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Schoolhouse and temple, warehouse and palace: building communities of cuneiform practice in ancient Iraq

By the early second millennium BC, the cuneiform script practices of the ancient Middle East were already over a thousand years old. But at that point in Babylonia — roughly, southern Iraq — literacy became increasingly widespread, for reasons that are still hotly debated. Over recent years, new evidence methods have revolutionized our understanding of how and why Babylonian boys and girls, men and women became cuneiform literate. Yet it is still frustratingly hard to identify particular individuals, families and professional groups within the largely anonymous cuneiform record. In this talk, I will combine microgeographical and paleographical approaches to explore how three different communities of practice operated through learning and teaching, service and experiment. In doing so, I will introduce you to Inana-amangu, a scribe and surveyor for female clientele in nineteenth-century Sippar; Elletum, a scribal student then priest in eighteenth-century Nippur; and Mayashu, a warehouseman and teacher in the countryside near Ur in the sixteenth century BC.

Eleanor Robson, FBA is Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College London, and Director of the Nahrein Network for interdisciplinary, Iraqi-led research on the role of history, heritage and related disciplines in the sustainable development of Iraqi culture, economy, environment and society. She is also a co-steerer of oracc.org, the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, an international cooperative which provides facilities and support for the creation of free online editions of cuneiform texts and educational 'portal' websites about ancient cuneiform culture in European and Middle Eastern languages. Her many publications include The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (OUP, 2011, with Karen Radner), Ancient Knowledge Networks (UCL Press, 2019), ‘The Ancient World’ in James Raven (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (OUP, 2020) and, most recently, ‘The archive’ in Jane Moon (ed.), Tell Khaiber: A Fortified Centre of the First Sealand Dynasty (Moonrise Press and https://oracc.org/urap, 2023).


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