Statue of post-Hittite king Suppiluliuma, fresh from excavation in 2012 by the Tayınat Archaeological Project (University of Toronto). The back carries a hieroglyphic inscription that was deciphered at SOAS. Photo © Jennifer Jackson
Imagine studying Sumerian, a language that:
- can be understood by only a few hundred people in the world
- has not been spoken since the 18th century BC (BC note, not AD)
- exists, at best, on tablets and fragments, in the display cases and storerooms of museums
- or at worst, buried below the ground
Then imagine the thrill of being able to:
- read cuneiform script
- decipher for yourself one of the oldest languages in the world
- discover, at first-hand, stories that predate The Epic of Gilgamesh, considered in the West to be the earliest, extant great work of literature
- Find out about some of the earliest great empires and human cultures, which originated in Mesopotamia, in present day Middle East, including Akkadian* (Assyrian/Babylonian) and Hittite, which adopted cuneiform as their written script
- Study archaeology and ancient history: how people lived and traded, devised laws, recorded their inheritance (land, slaves and goods), travelled, mapped the earth and the skies.
[*Please note: SOAS students first and foremost study Akkadian, the language of the Epic of Gilgamesh; in the 1st year ‘Introduction to Akkadian’, you will read it in the original. Visit SOAS website for information about Hittite.]
Watch: Cuneiform script: writing and calculating, a film from the Maison Archéologie and Ethnologie, Paris, which examines one of the earliest writing systems, used over three millennia from the 31st century BCE to 2nd century AD. It demonstrates how the Ancient Sumerians rolled and flattened clay into a disc by hand and, using the blunt end of a reed stylus (here the end of a wooden chopstick), imprinted wedge-shaped horizontal, vertical or chevron marks into the surface.
Sumerian cuneiform was first used to draw pictograms, or representations, which over time became simplified and more abstract. The script was adopted by Akkadian (Assyrian/Babylonian) speakers, who separated spoken words into marks representative for each syllable.
Hundreds of thousands of documents are preserved in museum collections today. Through them we can learn about the culture, beliefs, economy and history of ancient Near Eastern civilisations from around 3200 BC up until the first century AD.
Source: The International Association for Assyriology (IAA), based at the University of Leiden
‘Since there have been no native speakers of Akkadian from some two millennia, it is impossible to determine exactly how the language was pronounced,’ John Huehnergard, A Grammar of Akkadian (Atlanta Georgia, 1997).
Listen to Babylonian and Assyrian Poetry and Literature recordings to get an idea.
Read the Epic of Gilgamesh
‘Miraculously preserved on clay tablets dating back as much as four thousand years, the poem of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is the world’s oldest epic, predating Homer by many centuries. The story tells of Gilgamesh’s adventures with the wild man Enkidu, and of his arduous journey to the ends of the earth in quest of the Babylonian Noah and the secret of immortality. Alongside its themes of family, friendship and the duties of kings, The Epic of Gilgamesh is, above all, about mankind’s eternal struggle with the fear of death.’ Line 37:
Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible,
who opened passes in the mountains
who dug wells on the slopes of the uplands,
and crossed the ocean, the wide sea to the sunrise
From: Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh. A New Translation (London: Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 1999).
Read The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, c.1792-1750 BC
‘If a man accuses another man and charges him with homicide but cannot bring proof against him, his accuser shall be killed.’ From: Marta Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Scholars Press, 1995)
The Digital Hammurabi Project,The Johns Hopkins University writes:
- Only c. 1/10 of cuneiform texts have been read, ‘In spite of continued great interest in mankind’s earliest documents’
- The code was deciphered by 1857.
- ‘Many of the clay tablets found by archaeologists have been preserved by chance, baked when attacking armies burned the buildings in which they were kept.’
- They cover variously: mythology, mathematics, law codes and beer recipes.
… cuneiformists have made unique and valuable contributions to the study of such modern disciplines as history, law, religion, linguistics, mathematics, and science.
- Collections are held in museums in (British Museum) London, Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, Ankara, Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah, Philadelphia, Yale, etc.
Listen to two lectures by Professor Andrew George, Professor of Babylonian: Cuneiform and Ancient Mesopotamian. Studies:
I never thought a lecture of a 4000 year old poem could be this much entertaining and filled with messages to better life… (Ash Ez – Youtube review)
Dr Mark Weeden, Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Studies: Hittite, Akkadian language and literature in Syria:
I got interested in Assyriology because I was fed up with studying second-hand history using sources that were much later than the period I was reading about – with cuneiform tablets we have source materials that date to the actual historical time we are interested in. They are not only texts which give us perspectives and data to work with, but concrete objects that come from the ancient world. There is no feeling like deciphering a text that no one has read for 4,000 years.
Dr Jana Matuszak, Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Studies: Sumerian literature, literary disputations and dialogues, gender in the Ancient Near East. Hear her talk about the research for which she was awarded the Johannes Zilkens Dissertation Prize 2019: “And you, you are a woman?”
I got interested in Assyriology because I was fascinated by the many ‘firsts’ the Ancient Near East has to offer: the world’s first civilizations, complete with the world’s first writing systems, the world’s first literary texts… I wanted to go back to the very beginning. As I knew a little about ancient Egypt, and nothing about ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), I opted for Mesopotamia, and never regretted it since. There is still so much to discover, both in the field and in museums, and every new find fills a gap in our knowledge. Reading 4,000 years old tablets is challenging, but uniquely rewarding. There’s nothing like bringing an ancient text back to life.
The British Museum is five minutes’ walk from SOAS University of London. Visit its Middle East galleries, including Mesopotamia 6000-1500 BC; or explore exhibits online, for example: Documenting Babylon: Photography, Drawings, and New Technology
The London Centre for the Ancient Near East
Gods of Old: The Mythology of Ancient Iraq – Spring Public Lectures 2019 – are available online:
Andrew George: Introduction: The Mythology of Ancient Iraq (14 January 2019)
Kamran Zand (Heidelberg): The Mythology of Sumer: the Oldest Known Stories (21 January)
Jens Braarvig (Oslo): The Mythologies of Mesopotamia and India: Are They Connected? (4 February 2019)
Gösta Gabriel (Göttingen): Ashurbanipal’s Library and the Babylonian Creation Epic (18 February 2019)
Manuel Ceccarelli (Geneva): Myth and Magic: Creating Human Beings in Ancient Mesopotamia (4 March 2019)
Annette Zgoll (Göttingen): What is Mesopotamian Mythology? And How to Understand it (18 March 2019)