ASC
Proper training in ancient Oriental studies is important. You can take courses to get a good education. In Germany and Austria, you can earn a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Altorientalistik at 15 universities. In the US, there are over a dozen institutions offering Ancient Near Eastern Studies. The UK also has four centers for this type of training.
Many countries offer training in Ancient History, Archaeology, Classical Philology or Sciences of Antiquity. France and Italy are examples of such countries. You can also find Assyriology research centers worldwide that can be done alongside other studies.
“What’s happening in Spain?” you may wonder. Unfortunately, our country hasn’t had much experience in this area, causing a delay in study development. Although some research centers exist (cepo.es), there are no degrees or masters’ programs focused on ancient Orientalism.
Several study programs have emerged in the last decade. Notable ones are from Autonomous and Complutense Universities of Madrid, also from Autonomous and University of Barcelona.
Many other institutions have made similar programs, like Murcia University and the Higher Council for Scientific Research (with UCM).These programs indicate interest in researching exotic cultures and events as previously discussed.